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Foreign Language Immersion Schools - Do They Work?

Updated on October 10, 2016
Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy loves to share her wandering adventures, including her home state of Texas, and the many places she's traveled.

Learn a Foreign Language in Another Country

You can visit new places and learn at the same time.
You can visit new places and learn at the same time.

What are Language Immersion Courses?

Have you wanted to learn a foreign language, but you feel like your school days are over? Not true; people of all ages enroll in Language Immersion courses, where they get to travel and have fun while they're learning.

Language Immersion Programs work by creating environments where (ideally) the student literally lives the language 24-hours-a-day. You travel to a foreign country, live with a family that speaks the language and take courses to learn the structure and grammar of the language.

These programs DO work, and they're considered among the best ways to quickly and thoroughly learn a second (or third!) language.

If you're thinking of taking an immersion course, you will want to pick your school and location wisely and plan ahead so you'll enjoy the experience and get the most out of it.

First, do your research! Decide which language you want to learn (or to advance in, if you've got some skills already). Then to an online search for "French Immersion," "Spanish Immersion," or whatever language interests you. Read as much as you can about each school as well as the location, the home-stay options and any feedback that's been posted by previous students. At first you will be overwhelmed by the number of schools and locations to choose from. Here are some tips to help you narrow your search:

Learn Spanish in Places like Costa Rica, Mexico, or other Latin Countries

Coastal areas in Central and South America are great spots to learn a new language.
Coastal areas in Central and South America are great spots to learn a new language. | Source

Which Foreign Language Should You Learn?

If you've already narrowed your choice of languages, you're ahead of the game. But if you simply want to learn another language and haven't decided which one to tackle, give some thought to what choice will be best for you.

  • Do you need another language for business? If your work exposes you to people of another culture, or if you travel to foreign countries, picking a language that will help you better communicate. If you're exposed to more than one culture, perhaps focus on the language in the culture you're most often around.
  • Will this goal help your education? If so, be sure to pick a language that will transfer to your college or university. Does the school offer transcripts, and are they accepted back home?
  • What languages have you studied before? If you already have a few years of French, maybe you can become completely fluent with several weeks of immersion courses.
  • Do you live near people who speak other languages? If you're in a community with a large population of non-English speakers, learning the language of your new neighbors can help you socially as well as professionally.
  • What are your travel goals? If you plan to travel to other countries, you might enjoy learning a language you can use on your future trips.


Learn History, Culture and Language through Immersion Schools

Celestun, Mexico is a quaint town, with beaches nearby. Many language schools in the Yucatan area take excursions there.
Celestun, Mexico is a quaint town, with beaches nearby. Many language schools in the Yucatan area take excursions there. | Source
Celestun is a famous nesting area for flamingoes.
Celestun is a famous nesting area for flamingoes. | Source

How Much Language Training is Needed to Be Fluent?

Select your school and the length of time based on your goals for fluency and the level of fluency you want to attain.

Do you want to be completely fluent?

  • Look into schools that are affiliated with academic institutions and that offer transfer credit. These schools are likely to offer more rigorous courses and to focus on grammar structure instead of or in addition to conversational skills.
  • Consider going for at least three months, if your schedule and budget permits. While you can certainly learn a lot in just a week or two, it won't take you where you want to go in terms of fluency.
  • Look for a school in an area with a high ratio of native speakers. It might be tempting to attend that cool school near the beach, but you will be better served by attending a school less likely to attract people more interested in tourism than academics.

Is your goal to brush up on conversational skills?

  • Pick a school that offers 'conversational-level' courses. You can also find schools that specialize in courses for certain professions, such as medical immersion courses.
  • Look for a school near the geographic area where you might travel. This will help you learn the pronunciations or idioms you'll find when you visit for vacations.
  • You can learn quite a bit in just one week, and even more if you stay several weeks. Conversational skills lend themselves well to shorter immersion programs.

Merida, Mexico has Several Language Immersion Programs

Students swimming in Mangrove waters near Celestun, which is a popular day trip from Merida.
Students swimming in Mangrove waters near Celestun, which is a popular day trip from Merida. | Source

Tips for Picking a Language Immersion School and Location

  • Look for a Good Fit: If your goal is serious learning, decide whether a school near a beach is a good fit or not. Often, schools with advertising focused on their beautiful recreational setting may have a focus on tourism and fun rather than teaching the language. There's nothing wrong with fun, but if you're in a class with people who can't wait to get to the beach, you'll have a different academic environment than if you're in a group of serious learners.
  • Travel Time and Expense: How easy will it be to get there, or to take a side trip after you're there? If you're on a tight schedule, with only a week or two, be realistic about the time it will take to reach your destination or to go to other sites while you're there. While at an immersion school in Merida Mexico recently (I was there for seven weeks), I traveled to a nearby beach, saw a flamingo habitat in Celestun and visited some ruins.
  • Demographics of Other Students: Take note of the ages of students on the school's website. If you're well into your career years (or even beyond) and the site's photos are all college-aged kids, you might feel out of place. People of all ages study through language immersion and you can easily find a school that fits your personal demographics.
  • Compare Prices! You are likely to see a wide range of costs for basic tuition and room & board. While the cheapest may not be the best choice (for many reasons - more on that in a bit), high-dollar schools may be over priced. You can get a good value for your money if you research correctly.
  • How Qualified are the Instructors? Check the qualifications of the instructors. A good school should list its own credentials as well as those of the instructors. If the school's website is vague on those details (but perhaps emphasizes scuba diving or other fun stuff), keep looking.
  • Can You Transfer Credits? Will the course transfer for college credit? Many immersion schools partner with various colleges and universities to give academic credit for their coursework. If this is the case, you'll get a document when you leave the course that lists the credit hours of study and the level you attained.
  • Check for Safety Issues: Consider safety issues. Some countries (Mexico, for example) have had issues with crime in recent years. When you've found a school that interests you, research the specific city you'll be in, contact the consulate office in the U.S. to ask questions, and read any news articles you can find. I had no problems in Merida during my entire stay, but I researched it thoroughly before I went and I talked to the director of the school by phone before going. Some lower-priced schools in remote areas might offer attractive rates, but you'll need to check on crime statistics before you make your decision.
  • Home Stay Issues: Carefully consider your "home stay" preferences before enrolling. How comfortable will you be if there are pets or small children? If the home takes in other students, will you be around students who revert to their native language (English, for example) rather than sticking to the immersion plan? You should be able to indicate diet preferences and other details to make your stay more comfortable.
  • Check Curriculum and Tutoring Options: Review the curriculum and private tutoring options. If you already know some of the language, maybe you can stick to the basic hours-per-week program (usually four hours a day; 20 per week total). Can you afford some private classes? If so, that can greatly help you advance and tackle grammar obstacles or challenges.
  • Have Fun! Plan to balance the learning with some fun, but don't go overboard. If you're thinking of going with a group, beware of the 'tour director' syndrome, where the person organizing the trip plans all the side excursions and pre-plans every free minute for the entire group. Naturally, you'll want to see the area and have a good time, but don't let that happen at the expense of learning.

What about you?

Have you ever attended a Language Immersion School?

See results

Have Fun While You Learn!

Language immersion certainly isn't all work and no play. Be sure to take advantage of side excursions, day trips, or weekend jaunts to nearby sites. During your downtime, visit area museums, check out festivals or events, enjoy the local cuisine, and practice your new language!

Many schools offer additional courses in cooking, cultural and historic facts and traditions and various sports activities.

Consider side trips before and after your time at the school. This maximizes your investment in travel times and expense, and if you tour an area in which the language you're learning is spoken, it will enhance your fluences.

Comments

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  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
    Author

    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thank you, Rusticliving - I hope you find a school you enjoy! I'm planning to do a review of the one I attended in Merida. Maybe I should do that sooner rather than later, so you can consider it while you're looking. It was quite good, and has very skilled instructors.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
    Author

    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, alocsin - thanks for reading and commenting! I agree, screening a school for the ages of its students can help tremendously in picking a place that will be a good fit.

  • Rusticliving profile image

    Elizabeth Rayen 5 years ago from California

    I am so happy you published this hub! My honey and I have been seriously wanting to learn spanish. We know a little to get by, but would love to hold conversations. This will help us in our endeavors to finding the right format to choose! Voted up and shared! :)

  • alocsin profile image

    alocsin 5 years ago from Orange County, CA

    Great tips, and I like the ages one best of all, since I'm probably old enough to be a parent to most students. Voting this Up and Useful.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
    Author

    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks for reading and commenting, nifwiseirff! You are so right that it's important to avoid the 'fall-back-on-your-native-tongue' syndrome. I also agree on your home stay tips; I've had nightmare experiences as well as great ones.

  • nifwlseirff profile image

    Kymberly Fergusson 5 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

    For learning a language by immersion, one of the most important aspects is to ensure that the language is taught without falling back to any other language. Immersion learning requires a lot of discipline (and effort) to stay in the target language, both in and out of class.

    I agree, that a class of 6-11 is a good size, both as a learner and as a student. Smaller classes are more difficult for speaking exercises, and larger classes means there is less teacher-attention on each student.

    Ideally, a student should be able to contact their host family to see if they are both a good 'fit'. I have had both terrible and wonderful home-stay experiences as a student.

    Great hub - thanks!

  • MrMaranatha profile image

    MrMaranatha 5 years ago from Somewhere in the third world.

    Having taught in one of these language schools, I would like to point out that some of the schools have a very different view on the system than others... One School in particular stands out in my mind with its obsession for refining and improving the system and materials it uses... training and retraining its professors continually in the methodologies that the owner is continually searching and studying... Buying the latest gadgets too (Audion and Computer Labs, interactive white boards, easy-teach etc)

    You said above that you would want to ask about Class Sizes, levels and ages etc. In my experience this often depends on the demand at the beginning of the quarter.. You as a potential Student can ask the questions...

    ...or you can just tell them what you need from a school. If they do not have enough people in your level, age, time of day you want classes etc.. then they will tell you. If they are still organizing the classes and you speak to them early enough.. you could be the start of a new class that gets put together. Instead of telling people they do not have it... they will be watching for others with the same interest.

    The school is run on money from the classes... You as a student might think that a small class size of 2 or 3 would be best... like a tutor.. but it is not so.

    It is in the best interest to have classes with at least 6 students and more is better... up to a Maximum of about 14 enrolled. (two will usually be absent)

    My experience of the Optimal Class size is of about 10-12 students. This way you have the ability to pair off and make small groups for conversation practice and then switch around the groups...

    As a teacher.. a class with less than 6 students is horrible... It can be far to limited. But having more than 14 students enrolled becomes to crowded and makes for other problems.. especially when some of the people have short attention spans and regress to their native languages.

    Food for thought:-)