Learning a language is an investment. I've spent countless hours and lots of dollars trying to get it right and (after three years and four homestays spent trying to learn Italian) I feel like I am finally on the right path. I'm not close to my desired fluency yet, but I've learned a lot along the way...
Lesson #1 - A Week Is A Waste of Money
Restricted by time and money, most of my language study experiences have only lasted a week. I've enjoyed each for different reasons, but in the end I've never really made much progress. Working with a language tutor is like dating, it takes a while to get to know each other and establish common goals. There is no way around this and with just 5 "dates", both parties are sure to end wanting more.
I just returned from Italy where I lived with my teacher and her family in the region of Maremma (in southwestern Tuscany). Even though my teacher and I had several conversations (via Skype) related to my learning goals, it took a few days to get in a groove and understand my level and what misconceptions needed to be cleared up before we could move on.
This was my best language learning experience thus far for a multitude of reasons, but the single most important factor is that I chose to stay for two weeks instead of jetting off after one. Three weeks would have been ideal.
Lesson #2 - Go Private
When I began studying Italian I chose a school in a little Tuscan town called Montepulciano. The school was well respected and our teachers were good, but the group lessons didn't meet my needs. Not to mention the one student who monopolized the teacher's time and went on and on about how "we do things in America". Mamma mia!
If you are going to invest the time and money, go private. It allows your teacher to understand your needs much faster, while hopefully allowing you to help structure the class in a way that best meets your learning style/goals. I recommend going even further and finding a language study program that allows you to live with your teacher. This gives you easy access to class (down the hall from your bedroom), but more importantly it provides many impromptu opportunities to talk with your teacher and his/her family in real, meaningful ways. Of course, most language school offer homestays as well, but there is a great advantage to having your teacher there to correct you and encourage you in your learning long after the school day is over.
Lesson #3 - Choose Wisely
There are so many options out there when it comes to studying a language and every school/program claims to be the best. Yes, it's easiest to choose the first option that pops up on Google or Trip Advisors #1 pick, but I highly recommend spending time to find a school/program that best meets your needs.
Here are some things I recommend doing before making your final decision:
- Talk to friends (and friends of friends) who have studied abroad and drill them about their experiences. Get the names of teachers/schools they recommend and why.
- Set up a Skype call with your potential teachers (private) or schools so you can talk in person. Ask for references of former students.
- Ask about teaching materials (books, etc.) and teaching practices. Think about how you learn best and get clear if this teacher/school is a good match. Are they flexible and willing to use materials (besides the same damn book) to meet you where you are?
- What sort of assessment do they use to determine your level before you arrive? Is there an opportunity to talk to your teacher via Skype to assess your level ahead of time and waste less time upon arrival?
- Ask about the surrounding area. Is it metropolitan or rural? Can you get anywhere on foot or by public trasnport? Does it provide the opportunity to interact with people who do not speak English?
- Ask about home stay options. I wouldn't recommend living in apartments/dorms with other students because you'll inevitably speak more English than you should. A home stay is the only way to go if you are serious about learning a language.
No matter how much research you do, your final decision is made partially on blind faith and you won't know if it's a good fit until 2-3 days in. Last year I had a rather traumatic language study experience. I found my teacher, who worked for a well-known school in Siena, through a former student of my Italian teacher here in Dallas. I talked with him on the phone and he raved about his experience, but in the end, it was not a good fit for me. My teacher was unprepared, did nothing to assess my current level, and basically read from our Italian workbook for 3 hours each morning. At the end of the week her advice was to study harder. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!
It was a very frustrating experience, but it did come with an amazing Italian nonna who cooked as you would expect an Italian grandmother to cook - A different pasta every day for lunch and a different soup every evening for dinner. We spent hours around the dinner discussing (in Italian!!!) politics, religion, culture, and travel, but the stories I hold most dear are the ones she shared about her experience while living in the Veneto region during World War II. This connection with my Italian nonna completely enriched my experience and is something I will hold with me much longer than a few missed Italian grammar concepts.
Lesson #4 - Prepare Yourself
If you're anything like me, you probably think all you need to do to prepare yourself for your language study is it to show up with a notebook and a pencil. Wrong! The more time you put into thinking about your experience ahead of time, the more you are likely to get out of it.
Here are a few things to consider before you depart:
- What are your learning goals? What familiar things do you want to finetune? What new things do you want to learn?
- How are you going to study between classes?
- How are you going to organize everything you are learning?
- How are you going to keep it in your wheelhouse once you are home and you aren't practicing with a native speaker daily?
One sure sign that you need a learning method is that you keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Sure! Give yourself a break (Learning a language is hard!), but after while you've got to find a place to store all that new information you are learning.
I can't recommend Gabriel Wyner's book Fluency Forever enough. It's completely altered the way I study! The method of creating electronic flashcards is incredibly time consuming, but the theory behind it makes sense and the payoff bloody brilliant!