Learning a foreign language is not always on the priority list of most American travelers. Unlike many European and Asian countries where students learn multiple languages in school, Americans lag behind in this era of global communication. Fortunately, English is a common tongue spoken around the globe, but knowing another language will make traveling both easier and more enjoyable.
There are a plethora of language learning tools on the market such as books and audiovisual programs including the most famous brand, Rosetta Stone. But, there is absolutely no replacement for immersing yourself in the culture to perfect the accent and acquire the most vocabulary and grammar in the shortest amount of time.
I already speak Spanish, studying it in school, but decided it was time for a refresher course and searched for language schools abroad. The don Quijote program has schools across the globe in most Spanish-speaking countries, but I opted for their Madrid classes since I lived there for awhile in college.
While my program was only for one week, there was exceptional flexibility on the duration of classes lasting as long or as short as desired. Students can begin on any Monday, and they are quickly integrated into the existing class structure following a short language level test on arrival.
When I arrived, there were students of all ages and backgrounds including several Americans. One student was in her mid-50s and staying for two weeks to brush up on Spanish to use at work. Another was in her 20s and staying for several months to improve her grammar and vocabulary. My one-week stay was not unusual although my visit passed all too quickly, and I vowed to return again. It was impressive that students can stay for as long or as short as they wish.
The most valuable reason to go abroad for a language immersion course is that everyone there is truly interested and invested in practicing the language. When taking classes in the United States, many students will frequently speak with each other in English.
In Madrid, this was not the case. Chatting over churros and café con leche on my first day while awaiting the results of our language level test, I was relieved that the Americans in the group were excited to speak in Spanish, and we each helped each other with vocabulary and grammar mistakes.
Once we received our scores, we were taken to our respective classes, which follow the standardized European system of A1/A2, B1/B2, C1/C2 (the latter being the highest level and reserved for the most fluent of students…the type of speaker who could deliver a professional or scientific presentation in the language).
Students have two classes each morning of roughly two hours each with a break (or "pausa") in between for a coffee or pan con tomate at a nearby café. These breaks were some of the most memorable parts of my stay as they allowed me to converse in a natural environment with students from around the globe and local Madrilenos in Spanish.
Each class is led by enthusiastic teachers that focus on integrating vocabulary and grammar into regular conversation. It did not feel like an academic class rather a lengthy conversation where everyone was allowed to converse with the teacher and other students. The teachers chime in with new vocabulary words including local slang and commonly used terms not found in textbooks and corrections on grammar.
Textbooks are provided, but are used more as a guide to fuel conversation making the classes both fun and very communicative. I was most impressed by the willingness of teachers to allow students to ask any question they wanted such as words they heard on the bus that morning or how to use certain grammatical terms properly even if they were not part of the teacher's lesson plans.
The informal nature of the class turned out to be its biggest asset, which is something rarely found in the United States' more rigid language courses. All students have the option to pay an additional fee to complete a more super intensive week adding a third class of informal conversation. I chose this option and was certainly not disappointed finding that my vocabulary nearly doubled following this intensive class. I learned from the teacher and other students about local ways of expressing certain things in addition to tips on pronunciation.
If a conversation class is not desired, students can spend the afternoon exploring the city's dozens of museums, parks, or shops. It would not be unusual for someone serious about learning Spanish to spend a week here studying in the morning and sightseeing for the rest of the day.
Each evening, there are optional culture classes covering a variety of topics from Spanish cuisine to common social activities. There is even a weekly flamenco class!
I left Madrid extremely pleased with my decision to take this class and recognized that the roughly $300 fee for the course was worth it. The more weeks you attend, the more savings on the weekly fee there is. Students can opt to live with families if they so choose although I found it more comfortable to stay in a hotel.
The camaraderie between students, willingness of teachers to customize the class towards the needs of the group, and total immersion of the class proved to be one of the best investments I could have made in my language skills. There is no substitute for the constant verbal and oral communication that comes with this type of program and those who purchase an audio program may be disappointed in the lack of proficiency that results from a box. Many of these tools are practical, affordable, and worthwhile although they do not provide the type of interaction that an immersion program offers.
Staff at the school is very willing to tailor the length and style of the program to individual needs, and they are extremely responsive to emails and on their Facebook page. Language immersion programs can be a great family experience and can work in tandem with vacation or business travel plans.