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Language Study Abroad: The Benefits of Waiting

For Real Immersion, Try Spanish Language Learning in Mexico After You Graduate

A church in Oaxaca, Mexico, the town where the author studied Spanish.
A church in Oaxaca, Mexico, the town where the author studied Spanish after graduation.

It was a semester abroad that convinced me to wait. I went to London in a group organized by my college. I was in a horde of American students taught by American professors in classes limited to Americans. Cultural immersion was ample — we attended West End productions, traveled to sites like Stonehenge and Oxford, and visited many of the city’s magnificent museums — but it was all done together. My fellow travelers were a good-natured, fun-loving bunch, some of whom remain good friends, but I saw far too much of them.

Of course, not every study abroad experience is equally hermetic, yet most university-organized programs have similar faults. Talking to friends, I found that many language programs in which immersion is particularly essential are no exception. One friend told me that she spent her study abroad year in Barcelona speaking Spanish for a few hours in class but chatting in English the rest of the day with her American roommate; another, traveling with her fellow students during an immersion program in France, found that they preferred to revert to English than practice their French. Consequently, instead of spending a semester abroad studying Spanish, I decided to put off my second trip abroad until after I graduated.

The Advantages of Independent Study Abroad

While lonely at times, traveling solo has been just what I hoped for. Unlike a university program, there is no group of students of similar ages and backgrounds — speaking the same native language — to fall back upon. Instead, I have been forced to seek out new connections. For example, while my command of the Spanish language was still too hesitant for natives, I befriended a slightly older Italian student with whom I shared only one common language: Spanish. Later, I found that traveling alone allows for impromptu conversations with everyone, from pastry vendors to fellow bus passengers. On the other hand, a group, even a group of two, usually forestalls any such conversations.

The benefits of postponing a trip abroad until after I’d donned my cap and gown went far beyond avoiding the pull of the familiar. For one, I could start at a far lower level than many university programs. Despite years of Spanish classes, when I arrived in Mexico, I still felt somewhat tentative about my ability to learn the language. Instead of a hasty refresher course before heading to lecture halls carrying a hefty pile of readings, I was able to find my footing in my new tongue before really challenging myself. Moreover, as I would not receive any grades for my work, I was relieved of the usual stress of school. All this combined to smooth over what otherwise might have been a very intimidating experience. The desire to improve my Spanish has provided enough incentive to study.

Similarly, I can choose a well-rounded schedule instead of a strictly academic one. For example, during my time in Oaxaca, I spent my mornings learning Spanish grammar. Yet, I also took Salsa classes each afternoon and volunteered in the evenings at a local children’s home. As you can imagine, each activity exposed me to different accents, vocabularies, and paces of speech. My professors, the children I tutored, and my dancing partners spoke the same language, but each taught me quite different lessons.

As I have already graduated, there is no need to find an accredited school whose credits would fulfill a university’s requirements. My options have now been widened to include many competent but non-university language schools. Most of these schools are cheaper, the paperwork is always minimal, and the instruction schedules are generally much more flexible. Such independence also allowed me to choose where to study rather than being limited to a predetermined list. Thus, I have been able to see many different aspects of Mexico. I started my travels in the preserved colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, in the largely conservative central highlands before moving on to Oaxaca, one of the central nodes of the country’s more liberal and racially heterogeneous south. Though opinions vary from Des Moines, Iowa, to San Francisco, California, each contributed differently to my understanding of Mexico. I expect my next stop, San Cristobal de Las Casas, the capital of Chiapas, to also broaden my perspective and expand my learning.

Finally, such independent study has offered incredible flexibility. I can take a week off if a family member or friend wants to visit. If I feel that a program isn’t a good fit or I should I wish to see a different part of the country, I can move on. (By the same token, if I like a program, I can extend my stay, as I did in Oaxaca). If I decide after six months to stay longer, I can keep traveling — as long as my money lasts. I don’t have to return to classes. It’s all up to me.

What to Do Before Your Departure

  • Research: Learn as much about your destination’s contemporary and long-term history before you arrive. In Mexico, for example, streets are commonly named after important dates and figures spanning the thousands of years between the Aztec empire’s zenith and the republic’s independence. Likewise, resentment still smolders in some corners of Mexico over the contested 2006 election. A little bit of familiarity can deepen your understanding of your environment, not to mention open many conversations. Wikipedia is a good starting place for research. The BBC or the Economist offers historical summaries, country profiles, and overviews of contemporary events.

  • Don’t freak out! Reading travel warnings online, in your guidebook, and on the State Department website should be part of your preparation, but don’t let them scare you. In my case, I searched frantically for a recommended bottle of DEET-infused bug spray before I left for Mexico; months later, I have yet to use it. A few choice medical supplies are essential, but you don’t need the whole cabinet — and what you overlook will likely be available at local pharmacies. The same advice applies to safety abroad: Common sense and a bit of skepticism will keep you out of most scrapes.

What to Look For in a Language Program

  • Off the beaten track: Language programs abound in tourist destinations like Cancún, Cuernavaca, and Acapulco, but you’ll learn a lot more, not to mention that you will save more money in lesser-known locales. Do your research: San Miguel de Allende, though I knew it had an expat community, turned out to be such a popular North American retirement option that one local activist group had created a tongue-in-cheek bumper sticker reading, in Spanish, “In San Miguel de Allende, we speak Spanish.”

  • Conversation exchanges: Usually arranged with a local language student of a similar age, they typically consist of an hour of conversation between the two native languages. Beyond an opportunity to practice, exchanges offer a chance to learn how the country’s language is spoken outside the classroom. Choosing this option also allows you to immerse yourself more deeply in the local community. Aside from sharing honest opinions, conversation exchanges have resulted in invitations to weekend breakfasts and graduation parties.

  • A private room: Pay extra if you must, but be sure to get your own room. Contact with an English speaker can be comforting, but the stricter your immersion, the faster the results. Ideally, request a homestay that hosts only one student at a time.

What to Do Once You Are There

  • Eat with your homestay family: While trying the local cafes and restaurants can be tempting, eating with your family offers invaluable conversation practice. Most homestay families have been doing it for years, so they’ll practice adjusting their Spanish to a slower pace.

  • Buy a shortwave radio: Purchasing a shortwave radio remains an excellent way to stay immersed. You’ll probably spend 30 minutes getting to and from school daily. What you hear can tell you which songs are popular locally and keep you posted on local news.

  • Watch TV: It’s perhaps the only time it’s good for you.

  • Get out of the classroom: Get involved in an activity outside your school. Sports teams, volunteering, or art classes all introduce you to a variety of people and different accents and vocabularies than you will come across in class, not to mention teaching you more directly about the culture.

  • Get lots of sleep: Immersion is mentally and physically exhausting. You’ll probably need more hours every night and, in hotter climates, perhaps an afternoon nap. You’ll feel better and retain more from your classes.

  • Take breaks! Don’t feel bad if you need an occasional break. Read a book in your native language, listen to your favorite music, and take a week off as a tourist. An overwhelmed student learns little.

Language Schools in Mexico

(Some programs I attended, others were recommended to me. Details are accurate at the time of submission, but check for the latest prices and programs.)

San Miguel De Allende

  • Academia Hispano Americana: Class options range from a semi-intensive three hour a day program, a full-intensive program of nearly eight hours a day, or a five hour a day private instruction program. Homestays are available, private and shared, each with three daily meals. Extras include a beautiful central courtyard and garden in which to spend your breaks, wireless internet and, when there is enough demand, cooking classes.


  • Becari Language School. 15-30 weekly hours of instruction, including workshops in topics like cooking or ceramics. Accommodation can be arranged in a homestay, hotel or apartment by request.
  • Instituto Cultural Oaxaca. A language school that has been teaching Spanish as a second language since 1984. Language classes with native speakers are conducted entirely in Spanish to motivate the students to develop their language abilities and create proficiency in communication. In addition to Spanish language classes, students can participate in cultural workshops and cultural activities.
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