Language Schools

How to Pick a Great Spanish Language Course Abroad

Caitlin McCollum-Martinez
Topic Expert

Caitlin is a travel writer and polyglot from sunny Southern California. She has traveled to over 15 countries, lived in Spain and the Czech Republic, and is currently residing in Scotland.

How to Pick a Spanish Language Course Abroad - Photo by Kate K., CIEE Spain

Choosing a Spanish language course can be extremely difficult. When I first set out to find the right program for me I was overwhelmed by the seemingly endless options that are out there. How long to go? What city? What program? Thankfully I had some idea about where in the world I wanted to go and that helped to narrow my search, but there were still hundreds of options.

After some frantic researching, I ended up at a month-long summer program in Granada, Spain. In between daily siestas and tapas outings, I attended my intensive course four hours a day, five days a week. I was able to absorb tons of new information about the language and then immediately be able to use it outside of the class.

There really is no better alternative than learning Spanish abroad in a Spanish-speaking country and completely immersing yourself in the culture and language.

Related: What to Know Before Learning Spanish Abroad

The Different Types of Spanish Language Courses

Different Types of Spanish Language Courses - Photo by Robert T., Maximo Nivel Peru Alum
Photo credit: Robert T., Maximo Nivel Peru Alum

Intensive Courses

Usually offered as a shorter length course, intensive Spanish language programs are best for dedicated learners. You’ll likely spend several hours each day in the classroom with additional studying to do at home.

However, while abroad in a Spanish-speaking country everything you do, like getting groceries or ordering drinks, is helping you obtain a higher proficiency in the language and study for your course.

University Courses

Many programs are affiliated with universities abroad and will place you in classrooms with other students learning Spanish. These programs can vary in length, from a couple weeks to a full academic year. Language courses can usually be taken in addition to regular university course offerings and special regional topics.

You may want to consider looking into direct enrollment in a foreign university, as it can sometimes cut down on the cost, however, this can be a bit more complicated than attending a Spanish course through a program provider. University courses are typically more likely to have transferable college credit than some less formal programs.

Business Spanish Courses

If your goal is to better your Spanish language skills to enhance your résumé or conduct business in Latin America's up-and-coming markets, there are plenty of courses tailored for you. Business Spanish could be considered its own dialect and uses much different vocabulary than the conversational level.

While a general Spanish course will definitely help you to understand the language, business Spanish can be more focused on your professional goals.

Cultural Immersion

Most Spanish language programs include a component related to cultural immersion. While traditional courses can be a beneficial foundation, language is far more than just vocabulary lists and conjugation charts. Understanding the local culture, its norms, traditions, and different mannerisms enhance the language learning experience.

Cultural immersion puts your language skills into practice and into a real-world context, creating deeper connections with the language, resulting in greater retention and comprehension. If your course does not include cultural immersion activities, be sure to seek them out yourself, be it a salsa class, food tour, or a language exchange group.

“Cultural immersion puts your language skills into practice and into a real-world context, creating deeper connections with the language, resulting in greater retention and comprehension.”

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Average Length & Cost

Language courses vary greatly in length and therefore also in cost. Courses and programs can last a semester, summer, month-long, or even an academic year. Shorter, more intensive programs can be cheaper if the country or city has a high cost of living simply because you will spend less time in the country.

The biggest factor in cost depends mainly on what country you end up choosing to study in. Spain is almost always a pricier option, especially compared to Latin American countries. Mexico, other Central American countries, and the Caribbean can be cheaper if you live in the U.S. because they are relatively close in distance. However, even in Latin American countries, big cities can be just as expensive as those in the states.

Included excursions, cultural immersion, and different housing types can affect the cost of a Spanish language course abroad. In some countries living in an apartment may more inexpensive than living with a host family, however, you then have to consider the value of that lost experience versus your savings.

Popular Locations for Learning Spanish Abroad

Popular Locations for Learning Spanish - Photo by Jessica H., Maximo Nivel Guatemala
Photo credit: Jessica H., Maximo Nivel Guatemala Alum

Spain

What better place to learn Spanish than the country of its origin? Spain is one of the most popular study abroad destinations and one of the most visited countries in the world. Perfect for the traditionalist who wants to better understand classic literature, like Don Quixote. Spain is home to many diverse, vibrant cultures and traditions, and most importantly -- delicious food.

Live among Roman ruins, experience flamenco and tapas first hand, and finally use that "vosotros” form your teachers kept insisting you would never need to use. The accent is distinctly recognizable throughout the Spanish-speaking world, and you may get a few playful jabs from your [email protected] friends about your newly acquired lisp after studying in Ethpaña.

Madrid is a sprawling metropolitan city, no different than those found throughout the rest of Europe. If you want to really immerse yourself in the local culture and within the Spanish language it is best to seek a language school in a smaller or more traditional city. Seville, while the capital of Andalucía, is not as cosmopolitan as Madrid or Barcelona – I mean, Barthelona -- it is very traditional city and few people speak English, making it a great place to learn Spanish, but with the comforts associated with a larger city.

Make the most out of your time in Spain and stay with a host family, you are guaranteed to pick up the language faster. Spaniards can be a little intimidating at first, but once they warm up to you, you’ll have friends for life!

Costa Rica

Not long after arriving you will understand why the motto of almost every Tico (Costa Rican) is “pura vida,” meaning pure life, the phrase embodies this unique country. Maybe it is all that fresh oxygen from the lush tropical rainforests, the thriving biodiversity, or the refreshing ocean breeze that makes life so pure in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica is popular among students because of the easier, more understandable dialect, which is quite a contrast from the often harsh accent found in the south of Spain. There are many different options for learning Spanish in Costa Rica, but the best ones include an element of cultural immersion and excursions. The country has a booming tourist industry and there are new adventures around every corner.

Due to its proximity to the U.S., it can be more inexpensive to fly to Costa Rica than other Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America or Europe. It's the perfect destination if you love the outdoors, but if you get tired of volcanic beaches and zip-lining you can always head to San Jose for a healthy dose of city-life.

Popular Locations for Learning Spanish - Photo by Fiona R., SIT Chile
Photo credit: Fiona R., SIT Chile Alum

Chile

Many people assume Chile is the longest country in the world (North to South), but it’s actually Brazil. Even though it doesn’t hold that prestigious title, Chile is still an amazing country, especially if you want to study Spanish. The Spanish in Chile is very similar to that of Spain’s Andalucía region, characterized by the distinctive lisping of ‘s’ and similar sounds. It may be difficult at first to understand the Chilean dialect, but once you get a hang of its fast pace, you can enjoy all the country has to offer.

Because of Chile's unique geography, you can find almost every type of environment. Spend some short time on a bus and you can be climbing the Andes mountains and soaking up the sun by the Pacific Ocean -- all in one day. If you visit the Atacama Salt Flats in Northern Chile it can feel as though you’re on another planet. The country also varies greatly from North to South, in culture and tradition.

It can get quite expensive if you live in the capital, Santiago, but there are many ways to cut costs and further immerse yourself in the local culture. After a refresher in your language course, you can shop the local street markets for delicious, nutritious, and inexpensive food, all while practicing your Spanish. Be sure to try some of the local delicacies, such as cazuela de caballo a traditional horse meat stew, that is, if you’re feeling adventurous.

Mexico

One of the biggest mistakes you can make while looking for a Spanish language school is to overlook Mexico. It is not quite as popular as the previously mentioned destinations, but it is an amazing country to immerse yourself in nonetheless. Mexico is much safer and more developed than is typically portrayed, with Mexico City as one of largest cities in the world, ranking close to New York City in terms of population.

Mexico has a distinct feeling of authenticity and it is hard not to fall in love with the many different colorful cultures that thrive throughout the country. Each of the 31 estados in Mexico has a unique cultural heritage and cuisine -- yes, there is much more out there than tacos. You can try traditional dishes like pozole and learn the art of chisme with your new friends or host family.

The Spanish spoken in Mexico is also described as very neutral and would not be too difficult for beginners to pick up, of course with proper studying. In addition to your language studies, you can learn the traditional folklórico dance and discover more about Mexico’s unique traditions. From Jalisco to Oaxaca, to the Yucatan peninsula, there are endless adventures to be had.

Things to Consider Before Choosing a Spanish Language Course Abroad

  • Spanish varies significantly between countries and even within countries. Some dialects can be much harder to understand for beginners. You may want to consider a country that speaks a more neutral dialect of Spanish (Mexico or Costa Rica), or more a more traditional dialect of Spanish (Central/Northern Spain). Some words have different meaning between countries; in Spain coger simply means to grab something or to pick something up, but in Latin America it has a much more vulgar meaning.
  • Cost differences between countries and between the types of programs. As mentioned earlier, if you’re concerned with cost, you may want to choose a lower-cost country or program to suit your language learning needs and budget.
  • Your goals should determine which program you choose. Different goals will need different types of programs or courses. If your goal is to better communicate in a professional environment, consider a business Spanish focused course. Some countries may be better suited to your personal goals and your current abilities.
  • You can experience language immersion in a variety of ways. Would a homestay benefit your learning goals or does the idea make you uncomfortable? Consider living in an apartment or residencia with local students instead. You should also consider incorporating cultural immersion activities in with your language course abroad, if your program does not already, to enhance your learning experience.
Choosing a Great Spanish Language Course - Photo by Ellie P., Maximo Nivel Peru
Photo credit: Ellie P., Maximo Nivel Peru Alum

Hopefully, this guide can ease some of the stress of choosing a Spanish language course abroad. There are hundreds of options, but looking at the different types of courses, components, and the different countries and cities, it can be easier to narrow down your list.

Keep in mind what it is you want to get out of a Spanish language course and don’t fret because there is a program for everyone. You’re already on your way to improving your Spanish by considering a course abroad, as it is the best way to fully understand and form a deeper connection with a language.