Things to think about before learning a language abroad

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Do you want to learn a second language? If you have decided that you want to learn a language. Before you book your flights take a read through this guide to learning a language abroad so you can avoid making the same mistakes I made!

1. What you want/ need to get out of learning a language abroad?

Before you do anything you need to be clear about exactly what you want to get out of learning another language. Here are some tips to consider before going any further:

  • What’s your end goal?
  • Are you serious about becoming fluent, or do you just want to learn enough to get by in a particular country?
  • Do you just want to learn to speak the basics or do you want to learn how to read and write well?
  • Is it for business or pleasure? I.e. is you desire to learn just for you or do you need it for your studies/ work?
  • Do you want to take exams?

All of these things you need to be clear about before contacting a language school. I learned the hard way how important it is to know before you start. When I embarked on an intensive Spanish course in San Pedro, Guatemala I wasn’t clear about my desire to just learn enough to get me by on my travels through Latin America.

I ended up spending 2 weeks learning more about structure and verbs than I did anything else. I ended up finishing a week early with a head full of grammar and unable to speak very much at all. I wish I’d been clear from the start my focus was on speaking and doing as much practical as possible.

2. What kind of learner are you?

As a dyslexic person, this is so important. But I think it’s important for everyone to think about before starting your language course. I’m a really visual learning and also learn much better by doing. During my two week course, there was little to no visual aids and the majority of my teaching was very didactic and one way. There was a lot of TTT (Teacher Talking Time) and little LTT (Learner Talking Time). I know I learn much better by doing and through games and making things ‘fun’ with role plays etc.

If you do a 121 course, which a lot of intensives abroad will be, it can sometimes become a bit didactic with the teacher doing most of the talking. I think I personally would have benefited from some 121 but also some group work. Clearly, communicate your preferred learning style to the school and your teacher before you start. If you would prefer learning in a group make sure this is available at your school

3. The best place to study?

This all depends on a few things including, time and money. I wanted to learn Spanish to travel Latin America. Therefore ideally I needed a school in Latin America as Spanish in Spain is slightly different from that in Latin America. In Latin America, there are two countries that come up on top for learning Spanish: Guatemala and Colombia.

Both countries have a neutral accent and are good value. I chose Guatemala initially as it was cheaper and they speak slower. I later also took classes in Colombia which was a great experience too. I would highly recommend learning a language in its country of origin ie french in France and Italian in Italy. You will learn from native speakers and also get an insight into the culture and place you are studying. Perfect if the course is your fires step in exploring that country.

4. What is your budget?

learning a language abroad

There is a huge difference in the budget for example in learning Spanish in Latin America compared to learning Spanish in Spain. When thinking about a budget consider how many hours you want to study and if you want a homestay or not.

I personally would advocate for a homestay for two reasons. 1 you get full emersion and 2 you know exactly where you are budget-wise.

5. How much time do you have? And how many hours do you want to study?

I foolishly decided to study for 5 hours a day 5 days a week for 3 weeks. I quit after 2 weeks and spent my last week studying on my own and getting out and about practicing as much as I could.

5 hours a day for 3 weeks is pretty intensive and not for the faint-hearted! In hindsight, I should have done 3 hours a day for 3 weeks. But 2 would also have been a good start. This will open the door to the language if like me you just want to know enough to get you by. After my first 3 weeks, I just took weekly 1-2 hour conversation lessons wherever I was until I felt like I had a good grasp. If you are traveling you will pick it up as you go along.

If your goal is to study until you have a decent fluency then I would recommend doing a maximum of 4 hours a day over a longer time. 4-6 weeks should be a good start. Also, I would recommend changing schools every 2-3 weeks. That way you get a slightly different teaching style and to also enjoy a new place while you are learning.

6. Gender of the teacher?

Now, this might not bother you at all. It wasn’t something I considered before my course, but I realized after my first week that I would have preferred a female teacher. Don’t ask me why, I have no reasoning behind this, but I felt so much more comfortable with a female teacher. If you think gender would be an issue for you then ask for a male or female teacher before you arrive.

7. To fully immerse or not?

For me, I knew the only way for me to learn was full immersion! When learning a language it is so easy to default into speaking in your native tongue. You will find you are able to understand what people are saying and even read and write before you are able to speak. I know this was the case for me, and most others reinforced this. You have to either force yourself or be forced to speak. Full immersion means also living with a native family. They will likely not speak your language, and even if they do they will be under instruction NOT to speak to you in it. This means after your lessons you need to use what you have learned to communicate with your “family”.

There are so many reasons to stay in a ‘homestay’ for me with was the best part. In San Pedro I stayed with the most lovely family, I got to know them, we laughed at my terrible Spanish and I got to eat 3 meals a day 6 days a week with them. You not only get to practice your chosen language but you also get a real insight into like that place. If it’s an option I would always choose full emersion.

Also, another thing to think about with this is the place you are studying. In Guatemala, there are 3 main places to learn Spanish. I chose San Pedro over the others as most of the local people don’t speak English and there are less English speaking people around. Somewhere like Antigua, it’s much easier to not speak Spanish outside of the school. In Colombia, the best place to learn is Medellín you can read about finding the best Spanish school in South America here.

So just to wrap up here is a list of things to think about:

  • What’s the end goal for you
  • How do you learn best
  • Where is the best place to learn your language
  • What’s your budget
  • How much time do you have
  • How intensive to you want your course to be
  • Do you want to visit more than one place/ school
  • Gender of the teacher
  • Do you want to stay in a homestay (Full immersion)


Things to think about before learning a language abroad 


Final Thoughts

I hope you have enjoyed this post. Have you learned a language abroad? Or are you thinking about it? I’d love to hear about your experiences or (try to) answer any questions you might have. Leave me a comment below.

I never travel anywhere without Travel Insurance. If you are looking for insurance be sure to check World Nomads first.

This post was proofread by Grammarly