“I won’t be at home for Christmas, by the way,” said my brother over the phone late last year. “I’ve decided to take a three-month break from work and go to Latin America.”
Having been at an actuarial firm since university, Alex wanted to take some time off. But the problem with his plan was that he spoke barely any Spanish. So he decided to go back to school, for three weeks. Specifically, he went to a language school, of which there are hundreds worldwide. “I knew someone who’d done something similar in Bordeaux,” he told me. “So I Googled it and found one in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.”
The school, International House Riviera Maya, is run by International House, which operates in dozens of countries, with courses available for various abilities. As with many schools, these consist of around four hours of lessons on weekday mornings, with weekends free.
Alex booked in for three weeks, although longer and shorter courses are available. In some schools, it’s possible to do 40-week stints, although others are happy to let people dip in for one-week refresher blitzes. Generally, there will be start dates available for students of all levels every month, although some schools offer courses that kick off every week or two.
“On the first day, they give you an interview to assess your abilities,” says Alex. “I just about scraped into the elementary class rather than the beginner’s class, but I was the worst in there.”
Alex wasn’t eased in as gently as he initially expected. “All of the teaching is in Spanish, and for the first two weeks our teacher refused to say a single word in English,” he explains.
“The first week was really tough. They were throwing in things like the past tense and words ending with ‘-ing’ far earlier than I expected.
“I was completely out of my depth and I’d not been in school for years. On that second afternoon I just sat in the pub and studied verb endings, trying to get my head round things.” But the sense of despair didn’t last too long. “You learn a lot more than you think, and words that cause problems eventually stick,” Alex explains.
Students were required to buy an exercise book at the start of the course, but it wasn’t all book learning. Games — such as describing animals, celebrities and films in Spanish — played a key role too. Technology was harnessed as well, with wi-fi-connected smartphones being routinely used for translation.
“I went from pretty much nothing to being able to survive in Spanish,” says Alex. “I didn’t get to the point where I no longer needed to translate things in my head, but I got a good grounding and a lot more confidence. It certainly helped make the rest of the trip much more enjoyable, and the day in Colombia when my bank card got swallowed would’ve been hideous without it.”
It was more than just a means to an end, however. When listing the top three experiences from his three months away, Alex cites the Galapagos Islands, the Atacama Desert and the school in Playa del Carmen.
“A camaraderie built among the students taking the course, and it was completely different from normal school as everyone actively wanted to be there. If you had too much to drink the night before and didn’t show up the next morning, no one was going to castigate you for it.”
Alex enjoyed it so much that he opted to do another week in a school in Santiago, Chile near the end of his trip. He noticed both differences in the Spanish spoken there and the atmosphere — the big city school was more serious and driven than the laid-back one in the beach destination.
Destination was also a big factor for Gabrielle Martin, who had a six-week gap between leaving a graduate role at a stockbroker and starting a law conversion course. With a planned career in commercial law, she figured an ability to learn languages would be useful on her CV.
Gabrielle, 24, who’s originally from Cheshire but now lives in London, says she wanted to do something fun and adventurous — but useful and structured. She also wanted to be near a beach and fancied exploring the Amalfi Coast area, so she booked in to learn Italian at the Sant’Anna Institute in Sorrento.
Gabrielle enjoyed the ethos at the school. “It was fairly relaxed, and there was an attitude that it was better to keep talking and make mistakes than to carefully construct perfect sentences. The emphasis was on the principle of the more you speak, the more you learn,” she says.
But there was still an element of being thrown in the deep end — despite Gabrielle having studied French and German at university and being a confident linguist. “You have to be prepared to completely immerse yourself culturally to get the most benefit,” she says. “You’ll learn more if you have the confidence to talk to the Italian waiter in the bar.”
Part of that cultural immersion was staying with a family while at the school. “That was very, erm, interesting,” says Gabrielle. “It was a very typical Italian family and at one point they left me for two weeks on my own to go on holiday in Austria. They left no note, no contact numbers or anything. But they did tell me how to use the coffee machine — so they had their priorities straight.”
The cultural element of learning a language abroad was a strong lure for Joshua Takaoka who studied in Japan for just under two months in the summer of 2013.
Joshua, who’s half-Japanese, wanted to learn more about the culture of his father’s homeland while improving his Japanese language skills, which were only ever very basic. He went to the GenkiJACS school in Fukuoka, where a major part of the appeal was the attached cultural programme. Mornings were spent learning the language, as in other schools, but there were also plenty of opt-in activities in the afternoon. These ranged from meditation classes to learning about Samurai swords. “There were Japanese university students who wanted to learn English, so we could help each other out,”
“The key was resisting the urge to give up and start speaking English to everyone. It’s quite easy to fall back on it. The teachers were strict and didn’t let us talk in English, which helped.”
Staying with a family was also vital. “The host didn’t know any English and we struggled at first to have even a basic conversation — I was properly in at the deep end,” says Joshua. “But the more you immerse yourself, with socialising and cultural activities, the more the vocabulary sticks.”
Japanese is notoriously hard to learn, and while Joshua found his spoken Japanese improved a lot, he admits he’d need six months to a year of study to get to grips with the reading and writing.
Managing expectations about how quickly a language can be picked up is part of Katherine Hughes’ job as the director at CESA Languages Abroad, an agency that matches students with language schools in various countries.
“People want to study for various reasons,” she says. “But those who haven’t grown up in a family with a culture of language learning don’t have basic guidelines of what to expect. In particular, we’ll get businesspeople who want to be fluent in a week for work purposes, and that’s just not going to happen. The brain just fries after a certain point. It’s about taking aspirations and trying to make them realistic.”
A crucial factor is what those aspirations are, and motivations for learning vary wildly. While many students may be taking time out post-university, a significant number will be learning for business reasons. Katherine cites one man who needed to lead a meeting in Brazil and went to a language school in Lisbon to prepare for it.
“The over-50s are a growing trend too,” says Katherine. “For them, it tends to be more of a social endeavour, free-time hobby with the emphasis on conversational skills, not impressing in job interviews.
“Some schools have closed groups for the over-50s, while others put them in a wider class. The closed groups are a little less intense and there’s less rigidity of tuition. They also tend to offer different activities — more opera, museums and restaurants than horse-riding and surfing.”
What’s right for one person isn’t always right for another. And the obvious choices aren’t always the best ones. Kathleen says she’ll often end up trying to steer people away from studying in Paris — the most expensive place in France to live and is empty in August — in favour of smaller cities. Montpellier, for example, has good-value, long-term courses while Rouen is affordable and a quick hop on the train away from Paris. Similarly in Germany, Heidelberg or Lindau will likely be better bets than Berlin or Munich — not least because smaller cities tend to be less cosmopolitan, and therefore provide fewer opportunities for lazily slipping back into English.
Where to stay is a horses-for-courses proposition too. “We always offer to organise accommodation,” says Katherine. “This is generally speaking in a local host’s home, which is great from the point of view of immersion and exposure to small talk. But not everyone wants that, so some younger people go for shared apartments, and older students may go for private apartments. We discuss it on an individual basis.”
The amount of tailoring available is a big part of what makes learning a language abroad different from doing it from a book at home. The functional aspect — becoming better in another language — is only a part of it. The memories won’t necessarily be about steadily accumulating vocabulary and tenses, but of the experience as a whole. After all, seeing the world is just as important as knowing the words.
Agencies and multi-school organisations
CESA Languages Abroad has been placing students in overseas schools since 1980. It offers a variety of French, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic courses. Categories include: gap year, over-50s, business, exam preparation and activity-focused.
Language Courses Abroad
International House has 159 schools in 52 countries. Destinations include Vietnam, Qatar, Peru, Kazakhstan and Montenegro, with languages including Farsi, Urdu, Estonian, Romanian and Turkish taught among the more commonly-studied ones.
Published in the December 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)