Choosing a Quality Language Program

Opportunities for overseas and exchange programs abound, but to find quality instruction, you'll have to review those applications and brochures carefully. Sometimes even knowing what to look for and knowing the right questions to ask can be a challenge.

Some sound advice from language teachers as well as former exchange students can help. Here's what they suggest:

1. Study the beginning level of your target language in a program at home.

In countries that are still developing, programs may be unable to supply materials and teachers that match the quality of similar programs in the US or UK. Students who had their early language training or all of their language training in an overseas program are sometimes surprised to discover that their skills don't match up to those of students in domestic programs.

And don't forget about culture shock. A student struggling through the different phases of culture shock may find grappling with a completely unfamiliar language quite overwhelming.

However, students at an intermediate level will progress fastest overseas, according to Dr. Cornelius Kubler, Stanfield Professor of Asian Studies in the Department of Asian Studies at Williams College. "And by being there, this will serve as a great boost to their morale."

2. Look for a program that offers small classes.

Although there is no "magic number" for the ideal size of a practice class, the most successful language learning occurs in small groups. Dr. Dayle Barnes, Coordinator of the Chinese Language Program at the University of Pittsburgh, says "Whatever the exact number of students in the practice environment, it needs to be low so that all of the people in the class have an opportunity to interact." He limits his own oral practice classes to seven students. Dr. Kubler suggests one hour of tutorial a day plus three to five additional hours in small groups of three to eight students as an ideal arrangement.

3. Look for a program with teachers who have appropriate training in teaching the language to non-native speakers.

While in Taiwan, Dan Joseph contracted with a teacher for one-on-one tutoring (expensive but "more focused and a better use of your time" according to Joseph). Yet he decided to find a new teacher after a few months. He cited poor lesson structure, no lesson book, and lack of teacher discipline-including not enough verbal corrections and no follow up on homework-as his reasons for switching.

"What I failed to do was to do much investigating in terms of the quality of the teacher. In the beginning I had two hours a lesson for four or five months, and I eventually came to the conclusion that my teacher was not all that solid," Joseph says.

If you've committed yourself to a long-term program, once the program starts, you will not be able to switch teachers as Joseph did. So you need to know beforehand: What kind of training do the teachers have? Do they know what can be corrected and what should be corrected at your level of language competency? Do they make those corrections frequently and consistently?

4. Realize that not all extracurricular "cultural" activities are conducive to language learning.

"Combating with sweaty crowds of people to get a view of dragon boat races won't give anyone a deeper appreciation of Chinese culture. Visiting Chinese families and speaking with Chinese friends, however, will have a tremendously positive experience," says Brad Lint. He studied Mandarin Chinese at a program in the US and then attended language programs at two universities in Taiwan. Lint has lived in Taipei for more than a decade now.

Not only are certain field trips unlikely to give you a truly deep appreciation of your host culture, they are not all that useful for improving your language skills. Dr. Kubler encourages students to engage in cultural activities on their own time, such as the weekends or during a week or two set aside for travel after their language training ends.

Some programs offer extracurricular activities that do benefit language learning. Living with a local family, interviewing people for a class project, and projects that promote community involvement will facilitate your study of the local language. If you're interested in a program that offers things to do outside the classroom, look for these kinds of activities.

5. Get in touch with people who know.

You've read the books, the articles, and the magazines about overseas programs. After you've narrowed down your choices to three or four quality programs, start asking questions. Contact the study abroad office or the appropriate language department at your university. They should be able to answer some of your questions and may be able to help you secure financial aid. Most importantly, talk to students who have already attended the programs that interest you. They can tell you things that the books, articles, and even other university contacts cannot.

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