If you are contemplating moving to somewhere in Latin America–or just considering an extended stay–chances are you will be confronting “the language issue.” With a couple of notable exceptions (i.e. Brazil and Belize) that translates into “Habla español?”
For some, dusting off their high school Spanish may be the maximum amount of effort they are willing to make. In most major cities, from Lima, Peru to Mexico City, you will find enough people conversant in English (or good at interpreting mime) to get by.
This is particularly true in tourist-heavy areas, where aggressive merchants have discovered that the amount of money culled from tourists’ billfolds tends to rise proportionally with their sweet English turn of phrases.
But if you want to truly feel like you are part of the country, meet local people who may not be bilingual, and fully immerse yourself in what promises to be a rich cultural experience, you may want to consider taking Spanish lessons.
The challenge is that you will encounter enough choices to drive the average person loco (or loca). Which is more effective–private lessons or group lessons? How do I know which is the “best” program since there is such a wide range of prices? What is the optimal number of hours of classes each day and how many weeks should I sign up for?
Confronting multiple options
As you may have guessed, there are no simple answers to these questions since they differ according to individual needs, budgets, and learning styles. But here are a few questions to ask yourself to point you in the right direction:
- Are you looking to learn Spanish as quickly as possible or do you prefer learning at a leisurely pace?
Immersion courses are great, but you have to be the kind of person that can handle that level of intensity, absorbs material quickly, and can fully commit to the hours of the program.
- Do you learn more effectively alone or in the company of others?
Some people feel that learning with others (and accommodating their learning pace) slows them down, while others appreciate being in a social environment, with others experiencing the same learning challenges. If you are a solitary learner, you may want to consider the additional cost of working one-on-one with a tutor.
- Are you solely focused on language learning or are you looking for a broader cultural experience?
Many language schools have everything from salsa lessons and cooking classes to local tours–sometimes for a fee, other times included in the lesson cost. Some schools also combine language classes with a volunteer experience, which is a great way to get to meet local people and get to know more about the community.
- Are you willing to put in the time needed to improve your skills?
Taking classes is not enough, especially if you are hoping to become conversational, if not fluent. Putting yourself in no-choice environments, where you are forced to speak Spanish, is critical for enhancing your skills. Many schools have optional informal conversational opportunities; you may want to take advantage of them.
The value of the right teacher
In terms of pricing, to be honest, I have not found a huge quality differential between the lower cost and the pricier schools.
Just make sure you are clear about what the pricing includes. Some schools require you to purchase a book to be used in class, while others include the book or any other materials in the cost of the class.
No matter what school you choose, you should make sure that the school is accredited and the teachers are qualified and experienced.
You can take lessons at a highly-rated school, but if your teacher is not a good fit, you may not be as motivated to learn.
Trust me, when you are trying to sort out the differences between using por or para, you want a teacher who has been down that road many times before.
Have you taken the plunge to learn Spanish–or any other language, for that matter? Let us all benefit from your experience.