Have you ever considered studying a language in another country?

Written by Chris Cutler

lifestyle10As I write this, I’m in an apartment in Bologna where I’ve spent the last several weeks trying to write and to learn Italian. While I speak Spanish fluently—I majored in it and taught it—I never learned Italian, the language of my grandparents. After my first visit to my grandmother’s village in 2010, I decided to start learning. I tried to get by with the Spanish, but Italian is not the same.

My first class was through UNLV’s Continuing Ed program, and it gave me a good start. That said, having no one with whom to speak Italian on a daily basis made learning to speak and understand the language difficult. It was the same with Spanish, by the way. I learned more in three months in Mexico than I ever did in Spanish classes. Using the language helps you remember.

Last year, I told my husband that I was going to “live” in Italy for two months so that I could go to school and immerse myself in the culture and language. I did a lot of research and ended up at Cultura Italiana, one of a number of language schools in Bologna. I chose it because it is the only school in town that does research with the University of Bologna and because it offered the intensive course I wanted. We had two hours of grammar and two hours of conversation every morning.

lifestyle9In addition, Cultura Italiana offered extra activities every afternoon or evening. Included were cooking classes, performances, exhibitions, and tours of the gelato university, a clothing manufacturer, many museums, and a variety of towns near Bologna. The only language we spoke in all classes and activities was Italian. Immersion in the language forced us to think in it instead of our native languages, and that forced us to learn.

I decided to totally immerse myself in the Italian language and culture. My communication and comprehension skills continue to improve daily, so much so that I rarely use Italian, Spanish, and English—Italospanglish— in one conversation any more. If you are considering attending or sending your child to a foreign language school, you need to do your research, as I did. Hopefully, these six questions will help you.

1) What is the class format, and how will it work with my learning style?
Each language school has its own instructional techniques and methodology, and you want to find one that syncs with you. Some schools offer a “hands-on” approach to learning, as Cultura Italiana does, while others offer a more formal approach with lectures and grammar only.

2) What is the average class size?
I prefer the smaller, intensive classes that have fewer students. At Cultura Italiana, there were 10 students in my classes. As I noted, I taught Spanish, and my classes averaged 28 students. Keep in mind that fewer students will give you more personal attention and help if you need it. On the other hand, having more students in the class can give you more opportunities to practice the language and make friends.

3) What are the teachers’ qualifications?
While this might seem like an odd question to ask a school, you might find that some schools have “teachers” who do not have degrees. I know of a school in Mexico that used high school students to conduct its afternoon conversation classes. You might also consider asking how many teachers you will have. Different teachers have different teaching styles, points of view, and even accents. Exposure to more than one teacher provides a lot of benefits.

4) Can I switch classes if I find I’m in the wrong class for me?
Each language school has its own way of assessing which class each individual student should attend. You may find that the classes you attend are too easy or too hard. The school should allow you to switch to another class if you feel you need to move.

5) What’s the average student age?
If you are going to be attending the school, you probably don’t want to attend class with a group of teenagers. On the other hand, if you are looking for a school for your teenage child, you probably don’t want him/her attending class with only retirees. A good mix of ages is important.

6) What is the city like?
As I mentioned above, I looked at a number of language schools, and a few of them were in cities other than Bologna. I ended up focusing on Bologna because it is not a tourist destination for most Americans (I wouldn’t constantly hear English.), because it is a central railway stop (I wouldn’t need a car.), and because it is a clean and safe city (I was going to be alone.). As much as the school should sync with your learning style, the city should sync with your lifestyle.

lifestyle10Of course, you should always consider cost (Most expensive is not always best.), extracurricular activities (Consider the quality, not the quantity.), and housing (Will you need to find your own, or does the school help?). A little research will go a long way and ensure that you not only learn but also have a great time while doing so.