Spanish immersion has been at the forefront of my mind lately, more often than usual (and not just because I’m writing this article!). My five year old niece just started at a dual Spanish immersion school here in Minneapolis this fall, and on her school’s letterhead is ‘building global citizens’ (a term I wasn’t familiar with until recent years).
Her global citizenship starts before she even sets foot outside the United States, and she’ll be ready to take on our global world. How fortunate is she to start her bilingual journey at such a young age!? While mine started at a mere 17, I can only imagine where my language skills would be if I had ten more years to my Spanish fluency.
While we aren't all fortunate enough to have a bilingual primary school at our disposal, it doesn’t mean there aren’t options! It’s never too late to learn a foreign language (especially Spanish), and there’s no better way to do it than immersed in an environment that forces you to speak it, whether in Spain or in South America.
From the depths of the Go Overseas website, I’ve rounded up the best Spanish immersion programs based off of three categories: Off the Beaten Path (my personal favorite), Big City Dreamin’, and La Vida Tropical. Crank up the salsa music, grab a glass of ice cold horchata, and check ‘em all out below!
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
Despite the initial frustrations and lack of language skill breakdowns, *the* absolute best places to learn a language and a culture are those that aren’t riddled with tourists and filled with English speakers. Why, you ask? Why would I put myself in a position where I can only communicate through hand motions at first?
I’ll tell you what… the best experiences and strongest life lessons I’ve learned are from when I lived places where I’ve been one of the only English speakers for miles around. You’re forced to think in another language, think as the locals do, and truly grasp what it means to be someone that lives in that particular area. Plus, you’ll get more bragging rights and you’ll walk away with knowledge that not many have… which is impressive for your educational, professional, and personal portfolio!
1. Na’atik Institute of Languages and Cultures in Felipe Carrillo Puerto in Quintana Roo, Mexico
Na’atik is top on this list because of three main reasons: 1) you get one-on-one Spanish instruction, 2) you learn about Mexican and Mayan culture, and 3) it’s highly affordable.
Their mission is to create bridges amongst English, Mayan, and Spanish speaking students to better understand one another, all while preserving the local culture. On top of that, they offer Cultural Workshops in conjunction with local nonprofits so you can take your new language skills for a test drive while taking in the local art, dance, culinary arts, visiting a local butterfly farm, or assisting with environmental research.
2. Màximo Nivel Centro Intercultural in La Antigua, Guatemala
Meaning Highest Level in Spanish, Màximo Nivel boasts on providing the best language and culture instruction in all of Latin America. This intercultural center hires only the best teachers with BA and MA degrees in education while maintaining international accreditation by the Ministries of Education in both Peru and Guatemala.
La Antigua ranks high out of their three programs (others in Costa Rica and Peru) because of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status, well protected Mayan ruins, and the conveniences of a large city without high crime. Màximo Nivel also has a number of university partnerships, so your classes can count toward your degree!
3. Jakera in Mérida, Venezuela
Mérida, Venezuela makes this list because, more often than not, most people don’t include Venezuela on their radar when it comes to Spanish immersion courses or to travel. However, they’re missing out on this bustling university city while surrounded by indigenous cultures.
Jakera sets itself apart with its traveling classroom where adventure tourism, Spanish immersion, and volunteering in the community coexist in one happy marriage. During the same week, you’ll get to advance your Spanish skills, hike, trek, snorkel, and climb, and learn to merengue and salsa. Your days start with four hour Spanish immersion classes focusing on listening, reading, speaking, and writing, and then applying what you learned in adventure sports contexts. Perfect for the thrill seeking wannabe Spanish speaker!
BIG CITY DREAMIN’
While I just promoted the value of learning in a smaller, road-less-traveled path for Spanish immersion, not all of us are created equal. Some of the best language instruction can be found in the big city. Learning to navigate a large arena, making your way around, immersing yourself in the hustle and bustle is just as rewarding as a smaller town immersion…if you can keep up!
1. CEA Global in Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona is one of the top destination spots for students to master Spanish (and Catalán, the regional language!). And, who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by Gaudí’s creations (Park Güell, Sagrada Familia, Casa Milà, to name a few) and fantastic depictions of Spanish culture?
Barcelona is an immense playground on learn-by-doing with endless amounts of opportunities to find what trips your trigger outside of the classroom to apply your newly minted Spanish skills. CEA Global is a well established organization with a long history of supporting students on their Spanish fluency journey. One of their top program attractions is living like a local to fully absorb the Spanish flair…olé!
2. Expanish in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Right in the heart of Bs As, Expanish provides the entire immersion package: excellent teachers, small class sizes, and sound academic methodology to excel your Spanish acquisition. When you’re not in their classroom between three of the best neighborhoods, take advantage of their tango classes, excursions to Igaz ú Falls, volunteer opportunities, and pick-up soccer games. Come visit Expanish to learn why they were awarded best Spanish School in 2012 from Study Travel Magazine!
3. AIFS Study Abroad in Costa Rica
Study at Veritas University in San Jose, where you can live the city life and still be within reach of two different coasts. Your homestay is guaranteed to be within walking distance of the campus and AIFS offers weekly activities and social events, plus opportunities to volunteer - you really can't get much more immersion than this! San Jose boasts a relaxed attitude -- it's perfect for someone looking for a more comfortable environment to build up their Spanish speaking skills in Latin America.
LA VIDA TROPICAL
One of the obvious benefits of studying Spanish is the wide variety of locales to choose from (um, hello! Twenty-one countries list Spanish as their official language!) for your Spanish immersion program. Some of us prefer the not-so-common experience, some can’t live without the conveniences of a big city, and some just want to be able to sleep next to the ocean in a hammock. Luckily, there are many destinations and top-notch programs to make those gorgeous sunset viewing dreams come true!
1. Sol Education Abroad in Heredia, Costa Rica
Thrill seekers wanting to bask in the Central American sunshine look no further than Sol Education Abroad’s immersion program in Heredia, Costa Rica! The rich coast certainly lives up to its name with its vivid, vibrant tropical coastlines and dream-like cloud forests. Sol prides itself on delivering high quality, affordable educational experiences for its students in Costa Rica, Spain, Mexico, and Argentina. The Universidad Latina in Heredia provides top notch academics while organizing rich cultural excursions, such as museum visits, coffee farm tours, cooking classes, and city tours to ensure you understand life as a tico (native Costa Rican)!
2. IES Abroad in the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Last but not least…the IES’ immersion program in the Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador is certainly not like the others! Not just for the biology, biodiversity, chemistry, ecology, and environmental studies…liberal arts and Spanish fluency seekers alike can take advantage of this one-of-a-kind program 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The local home stays help cement in the Spanish you learn while boat cruises and coastal region tours keep you up-to-date on the relationship between the traditional indigenous cultures, modern day society, and the environment.
3. ISA in Santiago, Dominican Republic
Big city dreamers and coastal dwellers unite! Santiago is the second largest city in the DR and is the perfect mix for folks that want the best of both worlds in a tropical locale. One of the oldest cities in the New World, Santiago includes views of the Septentrional Mountains and is a short drive to dip your toes in the Atlantic. ISA’s immersion program at the Pontifical Catholic University has been created to specifically give you the best experience possible -- one that isn’t available to a regular ol’ tourist! Homestays are coordinated near the university, cultural excursions are like none other (I mean, who gets to visit 27 waterfalls in one day!?), and staff support through each step of the process, from application to in-country assistance.
4. Habla Ya Spanish School in Bocas del Toro, Panama
If you're looking for an authentic Spanish immersion adventure, you've come to the right place. With schools located in the heart of some of Panama's finest destinations, places like the Caribbean Sea, the cloud rainforest, or bustling cosmopolitan cities are never out of reach. Habla Ya's convenient modern campuses aren't even the best part of the deal -- you'll get staff support on every step of the way, a wide variety of accommodation options (think anything from homestays to bed and breakfasts), and endless opportunities for eco-adventure and even volunteering.
What Are You Waiting For?
Take this list and run with it! Where is the best place for you? Somewhere in which no one else has gone? A big city with bright lights and tall buildings? Or a relaxed lifestyle with unlimited sunshine? Only you know what’s best for you, but we hope this review has been helpful as you ponder which Spanish immersion program meets your style and goals!
Were you over-the-moon with your Spanish immersion program and it’s not in this list? Write and comment below; we’d love to hear about it!Photo Credits: mauro_ventura, Luis Roberto Lainez, J.Salmoral, and photon_de.