How to Choose a Study Abroad Program to Learn Spanish in Spain
The structure of the program you choose will affect your experience on many dimensions, from the people you meet to how you spend your free time. Make sure to explore your options and understand the program that your signing up for in detail before making a final decision.
Programs vary in some obvious ways such as length, school size, and intensity. More subtle variations, such as what sort of students the school attracts and what posture the director takes on educating his or her students will also help to shape the course of your Spanish adventure. You can get a sense for how a school measures up with a quick phone call, but make sure that you know what to ask.
Finding Schools to Consider
There are many resources on the internet for identifying programs and schools in Spain for study abroad students. Before creating a list of schools, you should have a good idea of what sort of program you're looking for, including length of stay, intensity, size of the school, and what cities you want to live in.
A good place to start looking for schools is our approved schools directory. You can also find numerous programs by searching the web or looking for web advertisements.
Length of Stay and Intensity
You will feel better about your program if you actually learn Spanish while you're there, so make sure you understand how much you will learn given the length and intensity of your school. Even short courses of a week or two will help you improve your Spanish, especially if you've taken some Spanish already but never had the opportunity to immerse yourself in the language.
As a rule of thumb, someone who has taken a few years of high-school or college Spanish (or another Romance language such as French or Italian) will increase fluency and comfort after just a couple of weeks in Spain. The ability to have entertaining conversations should come within the first month and a half or so, and real fluency after three to six months. If you're starting from scratch, you may need another month or two to get up to speed. These estimates assume that you're actually working on your Spanish everyday, which means attending at least three hours of classes, watching a bit of Spanish TV, and spending at least a few hours trying to communicate with someone in Spanish.
Tailor the length of your stay to your language goals. If your goal is to jump from only being able to carry out Spanish exercises in an American textbook to real language fluency, make sure that you give yourself several months in Spain and structure your program to force yourself to speak, read, and listen to Spanish as much as possible. On the other hand, don't underestimate the value of spending just a few weeks in Spain. You won't be fluent by the end, but you'll have a life-enriching experience, internalize some basic Spanish that you will undoubtedly use later in life, and get a huge leg up on people who try to learn Spanish from textbooks or tapes.
You don't need to attend class for eight hours a day to improve, but make sure that you have at least three or four hours of quality class time. You will get bored occasionally, but you'll appreciate the benefit of this extended learning period in the end.
Your Fellow Students
The quality of your experience will depend vitally on your fellow students being interesting, adventurous and fun. You won't have nearly as exciting a time if you're the only student in the school or everyone is much older than you are. After all, your school is your community when you get to Spain, and you want to make sure you're in an environment where you can thrive.
If you're a high school or college student, find a program that specifically caters to students. If you're out of school but still looking for a singles or party scene, choose a school in a vacation destination (perhaps on the southern coast) and you won't be disappointed.
Try to find a school that advertises and caters to Europeans as well as Americans. A student body that is comprised mostly of Europeans with a few scattered Americans is ideal. You will meet people from a variety of cultures, be forced to use a bit of Spanish to communicate with people who don't speak English (although most of them will speak more English than Spanish), and have a great time sharing your unique perspective with a bunch of Europeans who will be shocked that an American is trying to learn a foreign language. You're guaranteed a good time.
Access to Local Spaniards
Your access to Spaniards will be the hardest part of your experience to predict ahead of time by calling the school. Most every school will claim to put you in touch with people from the community, but they don't always deliver. For instance, schools might introduce you to Spanish students trying to learn English, which probably won't help your Spanish at all.
Typically, the best avenues to meeting locals through the school are teachers and host families. Choosing to live with a Spanish family in a homestay is a sure way to interact with plenty of Spaniards. If you don't want to live with a family, you may find that the teachers are willing to introduce you to their acquaintances or take you out on the town. One teacher I had was dating a bar promoter who expertly guided my whole class through the nightlife of Cádiz.
No study-abroad trip is complete without some unstructured travel time at the end. If you have a limited window of time to travel to Spain, consider scheduling your study-abroad program to fill only part of that time, leaving yourself a week or so afterward to explore. For more tips on how to spend that unstructured time, read our thoughts on traveling after your program.