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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

9 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Language Program Overseas

If your New Year's Resolution is to learn a new language, one of the best ways to do so is by dunking yourself into immersion classes overseas. Once you choose a language, the next step is to opt for a program. In some countries, the choices are limited. But in places like Italy, France, and Spain, there are an abundance of choices. How do you choose the best program for you? Here are some thoughts, based on my experience studying Italian in Bologna.

1. How much time do I have to devote to this exercise? 
Certain institutions focus on two-week programs for tourists, while others offer longer-term options for those who might be moving to the country. 

2. In what part of the country do I want to spend time? 
As Americans know, regional differences within one nation can be vast. The South is different from the Northeast which is different from the Pacific Northwest. Similarly, Northern and Southern Italy, for example, provide two unique experiences. Dialects, dishes, and the local culture will vary, depending on location. So study up and decide on a region that is right for you.

3. Do I want to study in a big city or a small town?
Each has its advantages. A big city will allow vast opportunities for after­-school sightseeing, while smaller towns may allow you to delve into a local community and its lifestyles and culture. A big city provides more convenient transportation options for visiting other places. In a smaller town, you may be more isolated, but it's easier to meet residents and become a part of local life.

4. How much of a language do you want to learn? 
Do you want to become fluent, or do you merely want to learn enough to get by while travel­ing through the country? Depending on your answer, consider the length of the program, the number of daily hours of classroom study, class size, and the opportunity for one-on-one instruction. If you want to get fluent fast, find a program that is at least four weeks; one that offers small classes and one-on-one tutoring; and one that offers family stays. 

5  Are you ready to work hard? 
If you are merely looking for a relaxing vacation, do be aware that hours of study every day can lead to brain drain and a type of mental exhaus­tion not experienced since Finals Week in college. Plus, you may get frustrated when the Louvre awaits and you are stuck in a classroom.  For those who want to combine vacation with vocab­ulary, study in a small town or in a resort area, or consider selecting a program in which language study is combined with a favorite interest, such as cooking or music. If you are studying in a big city, you may want to spend an extra week on your own after graduation specifically for sightseeing (and practicing your language skills).

6 Where do you want to live during your stay?
Most schools help students with lodging arrange­ments that range from stays at local pensiones to apartment-shares with other students. Another option, as previously mentioned, is the family stay. Before accepting this option, find out what you will be getting, as sometimes, this definition can be a misnomer. My "family stay" in Bologna was limited to a confining room in the apartment of a single woman (with no kitchen privileges and limited-time bathroom privileges to boot). Had I known in advance that this type of situation made up the bulk of the family stay offerings in Bologna, I might have opted for another program. 

7 What is the student body like? 
If the people with whom you are studying are impor­tant to you, ask about the demographic breakdown of the student population. One of the beauties of Cultura Italiana in Bologna was its interna­tional clientele. It drew from nearly every country imaginable, with students from Scandinavia, Germany and Japan heavily represented. English speakers from the United Kingdom and the United States had a presence, but not a large one. One advantage of studying in such a diverse setting is that students are less likely to lapse into their native languages (although, admittedly, English was the common language among the European polyglots with whom I attended class).
Age may be another matter of concern. Person­ally, I liked the diversity of my crowd, which ranged in age from 20 to 55 (and in profession from "student" to sports producer to scientist). The age range was especially large in Bologna, due to the appeal of this university town for younger people (Bologna is said to have the highest number per capita of nightclubs in ltaly). However, Cultura Ital­iana 's other campuses, located in smaller and quieter places, attract an older crowd, including retirees. The bottom line: check the demographics.

8 What is the method of teaching? 
At Cultura Italiana, students were separated accord­ing to levels in grammar and speaking. The first two hours of the day were devoted to Italian grammar with others at a similar level of under­standing. Then, in the speaking class, another group of students were peers in terms of oral ability.  This structure worked very well, given that speaking and grammar skills can vary so dramatically. Do you want to focus on speaking skills, writing skills or both? Also find out average class size. The student-teacher ratio can be crucial in the learning process..

9. What extracurricular activities are offered?
Extracurricular activities can be every bit as impor­tant in the learning process as the classroom experi­ence. Many schools offer after-hours programming, including wine tastings, film viewings, and museum visits (ask to see if such programming costs extra). Not only are these extracurriculars a good way to practice a language and learn about a culture, but they also provide an informaI setting with which to bond with your fellow students. If your desire to learn a language is secondary to engaging in other cultural pursuits, consider enrolling in a course where you can combine those interests with language study. For example, you can learn Italian while focusing on mosaic-making in Ravenna, painting in Perugia, or cooking in Bologna. 


1. Start the learning process at home. A good basic knowledge of a language will allow you to get more out of your classes in a shorter amount of time.
2. Go to films and watch TV. Because of the speed at which dubbers often have to speak, it might be easier to watch programming with which you are already familiar. Another option is to watch the local news, where subject matter and video can put unfamiliar words in context.

3. Eavesdrop. Sit in a cafĂ© and pretend to read while listening to conversations at nearby tables. If traveling via train, close your eyes and listen to what your cabin-mates are saying.

4. Take city tours, or guided tours of museums or tourist attractions, in the local language. The milieu will make what is being said easier to understand.
5. Speak all the time and don't be intimidated, even if you stumble. When Americans make an attempt to speak a foreign language in its home country, the locals do appreciate the effort. Most are happy to accommodate you by speaking slowly and helping you finish your sentences.

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