Studying in-country in a Spanish language total immersion program is absolutely the best way to learn Spanish, or any foreign language. In most programs, especially those in Latin America, the program will include about 4 hours of study per day, and a home-stay with a local family. Here is how to ensure you get the most bang for your buck for your total immersion experience:
· Really research schools in the area. Read testimonials and if possible, contact people who have studied at the school.
· Ask the school plenty of questions: How are the teachers trained? What is their philosophy and system of language teaching? What qualifications do teachers have? What materials are used and what materials should you bring?
· Do not pay the entire fee up front. Most places do not require it. Pay the minimum deposit. If you don’t like it, you can change schools. Once you are in the locale, it is easy enough to meet students doing programs at other schools, find which ones are best and change.
· Study at home before you leave. Buy a decent Spanish language learning program and really focus on listening and speaking. Listen to the CDs or DVDs, without reading, multiple times, and then repeat – again without reading. You need all your attention to hear the intonation, rhythm, and stress of the language so don’t read at the same time.
Once you are in country:
· Realize that most language teachers in developing countries are not educated as foreign language teachers. At most, they have some general teacher training. However, some teachers are just naturally better, more experienced, or better trained than others. So if you are dissatisfied with your teacher, don’t be afraid to ask for a change.
· Beware of teachers who don’t come to class prepared with a real plan, or those who just want to talk about their personal problems with you (common at more advanced levels.)
· You are better off, even as a beginner, with a good teacher who speaks no English, than with a bad teacher who speaks English. The inept teacher will use English as a crutch to continuously explain things and you will end up hearing very little of the spoken target language. I recommend asking for a teacher who does not speak English.
· Be a pro-active student! If your teacher is going too fast, say so. If you’ve learned a new language structure (for example, how to talk about the past), but haven’t practiced it enough to really get it, demand more practice. And the practice should be primarily oral, not written.
· Four hours at a time is a long, long time to study a language. Break it up with walks around town, sessions in the market or in stores, or other activities where you can naturally speak and practice the language in real environments. The teacher will probably be happy to do this as 4 hours sitting is a long time for her, too! If the school is too strict to allow that, go to a different school.
Remember, just like anything else, what you get out of the experience correlates to what you put into it. Prepare for the experience with the steps above, and be proactive and disciplined once you arrive. Even though you are in a Spanish total immersion program, work is still required. Very few people past the age of 5 actually “osmose” a language.