How to Choose a Spanish 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 school.
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.
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.
How to Find Good Schools
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, check it out on social media like Facebook and Instagram. Is the school active there posting useful learning content and photos of student activities? Social media photos can be a good way to get a feel for the school atmosphere and the student demographic.
Once you have a shortlist of Spanish-language schools with good reviews, 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
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.
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.
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 offer a more extensive service such as included meals or additional instruction hours. Weigh these considerations when making your decision.
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.
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.
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 11pm 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.
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 only part of your stay. 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 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:
- 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?
- 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?
- How many students typically attend the school for the time of year you’re considering?
- What are typical student ages and nationalities?
- If you’re planning to stay for more than a couple of weeks, does the school offer a discount for long-term study?
- What cultural activities does the school offer after class and on weekends?
- If there are holidays or festivals coinciding with your visit, what special activities or outings does the school have planned to help students celebrate the event?
- Does the school offer volunteer opportunities?
- 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?
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