“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Nelson Mandela

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Finding the Best Small Language Schools over 50

This post is a companion to my educational travel post. The educational travel post explores non-language schools abroad. You may also want to read my posts on Creative Tips for Learning a Foreign Language and My Complex Language Learning History.

My Experiences Finding the Best Foreign Language Classes Abroad Over 50

I have attended 17 small foreign language schools in Mexico, Spain, Nicaragua, Peru, and Argentina (Spanish); France and Québec, Canada (French); Portugal (Portuguese); Russia (Russian); and Italy (Italian). Some were among the best experiences in my life; others were not great experiences for me.  

However, every one of the schools was good. Some did not fulfill my needs, personality, and interests. 

My needs and interests in a language school have changed as I got older. What works for Fifty Plus Nomads is different than for college-aged kids. 

Read more about my experiences finding the best small foreign language school In my language learning methods post. 

Tip #1: Questions to Think About Before Choosing Your Foreign Language School Abroad

Here are some questions you should think about when you are choosing the best foreign language schools for you:  

  • How does the school determine what level to place you in? Is it by exam or catch as catch can? Typically, schools have several levels of classes (beginning, beginning-intermediate, intermediate, intermediate-advanced, and advanced) going on simultaneously. In some smaller schools, there will frequently not be enough students to make a class for intermediate and advanced level students. Therefore, you may need to be persistent about being placed in a classroom appropriate for your level. Otherwise, you may be placed in a school simply because of space. One sign that you have found one of the best foreign language schools for you is that they will offer you one-on-one classes for the same price as group classes if they can’t match you to a suitable class.
  • Do I want to take a class in a city with many schools geared toward other foreign language students? If you take a class somewhere like Antigua, Guatemala*, you will have a lot of language students in one place, making it hard to learn the local language. On the other hand, if you want to get to know other students, it can be a benefit. If you decide to take classes in these locations, you may want to make it a point to set aside a couple of hours a day from the beginning to use the native language, preferably in a homestay outside of the classroom.  
  • Do I want to stay in a homestay? If so, do I want to be with other language students in the homestay? In Latin America, homestays usually have one student and often include two meals daily. In Europe, homestays often have two or more students and may or may not include meals. Generally, I prefer meals with the family because it offers a natural opportunity to get to know your host family. Since most of the other students are young, they will probably be primarily interested in going out on the town with the other students more than spending time with the host family.
    • I look at the homestay as the ¨practical¨ part of the class- my opportunity to apply in real life my language skills. I have many fond memories of conversations and meals with these families. (Some families are excellent hosts- one of my hosts in Oaxaca even cooked four types of molé so that I could see the differences between each dish). That said, homestays are best after you have 50 to 100 hours of language classes under your belt. You can form basic sentences and have enough vocabulary to have a simple conversation with the family. Many Fifty-Plus Nomads prefer the privacy of an Airbnb, rental apartment (many schools offer apartment rental options for their students), or a hotel to living with a host family.
  • What is the suitable methodology for you to learn the language? Many schools, particularly in Europe, are fanatically devoted to the natural approach. Under this approach, everything from day one is the target language (the language you are learning), and the classes include many forced conversations among the students. I only like this approach if I have NO previous background in the language. Also, many Fifty-Plus Nomads, in my experience, freeze up in these classes because they are uncomfortable with having everything in the target language. Read my language learning post for more details about the pros and cons of different language learning methodologies.

*about tourism in Antigua

Tip #2: Determine How Long You Need to Study a Foreign Language Abroad

You can enroll in most of the best small foreign language schools abroad for as little as a week and stay for as long as you want (particularly at private language schools). The only limitation is that you usually must enroll on a Monday,  year-round program.  

A few programs, usually associated with colleges and universities, have set schedules on specific dates.  

While it is impossible to tell you how long you should enroll in a program, here are a few benchmarks. (Note: This assumes that you are starting from the beginning):  

Language  Basic, Survival   Basic Conversation  Competence  
Easy (Romance and Germanic Languages)   Three weeks  6-10 weeks  12-18 weeks  
Middle (Slavic Languages)  Five weeks  10-15 weeks  20-30 weeks  
Difficult (Arabic, all Asian languages, Indigenous
 American languages, Turkish,
 Finnish, and Hungarian)  
Eight weeks  14 weeks  30* weeks  
  • Basic, Survival skills: You can tell time, ask, and understand directions and numbers, colors, and some basic adjectives. You can also say simple sentences such as “I like, I want, I need.” etc. You will also be able to understand the response to questions that you ask about these topics.  
  • Basic Conversation: You can sometimes carry on intelligent conversations, but at other times you will have difficulty communicating simple ideas. You will easily use around 1000-2000 words and make basic sentences with many grammatical errors. You will need to use a dictionary for any complicated conversation.  
  • Competence: You will usually be able to talk easily to other people. They will usually understand everything you say. You will be able to scan a news article though you will have to occasionally look up a couple of words in the dictionary. You will also understand the gist of most TV programs, though you may miss some details.  

Tip #3: Decide if a Language School Placement Agency Helps You Find the Best Small Foreign Language Schools Abroad. 

Several agencies will help you find the right school for your interests. These agencies have worked hard to develop a relationship with different reputable schools around the globe. Usually, these agencies know a lot about the schools, including student body characteristics (age, learning skills, etc.), school programs (after-school activities, etc.), and instructional methodologies.  

In addition to placement assistance, language vacation agencies help clients handle business details (like payments) and provide any additional services, such as health insurance, that may be needed. Some even help clients arrange for volunteer and internship placements as well.

I have less faith in language school placement agencies than in the past. They generally are solid advocates for the natural approach to language learning and are not receptive to the unique needs of Fifty-Plus Nomad students.  

Finding a Language Placement Agency:  

There are several agencies available to help you. This list is by no means comprehensive.   

Some of the larger placement agencies include Amerispan and Language Link.  

Here are some questions to ask the agencies:  

  • How do you ensure that your clients are satisfied with the results of their training? Do you ask clients for an evaluation of the school?  
  • How do you check the schools? Do you check to make sure that instructors are adequately trained? Do you visit the schools?  
  • Can I get references from other students? If so, follow up to ask if they were satisfied with the experience.  
  • What type of methodology do the schools use to teach students? Read my post to help you determine which methodology is best for you. (I like the eclectic approach myself):

You can also find schools in your destination through major guidebook series like Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, and Googling language schools.  

While I now prefer to deal with schools not affiliated with the placement agencies (because most of their partners focus on the Natural approach), placement agencies offer several advantages, including:  

  • Familiarity with the schools. The agencies only select schools that meet their standards for quality of instruction, financial stability, etc. Agencies occasionally visit the schools to check on their quality. They also benefit from consistent feedback about the school’s quality from their clientele to help them ensure that they represent schools that meet their standards.  
  • A straightforward way to pay for schooling. Many language schools do not accept credit cards or personal checks from abroad. On the other hand, these agencies directly take these payments from you, saving you transfer or bank draft fees.  
  • The agencies’ special arrangements with the school can be to your advantage. Some agencies have arranged reduced costs for students with the schools to attract new students, and other agencies can work out arrangements to secure their prime homestay assignments for their clients. 

How Much Will the Best Small Foreign Language Schools Abroad Cost?  

Country  Class  
# of 
Cheap Latin American 
countries; China and Thailand 
(instruction only)  
$4-10/hr  1  $10-15/day  (Latin
America only)
2-3 meals a day; you are the only student 
in the home.
(Homestays are often not available in Asia) 
Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, Russia  $7-10/hr.  3-5  $20-30/day  2-3 meals a day; you are the only student 
in the home  
Europe  $9-15/hr.  5-20  $40-60/day  Basic breakfast; you will not be the only student 
In the home usually, you will have your room, 
though). Many schools will also not have 
homestay options in Europe.  

Want Some More Tips for Finding the Best Small Foreign Language Schools Abroad?

Check out Go Abroad, Transitions Abroad, and Mille Feuille Provence posts.

Additional Posts About Learning Foreign Languages; Spanish, English, Cooking, Art, and Other Classes; and Volunteering for Expats and Long-Term Travelers

Paul Heller has been a lifelong avid traveler and language learner and teacher, Even as a child, he told Santa Claus that he wanted to visit all the children worldwide. At seven years old, Paul wanted to retire to Mexico. At eight, he memorized the name, capital, location, and some facts about every country worldwide. At twelve, he found a book "Lonely Planet: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring" and started developing his own itinerary for a future round-the-world trip. He remained obsessed with travel; after getting a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Southern California and working as an administrator, He spent his vacations going to different countries around the globe studying language, touring, and volunteering. In 1994, he quit his job and lived in Russia as a volunteer English instructor. He discovered that he loved teaching languages. In 2004, he decided to make a living out of his travels and founded a community of people who love to travel just like him. He developed 5 three-hour classes about living and traveling long-term worldwide which he taught in over 50 adult education programs throughout the US. After his parents passed, he realized his dream of traveling around the world; cruising and touring some of the most remote places like the North Atlantic, Patagonia, and Oceania; and learning new languages (he knows Spanish, Italian, French, and Russian). Paul encourages everyone to learn foreign languages. He knows that it can be frustrating and slow but that anyone can learn a language if they put in the work and, most importantly, learning a language is well worth the time and effort because it opens up a whole new set of people, ideas, and cultures. He is currently spending the next chapter of his life in Mérida, México. He is excited about using this blog and his classes and workshops to inspire and equip fellow Fifty Plus Nomads with the language, cultural, and psychological skills necessary to be successful and happy long-term travelers and expats over 50.

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