On a traditional vacation you are likely to catch the major tourist spots, sleep in American-style hotels and eat familiar food, all the while missing the soul of a place and the heart of its people. A learning vacation in a language-immersion program is a good alternative.
These programs are also relatively economical. Consider the Simon Bolivar School in Quito, Ecuador, which offers a 20-hour group class (four students maximum) for $80 a week and homestays for $98 to $112 per week, including three meals a day and laundry service. Also included: airport pickup, cultural events, dance and cooking classes and Internet access.
Or for the same $200 or so a week, you might prefer similar amenities and seven hours a day of one-on-one instruction at Proyecto Francisco Marroqumn in Antigua, Guatemala.
These are exceptional values, but even European schools offer experiences and prices you cannot match as a hotel-sleeping, restaurant-dining tourist.
That is not to say that homestays are right for everybody. While practicing your language skills, you will develop friendships and learn about the local culture firsthand, but you may also sacrifice some privacy by sharing a bathroom with family members, and you may suffer culture shock because of the absence of conveniences you take for granted.
Typically, each local school manages its own homestay program, inspecting the host homes, following up with students to evaluate their hosts, even conducting seminars for participating families. If you are not happy with your host family, the school will move you to another home or make arrangements for a hotel stay.
Or students can forego the homestay altogether and have the school set them up in a hotel or an apartment from the start.
Most schools organize cultural programs and short trips at little or no extra cost. Specially designed courses are available for professionals in business, medicine, social work and the travel industry, as well as for children, teenagers, college students and adults.
Although academic credit is an option, immersion programs are more flexible than traditional university study. Classes begin almost every Monday, and you can study for as long as you want; a minimum of two weeks is recommended. Schools offer classes for even the beginner but suggest that having at least a minimal knowledge of the structure of the language is helpful in adapting to life with a host family.
Women, usually traveling alone, make up about 60 percent of participants, but many schools offer programs and housing for couples and families as well. The company Language Link reports that its oldest client was 89, its youngest 3.
The adventurous can sign up with a language school directly. School Web sites usually offer photos to show the ambience of the city and classrooms, and provide details about programs, pricing and e-mail addresses of former students.
Other students may prefer working with a language-school broker _ companies that monitor the schools and can offer services such as toll-free help numbers, medical and/or travel insurance, help with airline tickets, and credit card processing for those who do not want to fool with transferring money to a foreign bank, let alone converting to euros or pesos.
The most important service of a broker, however, is matching your individual needs and interests to the programs of appropriate schools. Brokers receive a commission of 10 to 15 percent from the local school and usually charge an additional fee of about $85 to $150 for their services.
Below is a sample of several language-school brokers and individual schools, as well as other references:
Brokers offering several languages
4 Burnham Parkway
Morristown, NJ 07960
(800) 284-4448 or (973) 898-1416
e-mail to learnlanguageliaison.com
Offers 12 languages in more than 30 countries; also vacation packages that include a bit of language learning. Fee: $150
Language Studies Abroad Inc.
103 Londonberry Court
Reno, NV 89511-2718
(800) 424-5522 or (775) 849-9206
e-mail to infolanguagestudiesabroad.com
Offers nine languages in 19 countries; Web site has good country and city details, along with links to more information. Fee: $100.
Lingua Service Worldwide Ltd.
75 Prospect St., Suite 4
Huntington, NY 11743
(800) 394-5327 or (631) 424-0777
e-mail to itctravelworldnet.att.net
Offers nine languages in 18 countries for students, seniors, children, flight attendants and other professionals. Fee: $100.
National Registration Center for Study Abroad
PO Box 1393
Milwaukee WI 53201
e-mail to infonrcsa.com
Offers 19 languages in 38 countries. Thorough Web site with information for students, from children to professionals. Fee: $140.
Brokers and Spanish-only schools:
P.O. Box 40007
Philadelphia, PA 19106-0007
(800) 879-6640 or (215) 751-1100
e-mail to infoamerispan.com
Offers 40 schools in 15 countries, as well as opportunities to volunteer or travel in Spanish-speaking areas. Web site has a selector that ranks which schools are best for you according to several criteria. Fee: $100.
PO Box 3006
Peoria, IL 61612
(800) 552-2051 or (309) 692-2961
e-mail to infolanglink.com
Offers 10 schools in six countries. Web site has e-mail addresses of former students. Fee: None.
Spanish Abroad Inc.
6520 N 41st St,
Paradise Valley, AZ 85253
(888) 722-7623 or (602) 778-6791
e-mail to infospanishabroad.com
Offers 38 schools in 11 countries. Web site has a "rate your Spanish" feature and good country and city information. Fee: $85.
Instituto de Cultura y Lengua Costarricense
PO Box 609-4050
Alajuela, Costa Rica
(011) (506) 458-3157
e-mail to infoinstitutodecultura.com
Program includes daily organized activities such as trips and classes in dance and cooking.
ILISA (in San Jose, Costa Rica)
PO Box 25216
Miami, FL 33102-5216
e-mail to feedbackilisa.com
Fantastic Web site, including instructions on filling out immigration forms and photos of the drivers who will pick you up at the airport. Includes helpful suggestions on how to pick a school as well as e-mail addresses and phone numbers of former students.
Institute of International Education
809 United Nations Plaza
New York, NY 10017-3580
An exhaustive list by country leads to the Web sites of individual language schools.
PO Box 1300
Amherst, MA 01004-1300
e-mail to businessTransitionsAbroad.com
This bimonthly guide offers practical information on affordable alternatives to mass tourism: living, working, studying or vacationing alongside the people of the host country.