No lo entiendo. No lo entiendo. No lo entiendo. That means, "I don't understand," in Spanish. Luckily I knew that phrase before I got to Madrid because it was about all I said during a week of daily, intensive Spanish classes at Enforex. Now, don't get me wrong, it wasn't entirely the school's fault that I had such a dismal experience. Part of the problem came from me not knowing what I was signing up for when I chose a language school. I thoroughly researched prices, facilities, locations, class sizes and course offerings. What I neglected to investigate beforehand were the details. They seemed irrelevant at the time, but once I arrived they were all that mattered.
Choosing a language school is like choosing a boyfriend or girlfriend. Just because it's packaged well doesn't mean it's of high quality. Just because someone else liked it doesn't mean you will. And once you commit it's hard to make a clean break. Don't make the same mistake I did of assuming all language schools are created equally. Take some time and find one that fits you.
HOW IS MY LANGUAGE LEVEL DETERMINED?
Schools may use a written test, oral test or both to assess your language ability. I took a multiple choice grammar test. Even though I didn't remember most of the conjugations of Spanish verbs, I was able to deduce most of the answers after seeing the choices. Because of that, I was placed in a level that was higher than my ability. Big mistake! Make sure that the test really checks your knowledge. If you feel that it's not a valid assessment, ask for an additional oral exam to confirm your skills.
WHAT IS THE SYLLABUS FOR THE CLASS I WILL BE TAKING?
DEMAND an outline of what will be taught in the class. There are a few reasons for this. First, if you get this ahead of time, you will be able to estimate your own class level. Second, this will weed out the schools that are not organized and serious about teaching. Not having a syllabus is a big red flag. Finally, you can review the material before you go to class each day, making the class itself more worthwhile.
I never realized how important a syllabus was until I took a weeklong course at Saint Louis University in Madrid. The first day of class, the teacher handed me a list of everything we would be covering in class. Immediately, I felt at ease because I knew what to expect. When you are in a foreign country, anything that lessens the stress of everything being new is a good thing. It's the small things that add up.
HOW ARE THE LESSONS STRUCTURED?
The teaching term to know is "pedagogy." That means how does the teacher teach-lecture/notes, activities, video, music? Does the teacher give examples ("modeling") before she asks you to perform a task or does she just throw you in with the wolves? Will there be tests? What kinds of modifications will be made if you don't understand something or aren't challenged by it? Does the class focus on oral or written participation? Many schools might give you the run around on this with the excuse that all teachers have a "unique style." Don't be discouraged. Be persistent. Know that if they dodge the question, you are seeing another red flag. Look for language schools that are taught by educators, not by locals looking to make a few extra euros. It is important that the instructors have been trained in how to teach, not just what to teach.
WHAT MATERIALS SHOULD YOU BRING?
In high school, teachers provide everything that students need. In language school, it is BYOEverything. Most important to bring is a dictionary. The new gadget that everyone is using is the electronic translator. Get it! It makes class much easier and everyone will want to sit by you because you'll know all the answers.
WHAT ABOUT FIELD TRIPS?
Most schools offer cultural activities in addition to their courses. Ask for a previous month's schedule of activities to see what the institution sponsors. Some schools plan museum excursions while others organize pub-crawls. Choose one that suits your personality.
I won't lie and say that you shouldn't worry too much about choosing a school- that everything will work itself out fine. There is such thing as a terrible experience learning a language abroad. There is also the possibility for greatness. After all, you are in another country, outside your comfort zone, experiencing colors, music, food and people that are all new. Just make sure that you put in the time to research schools before you travel so that when you get abroad your only concern is which club to party at that night.
Photo by Miranda La Barge