When I was in my early 20s, in college, I had a dormmate whose parents were long-time friends with a Mexican family that ran a language school from their very own backyard property in Cuernavaca, Mexico. So, during various summer and Christmas breaks, I started to take frequent trips from San Antonio, Texas to Mexico City and busing down to "La Ciudad de Eterna Primavera" (the city of eternal spring) in Cuernavaca. Looking back upon these formative years I see that although friendly, this was really almost like going to 'bootcamp' for Spanish language learning. I would stay for a month, live with a Mexican family, eat with them, celebrate holidays with them, get up early at 7:00 each morning for breakfast and at class from 8 am - 2pm. I remember coming home for lunch with the family at 2:30pm, feeling wiped out, totally exhausted.
I would usually then take a nap and then spend the evening out and about in the city or watching Mexican telenovelas and movies from my laptop and studying some class notes before a light dinner and then subsequently passing out and doing it all over again the next day. Needless to say, I learned a ton and built a fantastic base of knowledge and experience in Spanish and Mexican culture.
Since this initial Mexican language school experience I have gone on to briefly attend a few more of these schools abroad in Quebec City, Montreal, Argentina, and Zacatecas and Guanajuato, Mexico. Beyond this, I have also done loads of research on numerous immersive schools in Brazil and some in Europe. I feel that my advice here is honest and accurate.
Even though Fluency Plan's core focus in on online language learning for beginners, it is absolutely worth it to consider developing your fluency at an immersive language school either at home or abroad. The question is however, "Do you have the time, money, and energy to do something like this."
In this article, I am going to give my perspective on the pros and cons of going to an immersive language school in order to develop fluency in a foreign language. Hopefully by the end you know whether this is the right direction for you to personally take or not.
Let's start out with the cons, the downsides of heading to an immersive foreign language school ...
You Are Taking Group Classes
I'd like to focus in on the fact that most of the time in language schools, unless you overpay for private classes, (or get lucky) you are going to be taking group classes. Language schools are businesses and successful business will always look for ways to scale. This means making classes as large as they can without negatively affecting the learning experience. Group classes can sometimes can be a drag when your goal is to quickly and effectively learn a foreign language in an intensive, immersive learning environment.
There are two main reasons why group classes at language schools sometimes drive me insane:
The majority of the English speaking students that are in a language school classroom will oftentimes be very eager to learn, HOWEVER many of them simply lack the discipline to restrain from speaking English before class, during breaks, and after lessons. I noticed this both in Mexico as well as in Quebec, Canada with American and Canadian English speakers.
Finally, like in any classroom environment, unless the teacher is highly experienced, the weakest students will oftentimes dictate the speed and intensity of a group class. This can be a letdown for a proactive, self-starting person like you who reads articles such as these, studies on their own each week, and takes online classes with instructors. Just be aware that this is oftentimes the reality, however with that being said, I have often been blessed with some really great classmates that contributed significantly to an improved, more dynamic, and more memorable experience.
Your Teachers Aren't Always The Most Effective Instructors
This is a given in any situation where you are paying a teacher to teach you something. Sometimes they are frankly not very experienced, knowledgeable, skilled, or gifted in their craft. This is disappointing and is sometimes a reality at an immersive language school. However, this is clearly something that most language schools that have been around for at least a year or two have probably corrected in most cases since the internet these days allows for reviews on nearly any sort of business almost anywhere in the world. They are highly incentivised to hire the best teachers that they can get their hands on. However, beware this possibility. It can happen! I have personally experienced this two unfortunate times in my language school experience. Read reviews, do your research, and you'll probably be just fine.
Language Schools Can Be Expensive
From my experience and research, the majority of language schools for Spanish, Portuguese, and French (both in the Americas and Europe) tend to be somewhat expensive. You're usually looking at a few hundred dollars per week and each additional week tends to typically drop the price slightly. There are tons of variation between what schools are doing these days, but these sorts of pricing scales tend to be the norm.
Although many schools I have attended and researched are usually on the 'pricier' side of the spectrum there are, of course, some more reasonable options!
You Are In A Group Class
This isn't always going to be a drawback! I have had several awesome experiences in group language classes. In particular, last year in Quebec City, studying French, I was in a class with 3 students a solid level - more advanced than I was. After several weeks of being pushed to the limits of my abilities I realized that I had greatly improved. This worked for me because I had them to learn from as well. They had both been in the school for a solid month before I arrived and were able to explain new words and grammatical concepts when I hit a rough spot where I felt slightly lost. I mentioned in the 'cons' section that group classes can at times be a disadvantage, but NOT if you have a great attitude. Even if you are the weakest student, you can actually make this work in your favor. In my entire time at this particular language school I remember my first 2-4 weeks studying alongside these 3 more advanced students as being the most intensive and beneficial for me.
You Get Used to Screwing Up in Public (and quickly recovering and learning from it)
In an immersive language school you will spend hours making mistakes in front of others (and correcting your mistakes on the spot). You get very good at this and it becomes somewhat more natural over time. This is a fantastic skill to cultivate. Trust me! It takes some time, but after a while you learn to embrace these errors due to the fact that they lead you to improving a weakness in your linguistic performance and you stop caring what others think. In fact, oftentimes, they will chip in to remind you of something you might have forgotten from earlier in class. The great thing, too is that most of the time you're nearly always in your target language. This is an example of what I experienced as a high beginner in an intermediate class at my language immersion school in Quebec City.
Me: "Je ... aime le arbre."
Teacher: "Non, non. C'est pas Je aime, c'est J'aime. Et, pas le arbre, mais l'arbre."
Other Student: "C'est liaison, Levi. Souviens-tu, on la vu hier."
Me: "D'accord. J'ai oublié. Ok, "j'aime" et "l'arbre" parce qu'il y a liaison. L + vocale = liaison"
Here I was reminded of an important grammatical rule called 'liaison' in French. I was explained everything, 100% in French, I reacted, and I really can't say that I have forgotten about 'liason' too many times since then. I learned from my mistakes, got my act together, and moved forward - putting that new habit into practice. You too will learn to do the same in time.
You Get Used to Speaking Your Language
Most importantly (and in a short span of time) you go from uncomfortable to fairly accustomed to speaking your target language. Of course, this really depends on the time that you are immersed. Immersive language schools usually offer lots of flexibility in terms of duration. This type of language learning environment is definitely not the only way to achieving fluency in a foreign language, but it is a fast track "bootcamp" style of approach to reaching a reasonable level of fluency. You get tons of exposure to speaking with native speakers and you are also usually inside of the country where your language is spoken.
An experience at an intensive, immersive language learning school can change your life. Because I bravely took the plunge at the age of 20, at 32 I have now since then moved on to become fluent in a few languages and have lived abroad in several countries. Moreover, I consider myself to be a much more worldly, open-minded, and interesting person because of this initial first step into another world. Although they tend to be most attractive for college aged - mid twenties types, I strongly believe that teenagers and middle aged folks and beyond can also benefit enormously from this type of experience. If your goal is foreign language fluency and cultural competence and you have the money to invest and time to spend, I say go for it. You only live once and your life will be better because of it.
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Levi Flint is a language teacher, learner, and traveler frustrated with how languages have been viewed and taught in North America. He hopes to change things with a bit of clarity, perspective, and common sense.