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Study Abroad: The Benefits of Waiting

For Real Immersion, Put Off That Trip Until After You Graduate

Church in Oaxaca, Mexico
A church in Oaxaca, Mexico.

It was a semester abroad that convinced me to wait. In fall 2003, I went to London in a group organized by my college. I was one 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 the truth is I saw far too much of them.

Not every study abroad experience is equally hermetic, yet the vast majority of 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. Thus, instead of doing a semester abroad to study 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 on, 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 was able to start at a far lower level than many university programs. Despite years of Spanish classes, when I arrived in Mexico I still felt rather tentative about my facility with the language. Instead of a hasty refresher course before heading to lecture halls toting 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 normal stress of school. All this combined to smooth over what otherwise might have been a very intimidating experience. And the desire to improve my Spanish has provided more than enough incentive enough to study.

Similarly, I have the freedom to opt for a well-rounded schedule in place of a strictly academic one. During my time in Oaxaca, for example, I spent my mornings learning Spanish grammar, but I also took Salsa classes each afternoon and volunteered in the evenings at a local children’s home. As you can imagine, each of these activities exposed me to different accents, vocabularies, and paces of speech. My professors, the children I tutored, and my dancing partners all spoke 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 the large number of competent, but non-university language schools. Most of these schools are cheaper, the paperwork always minimal, and the instruction schedules are generally much more flexible. Such independence also allowed me to choose where I wanted 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, located the largely conservative central highlands, before moving on to the city of Oaxaca, one of the main nodes of the country’s more liberal and racially heterogeneous south. Just as 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 do the same.

Finally, such independent study has offered incredible flexibility. If a family member or friend wants to visit, I can take a week off. 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 particularly like a program, I can extend my stay, as I did in Oaxaca). If I decide after six months that I want 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 You Leave
  • Research: Learn as much about your destination’s history—contemporary and long-term—before you arrive. In Mexico, for example, streets are commonly named after important dates and figures hailing from the thousands of years between the Aztec empire’s zenith until 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 a conversation. Wikipedia is a good starting place, the BBC or the Economist offer historical summaries, country profiles, 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 important, but you don’t need the whole cabinet—and what you overlook will more than 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 save more money, in lesser known locales. Do your research: San Miguel de Allende, though I knew it had an ex-pat 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 similar age, they typically consist of an hour of conversation split between the two native languages. Beyond an opportunity to practice, exchanges offer a chance to learn how the country’s language is spoken outside of the classroom. Choosing this option also offers a chance to immerse yourself more deeply in the local community—aside from dealing out unvarnished 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: Trying the local cafes and restaurants can be tempting, but eating with your family offers invaluable conversation practice. Most homestay families have been doing it for years, so they’ll be practiced at adjusting their Spanish to a slower pace.
  • Buy a shortwave radio: Trading your iPod for a shortwave radio may require some willpower, but it’s another great way to stay immersed. Chances are you’ll be spending 30 minutes or more getting to and from your school every day. What you hear can clue you in to which songs are popular locally and also 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 of 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 find you’ll 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, take a week off to be a tourist. An overwhelmed student learns little.

Language Schools in Mexico

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

San Miguel De Allende, Guanajuato

  • 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. Prices start, respectively, at $120 a week, $190 a week, and $400 a week, with discounts available. Homestays cost $18 a day for a shared room, $23 a day for a private, 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, $10 cooking classes.
  • Habla Hispana Spanish School: Standard classes start at $120 a week and include 20 hours of group classes, 6 hours of Mexican song classes, walking tours of the city and required books. Slight discounts apply for committing to multiple weeks. Private lessons are $12 an hour, or two students for $8 each. Homestays are $18 per day for a shared room, $22 for a private room, each with three daily meals. Accommodation in a hotel or apartment can also be arranged.

Oaxaca, Oaxaca

  • Facultad de Idiomas de la Universidad Autónoma “Benito Juárez” de Oaxaca: All classes are paid for on an hourly basis, which starts at $XX for X hours or less, and decreases to $5 for more than 80 hours. Four hours of classes are offered daily, but you can spread your hours out if you prefer. Homestays can be arranged. Extras include a computer lab, a very active conversation exchange system and the many benefits of a Mexican university ID card.
  • Becari Language School. Fees range from $150 a week for 15 weekly hours of instruction to $320 a week for 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, with prices, respectively, $25-40 per night, $40 per night ,and $400-$700 per month for a 1-bedroom apartment.
Related Topics
Language Learning in Mexico
Living Abroad in Mexico: The Best Expatriate Resources
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