Why go on an intensive, group language course abroad? If you decided to, how do you choose a foreign language school? Now that (in most places) the worst of the pandemic is past, you may be thinking of spreading your wings again later in 2023. This post, the first of two, we get to grips with the first of these two questions. The focus is on the typical full-time (or part-time) group course held “in country” for any period from, say, a week or two up to a couple of months. The language “summer school” is the best-known way of doing this, but intensive courses often available throughout the year.
In the second post, I’ll outline some key factors you need to consider to make sure you get the right school and course for you if you decide that an intensive group language course abroad is for you.
Why an intensive group course abroad?
When they want to learn a new language, many people automatically think of taking classes. If you’ve got some free time coming up and the funds, what better than intensive focus on the language you’re studying on a course in a country where it’s spoken?
As you weigh up the alternatives, first, though, remember that an intensive, group language course abroad this is not the only way.
You could also set aside the time in the target country (or at home, for that matter) for intensive self-study, for one-to-one work with a local tutor or exchange partner (or your usual ones, on-line).
You could just turn up in the country. You could, for example, book yourself in an AirBnB or similar and and launch yourself on the locals, armed with nothing more than you pre-trip language preparation, a dictionary and a bundle of confidence.
If you have several months, you could look for a short-term job in the country.
These are all things that I enthusiastically advocate for the motived, independent adult language learner.
The formal course certainly has its place, though, and (as I’ll explain below), I’m a veteran of quite a few myself.
What, then about a course?
The are pros and cons of full-time “intensive” courses are very similar to those for the typical “once-a-week”-type evening language class (a spread-out or “extensive” course, as we say in the trade). There are some additional aspects you’ll want to consider, too.
The cons of studying on a group course abroad
You’ll be in a group with a load of other stammering foreigners, which is not as immersive as getting among the locals.
The teacher’s attention on you and your opportunity to speak will be reduced.
Plus you’ll be paying handsomely for the privilege, when you could have spent the money on one-to-one sessions (maybe more expensive but you could have done fewer to pack the same punch).
A full-time intensive, group course abroad can be a bit too, erm, intense, especially for introverts or people who, maybe for health reasons, need frequent time out.
If that’s you and you’re a beginner, you may feel that you’d be better studying alone and one-to-one, reading and listening to audio at your level. As an advanced student, you may feel exactly the same.
If you’re a confident extrovert, you may feel that you don’t need a pre-packed group.
You might just want to book accommodation and relish the opportunity to get out and about and drum up conversations in broken Ruritanian with the locals left, right and centre.
If you just want to turn up, you could then supplement experience out and about with one-to-one sessions, face-to-face or on-line.
You could fit these into the down times between staggering in from the disco and launching back out to the local café for a coffee and croissant breakfast 😉
The pros of taking a course abroad
The “intensive” advantage
To get fluent you have to put in the hours.
You can study fifty-two hours over a year or on a two-week course and see great results either way.
Intensive study and practice is obviously the quickest way to progress. That’s assuming it’s done correctly. That means, for example, lots of interactive learning, “interleaving” different tasks, problems and materials.
On an intensive course, you’ll be able to cut distractions and really get into the spirit. You won’t have time to slack and slide back, even if you wanted to.
In short, you get the momentum either for “blast off” to get you into orbit as a beginner or to take your language up a tangible amount in a short time.
This momentum can extend before and after the course.
If you book your course several months in advance, you’ll have a great “path goal” coming up on the horizon. In short, you have something to prepare for.
If things go well, you come back feeling the progress, inspired for more, albeit less intense, language study.
Consolidating and building on what you’ve done will, indeed, be crucial to ensure the long-term value of what you’ve done. What’s learned quickly can also be forgotten quickly.
Cheaper than one-to-one
A group may be less than optimal but, hour-for-hour, it’s a cheaper way to access the expert support and feedback of a teacher than one-to-one (though you may think it’s better to have fewer, more intense hours with a paid-for one-to-one teacher).
Yes a group course will be slightly less intense than one to one. Still, with a pretty full, imposed timetable, you don’t have to worry about those ever-present, real-world distractions. The discipline aspect so essential for successful focussed study is taken care of.
The group advantage
Extroverts will enjoy the group vibe that the group can provide.
Even we introverts may at least agree that it’s sometimes for our own good to be forced to engage. The social (as opposed to the educational) structure of an organised course may provide easier bridges for us into a community of fellow learners and, we’d hope, the surrounding community of natives.
Both learner types can “get out there” outside lessons, whether that means heading off to interact at the local tavern or to round the local art gallery.
It doesn’t have to be “either” a course “or” a authentic experience out there in the field.
On the subject of getting the best of both worlds, if you have, say, one month free, you could do a week or two at a school at the beginning and then spend the rest of the time doing your own thing….using what you’ve learned.
Other students in your class can help you and provide you with somebody usefully to compare yourself against.
When I was on an an intensive four-week Basque summer course, I noticed that my grammar and reading was much better than some of the local, Spanish-speaking students) in my group. My listening was far poorer and some of my class-mates had years of passive exposure behind them.
That discovery was uncomfortable but was also useful feedback for my about which of the skills in needed to “level up”.
I also found myself sometimes helping other students with the more formal aspects of the written language. It feels good to help others and it was a great way to consolidate my own knowledge.
A memorable social experience
The main rewards of your time on a language summer school may not be in what you learned of the language at all.
Looking back, it may be the broader social experience of your time in and about class, the laughs and camaraderie that you value most. I remember a great range of characters from some of the courses I’ve attended over the years.
Maybe you’ll have new long-term friends, some of whom may help you keep going in future.
One of my best friends today is a guy I met on my long summer Welsh course in Lampeter in summer 1988. I’m still in touch with an American I got to know on a German course in Schwäbisch Hall in summer 1993.
You’ll also have (we hope) great memories of your time out and about in the country and what you’ve learned about its culture to sustain you back at home as you embark on the next, leg of your language learning journey. That may be a less intensive phase, but, thanks to your intensive course abroad, you’ll be in a bit deeper.
All in all, just as with the once-a-week evening language class, you get out what you put in on your intensive language course abroad.
As with all successful independent adult language learning, you need to take the initiative and see this – and every other part of what you do – it as part of your wider journey into the culture and towards the natives.
In the next post in this two-part mini-series, we’ll look at the key questions you need to answer before you book a course.
In the meantime, have you done an intensive course abroad? How did it go and would you recommend them? Let us know in the comments below.
How to choose a language school abroad (part 2 in this mini-series)