Choosing the Best Spanish-Language School

Over the years, I’ve attended six Spanish schools in four different countries, and spoken with dozens of other students about their experiences. Here are my tips for choosing the best Spanish-language school.

Spanish School Location

Medellin, Colombia - Spanish language course

Beautiful Medellín, Colombia has transformed itself into a mecca for expats and Spanish learners.

First, decide on location. Accent is an important consideration. Do you need Spanish skills for communicating with a particular community? If so, try to study as close as possible to their country of origin.

Otherwise, it’s best to learn a clear, neutral Spanish that can be understood anywhere. Countries with a relatively neutral accent include Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador.

If you are considering a place with a distinctive accent like southern Spain or Argentina, the good news is that competent teachers will speak neutral Spanish in the classroom. However, consider that a thick regional dialect will make it difficult to communicate with locals. Personally, a big part of my enjoyment and practice comes from these simple daily interactions. Avoid places like Barcelona, Spain, where the local language isn’t even Spanish, for that reason.

For affordability, you can’t beat Guatemala, a hotspot for Spanish immersion programs, although most schools in Latin countries will likely be inexpensive by North American or European standards.

In Latin America, safety is also an important consideration. Research the current security situation before committing to a location.

Timing

Puebla - Spanish schools in Mexico - study Spanish abroad

Altar, Día de Muertos, Puebla, Mexico

Once you’ve got location figured out, consider timing. North American and European summer is high season for Spanish schools — a good time to avoid unless you only have summers off.

Research the seasonal climate; try Googling “best time to visit ____.” Perhaps you can time your visit to coincide with a special holiday or festival? Semana Santa and Día de Muertos are incredible celebrations to experience in Mexico, for example.

Finding the Best Spanish Immersion Programs

Tripadvisor Spanish language school reviews - learn Spanish abroad

TripAdvisor is a great source for school reviews.

After narrowing down your locations, search for local Spanish programs with excellent reviews. Good places to look for lists of schools and reviews are TripAdvisor forums and reviews, Yelp reviews, Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forums, 123 Teach Me, and CourseFinders (mainly schools in Spain).

Use the suggested criteria below to evaluate each school. Focus on recent reviews, as schools change as teaching or management staff turns over.

After finding a top-rated school, follows their accounts on social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Is the school active there posting useful learning content and photos of student activities? Social media posts can be a good way to get a feel for the school atmosphere and the student demographic.

Once you have a shortlist of the best Spanish-language schools, contact each of them. Many of the questions below may be answered on the school’s website, but if not, include them in your email to the school. How quickly do they respond, and how thoroughly do they address your questions?

Sometimes, the school contact will offer to Skype with you, an excellent way to get a clearer picture of the school and have your questions answered quickly.

Questions to Ask a Spanish School

Teaching Philosophy

Guanajuato, Mexico - learn Spanish abroad for adults

Classrooms, Escuela Falcon, Guanajuato, Mexico

Ask about minimum teacher qualifications. Do the instructors have formal teacher training and certifications? Cheaper schools in Latin America sometimes hire teachers with few or no professional qualifications.

Is the instruction formal and focused on grammar, or more casual and conversational? What course materials are used? Make sure the school’s instructional style suits your personality. Even a school with a more conversational technique should emphasize the four main building blocks of language learning: reading, speaking, listening, and writing.

How often will your teacher change? It’s good to be exposed to different accents and teaching styles, so I prefer to change teachers at least once a week.

Some schools like Escuela Falcon in Guanajuato offer a flexible schedule with different teachers for each subject like grammar, conversation, or literature. Many students prefer this kind of diversity, since it keeps things interesting and reduces the risk of being stuck with a teacher who isn’t a good fit.

Personally, though, I’ve found that with a good teacher I make more progress staying with that person all day, rather than jumping from one instructor to the next. It allows a more relaxed pace and time to explore topics in depth.

Private vs. Group Classes

Does the school offer both private and group instruction? There are advantages to both. As a beginner, you will find plenty of group classes at your level, with the benefit of reduced cost. Group classes are a wonderful way to meet other students; I’ve made lifelong friendships that way. They are also less intense than one-on-one sessions, which can be tiring over multiple hours. If you choose group classes, ask about the maximum number of students in a class; the smaller the better.

Private instruction can be pricey but accelerates your learning. Group classes move more slowly to accommodate students at differing levels. I’ve also found it hard to get speaking time in a group, especially when there were students with a tendency to dominate the discussion.

Personally, as an advanced student, I learn best and most efficiently during one-on-ones. If you’re interested in private classes, check out schools in Guatemala, which offer extremely affordable one-on-one instruction.

School Size

AIL Madrid - Study abroad in Spain

Outing with my large school in Spain, AIL Madrid

How many students typically attend the school for the time of year you’re considering? Larger schools tend to be more impersonal but can offer more opportunities. At schools with branches in various cities, for example, you could divide your time between different locations while continuing your studies with the same course materials. Several of the large chains in Spain like Enforex offer this option. For instance, you could study for a few weeks in Salamanca, continue on to Madrid, and finish up in Seville.

I did something similar with the school I attended in Buenos Aires. After a week I moved on to its campus in Montevideo, Uruguay. Since then, the school has added an additional campus in Bariloche, Argentina. A great way to see more places while ensuring continuity in your studies!

Despite the advantages of large schools, however, personally I prefer the friendly, welcoming environment and highly personalized attention of a small school. As a woman traveling alone, having that type of support feels especially important.

Note: One disadvantage to small schools for advanced students is that it is quite possible there will not be any other students at your level to share group classes. Many schools will accommodate you by charging a group rate for one-on-one classes but cutting the daily instruction from four to three hours. Other schools don’t cut class time. Receiving private instruction for the price of group classes is an incredible bargain. However, you miss out on the social benefits of group classes. Private classes for four hours a day can also be very intense! If you are an advanced student, ask the school how they handle this situation.

Price

Trying gringa tacos at a local restaurant with Livit, my school in Puebla, Mexico. Lunch was included at Livit.

Trying gringa tacos at a local restaurant with Livit, my school in Puebla, Mexico. Lunch was included at Livit.

Prices vary widely by country and by school. Big cities are usually more expensive. If you’re planning to stay for more than a couple of weeks, does the school offer a discount for long-term study?

Generally, Guatemala is a bargain for Spanish courses. Other countries in Latin America will still likely be cheaper than Spain, although if you do your research you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how affordable some schools in Spain can be.

The school should provide a complete estimate of the cost of your stay, including tuition, accommodation, and any additional fees. Most will request a deposit to hold your place.

Consider that often you get what you pay for; schools that charge more tend to have better-qualified teachers and more extensive service such as included meals or additional instruction hours. Weigh these considerations when making your decision.

Student Demographic

Trying tapas - Spanish schools in Spain

Trying tapas with fellow students from the US, Germany, and China in Madrid

What are typical student ages and nationalities? In Spain, students tend to be younger, with an average age in the 20s. This tendency is even more pronounced in the summers when Europe’s teenagers converge on Spain to attend language programs and party. On the other hand, several of the Spanish schools in Mexico I attended were dominated by retirement-age students.

Personally, I enjoy a wide diversity of ages and nationalities in the student population. As a forty-something, I don’t want to be the oldest, but I don’t want to be the youngest either.

I love meeting students from a wide mix of countries. My school in Madrid was the most diverse in this aspect, with students from literally all over the world. In my two weeks there I met students from two dozen countries in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

Extracurricular Activities

Livit Spanish Immersion School excursion to Atlixco, Mexico

Enjoying the view over the plaza with a cold beverage on a Livit excursion to Atlixco, Mexico

What cultural activities does the school offer after class and on weekends? Typical examples are film screenings, cultural workshops, language exchanges, or tours to local attractions. If you’re on your own, these are great opportunities to meet your fellow students. I look for schools that offer a daily activity as well as an organized outing on weekends.

Many schools in Latin America also offer volunteer programs that can be a rewarding way to give back to the local community while enhancing your language skills.

Accommodation

Homestay - Spanish language school in Mexico

With my lovely homestay hostess Lupita in Puebla, Mexico

What accommodation options does the school offer? Homestays can be a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the local culture and improve your language skills; I’ve been lucky to have experienced two homestays that have resulted in long-term friendships.

However, as a middle-aged woman used to living independently, I do find it difficult to adjust to eating on someone else’s schedule. I struggle especially with the late evening meals typical for Spain and Latin America. For example, my host family in Buenos Aires often didn’t serve dinner until 11 pm or midnight, much too late for me! Homestay meal arrangements can vary greatly depending on the school, so ask for details.

Are the homestays generally within walking distance of the school? This may not be an issue for you, but my personal preference is not to have to take transport to and from the school.

How many students are placed with each homestay? For language learning purposes it’s best not to have more than one, although sharing a home with other students can be a great way to make new friends.

Learn Spanish in Spain - best Spanish language schools

View from my Airbnb in Barrio de Salamanca, Madrid, a 15-minute walk from my Spanish school

Generally, schools can arrange student housing or apartment, hostel, or hotel accommodation for students that decide not to go the homestay route. You could also choose to do a homestay for just the first week or two of your visit.

On two occasions I’ve also done my own research to find a highly reviewed Airbnb close to the school, and that worked out really well.

Comparison with Other Spanish Schools

If you are considering several schools in the same city, politely ask each school what sets them apart from the competition. Some may not want to comment on other schools, but generally the answers you get will be instructive.

Summary List of Questions

Summary of possible questions to keep in mind when evaluating prospective Spanish schools:

Teaching Philosophy

  • Is the instruction formal and focused on grammar, or more casual and conversational? What course materials are used?
  • Do the instructors have formal teacher training and certifications?
  • How often does the teacher change?
  • Does the school offer both private and group instruction?
  • What’s the maximum number of students in a class?
  • If you are considering other schools in the same city: What differentiates the school from their competition?

School Policies

  • If you are an advanced student, how does the school handle the situation if there are no other students at your level?
  • If the school has multiple branches, is it possible to travel between the locations while continuing your studies?

Student Demographic

  • How many students typically attend the school for the time of year you’re considering?
  • What are typical student ages and nationalities?

Price

  • If you’re planning to stay for more than a couple of weeks, does the school offer a discount for long-term study?

Extracurricular Activities

  • What cultural activities does the school provide after class and on weekends?
  • If there are holidays or festivals coinciding with your visit, what special activities or outings does the school offer to help students experience the event?
  • Does the school have volunteer opportunities?

Accommodation

  • What accommodation options does the school offer?
  • Which meals are included with a homestay?
  • Are there photos and descriptions online of the homestays?
  • Are the homestays generally within walking distance of the school?
  • How many students are placed in each home?
Suerte (good luck) in your search!
Have questions about how to choose the best Spanish school or a recommendation for a Spanish course? Please share your feedback in the comments. 
Choosing the Best Spanish-Language School

14 Comments on “Choosing the Best Spanish-Language School”

  1. Wow! This is fantastic! Truly chock full of information. I hope I can use all the knowledge you shared someday.

      • Hi Ingrid, have you been to any language schools in Ecuador? Guatemala or Peru? I am wanting to take my 13 year old son for some immersion spanish. He is a beginning learner. I want a safe place to go with a fun program…appreciate your blog!!!

        Cher

        • Hi Cher, I haven’t studied Spanish in those countries, although I’ve traveled in all three of them. They all have a nice clear Spanish that’s good for learners. For a safer, more welcoming environment I would avoid the capitals of these three countries and look at smaller places. In Ecuador, Cuenca is lovely and has a long tradition of excellent Spanish instruction. I have a friend who studied in Cusco in Peru and loved it, although altitude sickness can be an issue for many visitors.

          From my travels in Guatemala and from talking to people who’ve studied there, Antigua has good schools, but as the tourist epicenter of Guatemala it can be hard to find that truly immersive environment. Other students have recommended Lago de Atitlán or Quetzaltenango (Xela) instead as a more authentic experience. Having said that, I’m certain you can have a wonderful experience in Antigua, and it might be a more accommodating place for a beginner.

          Hope that helps a little! Do let me know what you end up deciding. 🙂

          • Cher, I’ll echo what Ingrid’s written about Guatemala. Antigua is a wonderful town– I’ve spent 5 months there across 3 different visits– but it is very much a tourist destination. You’d sacrifice some immersion, but could have a a really good time there. Lake Atitlán is a beautiful place, but also a tourist destination with a hippie, new age vibe. If you want maximum immersion, you’ll find that in Xela. It wouldn’t be my first choice– industrial city up in the mountains– but you’d have focus there! Your son’s lucky to have a mom like you! I wish you success with whatever you choose.

            Ingrid, thanks for mentioning Cuenca! It’s been on my radar as a place to visit, but I hadn’t considered it for Spanish study.

          • Thanks for confirming my impressions of best places to study in Guatemala, Joe! Would love to hear about your experiences if you study in Cuenca.

  2. Great info, Ingrid, muchas gracias! I would also say that Peru, too, is considered a good place for beginners for its neutral, clear Spanish. At least that’s what I experienced when I studied in Cusco – but then I was so novice that I wasn’t able to tell the difference 🙂
    I wish I had thought of many of your suggested questions when I booked my school. Well, the next one, then.

    • Hola Krisztina, muchas gracias por tu comentario. Great point, and I have added Peru to the list! 🙂

  3. Doy fe de lo estupenda persona y meticulosa y verosímil observadora que es la autora de este excelente reportaje por lo menos a partir de mi experiencia propia al conocerla en razón de alojarse en mi casa. Sus andanzas registradas vía Second-Half Travels tendrán un largo recorrido futuro asegurado de seguidores, dado lo entretenido (a la par que instructivo) de sus reportajes y diarios de ruta. ¡Gracias por compartirlos en la red!

    • Querido Fernando, gracias por tu comentario. Una gran parte de lo que hizo que mi estancia en Madrid fuera especial fue la suerte de alojarme contigo. Gracias por compartir tu hogar tan generosamente con las almas viajeras que pasan por Madrid!

  4. I have read many of your articles over the last few days. You are such a wonderful source of information. I have a question specific to one of my needs – have you come across a school/location in Mexico for Spanish immersion that would also be a safe place for me to go on a daily 5-10 mile run? I plan on staying wherever I go for 2-3 months, and I don’t want to give up my daily runs. I am a 64 year old female. Thanks in advance! Linda

    • Hi Linda,

      I’m not really a runner, but I asked a friend who’s an avid runner and has studied at both SIP in Puebla and Baden-Powell in Morelia. Here’s what he said:

      “I was able to run in both Puebla and Morelia.

      Parque Ecológico in Puebla was really great, and there is a measured 3-kilometer running track…. it is outstanding and partially shaded. Plus many other paths and an actual 400-meter formal track. From the school, as well as from the school hotel where I stayed which is a couple of blocks west of the school, it’s a long walk to get there (at least 30 minutes). And those streets are not the greatest for running. I was taking Uber to the park sometimes and then walking back. During the rainy season, I wonder if the track gets washed out after rains since it’s largely a dirt surface.

      I was able to run in Morelia, also, at Bosque Cuauhtémoc… and it was mostly shaded… it’s not too far from Baden-Powell school.

      My suggestion is to use Google Maps for this. Identify the school and where you will be staying. From there, you can identify nearby parks. You can use the satellite view on Google to see running paths.

      Also, use a climate chart to see what the weather will be when you are there… rain vs. no rain, temperatures.

      One more note is to check the air quality. Many Mexican cities have a real problem with air quality. Some are infrequently measured. And normally the worst time for air quality is early morning due to some kind of inversion effect that I read about.

      Here is the pollution reading for Mérida at the moment:

      http://aqicn.org/city/mexico/yucatan/merida/seduma01/

      You can use the same site for other cities. I think the air quality is probably worst from February to May.”

      Another note (Ingrid here), if there’s a particular school you’re interested in, I would ask for their suggestions. A fallback plan could be to join a local gym and use the treadmills? Good luck and let me know how it goes!

      • Thank you so much for responding to my question, Ingrid. Your blogs are sooo helpful! I’ve narrowed my choices down to Livit in Puebla, or a school in Oaxaca (possibly Becari, Institute Cultural de Oaxaca, or Spanish Immersion School Oaxaca). I plan on staying 10-12 weeks total. Do you think it’s better if I pick one location for the whole time, or split my time between two locations? Also, do you have experience with any of the 3 schools I’m looking at in Oaxaca? Thanks again for your help!

        • So glad you’re finding my blog helpful, Linda! It’s a subjective choice, but personally I would split my time between the two places. I would think after 5-6 weeks in each city you will have seen most of what it has to offer and be ready to move on. Oaxaca and Puebla also combine nicely on a trip since they are not too far from each other. I know many people, including myself, who have done a Mexico City-Puebla-Oaxaca trip.

          I haven’t personally attended any schools in Oaxaca, but have a friend who went to Institute Cultural de Oaxaca and had a reasonably good experience, although she found it less helpful than her school in Mérida. It also looks like Institute Cultural de Oaxaca has decidedly mixed reviews on TripAdvisor?

          I’d read the reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp for the schools you’re interested in, and then write them to get an idea of their responsiveness and management style. If you’re still not sure, maybe just book a couple of weeks of classes at one and then see if you want to continue, try a different one, or perhaps switch to private lessons to finish off your time in Mexico? Let me know how you get on!

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