Spanish Immersion School FAQ

Schools Help You Combine Study and Travel

Volcano Arenal
Hay muchas escuelas de idioma en Costa Rica. (There are many language schools in Costa Rica.). Photo by Arden; licensed via Creative Commons.

Are you thinking of accelerating your study of Spanish by spending a couple weeks or much of a year in a foreign country? If so, this FAQ on immersion study should answer many of the questions you have.

What Is Immersion Language Study?

It is learning a foreign language the same way we learned English (or whatever our native language is): by living it. In a typical language immersion school, the student doesn't study only in the formal sense — he or she lives the language. Classes are taught entirely in Spanish, speaking in another language at any time is discouraged, and the student lives in a Spanish-speaking environment. Nearly all Spanish immersion schools offer the option (and in some, it's not an option) of living with a Spanish-speaking family. That means students hear the language as it is used in real life.

Why Should I Consider Going to an Immersion Language School?

Because you want to learn the language. Because it's fun. Because you can make new friends. Because you can gain an understanding of a different culture. Any or all of the above.

Where Should I Go?

Most if not all Spanish-speaking countries have immersion schools, and you can learn Spanish at any of them. (Some immersion programs also are located in the United States and some other non-Spanish-speaking countries.) Beyond that, it's a matter of cost, culture and educational goals. Those wishing to study as cheaply as possible frequently pick Guatemala. Spain is the obvious choice for those who seek European ambiance, although some of Mexico's colonial cities, as well as some places in Argentina, may have you thinking you're in Europe. Costa Rica and Ecuador are natural choices for those who wish to spend the off hours enjoying nature. Those wanting to get off the beaten track can find schools in El Salvador, Honduras, and Colombia.

You aren't going to spending all your time studying, so you may want to choose a school based on nearby attractions. Whether you're looking for beaches or mountains, city bustle or indigenous culture, chances are there is a school located in a place you will enjoy.

Not all schools have programs for which you can earn college credit, so keep that in mind when making a selection if credit is important to you. Also, some schools might be better equipped to help you meet specific goals, such as developing a vocabulary for international business.

When Should I Go?

The general answer is, whatever works best for your schedule. Except for those that follow a university academic calendar, nearly all immersion schools are open 52 weeks per year, although some close or operate on a limited schedule around Christmas and the week before Easter. Nearly all are closed on major religious holidays as well as national holidays of the host country. Most schools tend to be busiest during the Northern Hemisphere's summer, so you may need to reserve your place earlier if you're planning on attending then. Some schools may have limited extracurricular activities during the off-season, so check ahead if that's important to you.

Who Can Go?

Most schools will accept anyone who is willing to learn, although you should check ahead to see if the school is equipped to handle children, persons with disabilities or persons with special dietary needs. Few schools are able to supervise unaccompanied minors.

A few schools that grant college credit may require students to be enrolled in a formal course of study. Generally, students of all skill levels can be accommodated. If you don't speak the language well enough to find the school once you arrive in the country, or if you don't want the hassles of finding a school in an unfamiliar city, most schools can arrange to pick you up at an airport or bus or train station.

How Do I Pick a School?

Probably the best way to get started is to browse through the Language Schools page, which includes links to many popular schools. Also, check out the student reviews to learn what experiences others have had.

How Much Will It Cost?

The cost can vary incredibly. Expect to spend anywhere from $350 U.S. per week to several times that much.

On the low end are schools in poorer countries such as Guatemala and Honduras, where language study can truly be a bargain. By looking around, it is possible to find schools that charge less than $350 for 15 to 20 hours of one-on-one instruction, some meals and a room in what is described as a middle-class home. Keep in mind, of course, that a middle-class home in the Third World won't have the amenities you'd expect in places such as the United States or Europe, and meals may be simple affairs.

At the upper end are schools that cater to specific occupations, such as business executives or medical-care providers. These schools may provide accommodations that include a stay in an upper-class home or a luxury hotel.

Students in many cases can save money by making arrangements directly with the school rather than through a representative in the United States, Canada or Europe. However, many students consider the additional cost — which may be only $50 or so — well worth it. The middleman may be in a better position to handle problems that arise, and you won't have to deal with a language barrier that might come up with some schools.

What Can I Expect?

Again, it depends on where you go and how much you're willing to spend.

Surprisingly, at some of the least expensive schools, one-on-one instruction is the norm. Wages are so low that it is possible to provide such instruction at a reasonable cost. Most other schools have small classes, typically from four to ten students grouped according to ability. Students on the first day of instruction will typically take an oral or written exam to determine class placement.

The facilities in lower-cost schools may offer little more than a room and desks for teachers and students, and instructors may not have much education beyond the equivalent of a U.S. high school diploma. Students may also be responsible for bringing their own textbooks. Students who have attended such schools have found that the quality of instruction varies enormously, not only among schools but among teachers in a particular school. In more expensive schools, teachers are likelier to have a college degree, and the latest in educational technology will be available to supplement classroom learning.

Instructional time typically varies from three to seven hours per day, depending on the school and program. Many schools also schedule additional classes in local culture and history, and some even provide instruction in local dance and cooking.

Home stays vary depending on country and cost. In places such as Central America outside Costa Rica, meals can be simple, consisting primarily of rice and beans, and accommodations can seem cramped. In more expensive places, food and accommodations may not be much different than what you enjoy at home.

I Have Only a Week or Two. Is It Still Worth It?

Definitely. Don't expect to make substantial leaps in your language ability in such a short time. But even with such a short stay you can get an up-close look at a different culture and enjoy the opportunity to use the language rather than simply study it.