Immersion 101: Learning A Language Overseas

Immersion 101: Learning A Language Overseas

By Kent St. John
GoNOMAD Senior Travel Editor

There’s no better way to learn a language than to be completely immersed in it: eat, sleep and breathe it. In other words, you need to live in the country where the language is spoken, if even for only a few weeks.

Though I travel frequently to Latin America, my Spanish was in need of a quick jump-start. I could get by asking directions and other basic traveler needs, but I wanted to be able to carry on more in-depth conversations with my friends south of the border.

I didn’t have much time to devote to language learning, so I jumped on a plane and headed for a two-week Spanish language immersion course in Madrid.

Upon my arrival at the Estudio Internacionale Sampere, a language school that was first opened in 1956, I discovered that language immersion classes aren’t just the province of the curious alternative traveler anymore. In fact, the majority of my fellow classmates in Madrid were employees of major corporations, from German airline execs to Dutch engineers, along with fifty Swedish Government secretaries.

It made sense: learning another language might be great for travelers, who get more out of their journeys if they can speak to locals, but in the global economy, it’s imperative that business people learn how to talk to their clients and bosses around the world!

I spent the next two weeks brushing up my Spanish in morning classes, enjoying afternoon outings and weekend excursions and making friends with the people in the neighborhood in which my host family lived. By the time I left, I could not only carry on rather complex conversations with local shopkeepers, but also had a new appreciation for the intricacies of the global economy.

If you are planning an immersion language course this summer, you might want to check out the following helpful hints.


A language immersion program has many details that are best handled by a company that specializes in these unique courses. I chose to plan my trip with Language Studies Abroad, a 15-year old company that organizes immersion programs with local language schools worldwide.

Before you choose a language immersion school, here are a few things to research:

  • Check the range of opportunities in both countries and schools available by the company. Ask how long they have been in business and how they choose their schools. Do they make periodic visits to the locations? Are the schools certified and by whom?
  • Ask if they can provide recommendation letters or contacts of past participants.
  • Can they cater to individual needs such as vegetarian meals? Can you extend your stay beyond your class time?

For additional planning hints, see the GoNOMAD MINI GUIDE TO LANGUAGE LEARNING OVERSEASMoving In

One of the most gratifying aspects of your visit will be moving in with your host family. It can also be the one you will most worry about. In my class, 99% of my classmates loved their lodgings. The other 1% were immediately moved by the school to other locations. If you sense a possible situation, or great displeasure, immediately notify the school. They are very experienced in dealing with housing problems. Estudio International Sampere had a full time staff member that dealt strictly with student situations.

It helps to bring a small, culturally appropriate gift for your host family; it is not only courteous, but makes a great icebreaker. Bring a small flashlight for trips to the bathroom and returning home late at night. In many cases, meals are included, but if you are going to miss a meal, let your family know. In general, being a courteous guest will add greatly to your experience.

School Days

On my arrival at Sampere, I was given an entrance exam for class placement. This was not a pass or fail test; it was simply to determine my level of study. Because of frequent travel to Latin America, I could read Spanish much better that I speak it. As a result, when I discovered I was way above my head in my first class, the school promptly adjusted my level, offering a better learning experience. If you have any doubts about the level in which you are placed, let the school know.

Do the little assignments that are requested. Nothing slows down the class more than an unprepared student. On the other hand, if there is a point about which you are confused, make it known to your instructor. Chances are other students may also need some more work in the same area. The more give and take between instructor and student, the better an immersion course works.

Have a Good Time

The most important thing is to have a good time. Immersion classes are designed to give you daily living language skills. Use the afternoons to practice your new language doing what you like to do. Have lunch at a small café off the tourist path. Shop at stores using as much of the language as you can. Visit the museums and sites nearby.

Most schools offer optional trips and events. Take advantage of these and attend as many as possible, as they are designed to introduce you to local culture and give you a great opportunity to learn new vocabulary and practice speaking.

Most of all, become a local by patronizing the businesses near your lodgings. After the first three days, the bartender at the local wine bar began instructing me on the various Spanish wines while other patrons joined in. Your new neighbors and family will become a key ingredient to learning more than a language. You will learn a lifestyle. Isn’t that what immersion is all about?

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