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Language School Vacations

After lessons each day, have fun immersing yourself in the culture as you explore the sights and try out your new skills.

MAYBE YOU’VE ALWAYS WANTED to read Kafka in his native tongue. Or perhaps you harbor dreams of polishing your three years of high school Spanish to the point where you could truly plumb Mexican culture—or impress the woman at your local bodega by ordering sandwichesen su idioma.While tapes and courses at your local community college can provide a foothold for improving foreign language ability, at-home options cannot substitute for living in a foreign country and being taught by native speakers. Given that the junior-year-abroad window has closed, what are your options? Many are finding that combining a vacation with classes in Costa Rica or France, rather than catching rays oceanside, is the best chance to make good on linguistic aspirations.

As it turns out, choosing to study abroad doesn’t necessarily mean foregoing hours in the sun. Many schools are set in stunning settings: It’s not unusual for classes to be held outside, under oversized umbrellas. And most institutions provide more than grammar and conversation skills—on a given week you will not just be conjugating French verbs, but also sampling local wine, visiting art galleries, maybe participating in a day hike up Mont Saint Victoire. The options, in short, can be bewildering.

Finding the Right Program for You.One way to narrow your search is to work with an agency like the National Registration Center for Study Abroad (NRCSA), which has a long track record of placing people in language schools. Arranging a stay through an agency can force you to shell out more cash, but it can be enormously helpful in making a selection that best matches your interests and expectations, as well as serve as a quasi-insurance policy: If you aren’t happy with the homestay your foreign language school places you in, for example, agents can help troubleshoot the situation.

Whether operating independently or with the guidance of a professional, almost all students will have to choose among a range of housing options. Lodging with a local family can be an ideal environment in which to practice newly acquired skills and is often cheaper than renting an apartment or paying for a hotel room. “It allowed us to vacation in a way we wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise,” says Anne Dodge, an adult educator who along with her husband Chuck Kennedy has taken classes at the Centro Panamericano de Idiomas (CPI) in Costa Rica on two different occasions. In order to make the most of their opportunities to improve their Spanish, she and her husband stayed with separate families the first time. Chuck had the chance to live on a horse farm, while Anne's placement gave her access to a backyard pool. “We liked [the pool] so much that the next time we returned to CPI, we both stayed with that particular family,” she says with a laugh.

CPI, like many schools, offers classes specifically tailored to older adults. Those options tend to be less demanding than courses designed to fulfill three-credit college requirements. Given that with few exceptions 60- and 70-somethings are actually on vacation when they are attending these institutions, a more relaxed pedagogy can be a welcome alternative to Spanish 201.

Still, some older students have found that they prefer to be in the classroom with people encompassing a range of ages. Lois Altman, a professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, relished many aspects of her experience at Malaca Instituto in Spain: flamenco dancing, a tapas tour of local restaurants, and a superb cooking class were all standouts. But the aspect she enjoyed the most, she says, was interacting with a diverse student body. Her language class colleagues ranged from a 75-year-old Dutch woman who was about to embark on a month-long hike in Spain to a young web entrepreneur from Canada. “We would all race downstairs during breaks and chat over coffee,” recalls Altman. “I liked the interaction and the experience of being a student again.” Her stay provided a basic knowledge of Spanish, which she has managed to maintain by engaging a tutor in the U.S. And she was impressed enough with the experience that she’s trying to arrange for a group of her students to attend Malaca Instituto on her next visit.

Here, a sampling of programs to choose from:

SPANISH

Centro Panamericano de Idiomas; San Joaquín de Flores, Monteverde, and Flamingo Beach, Costa Rica. 506-2265-6306

Setting: CPI offers classes in three different locations (students can hopscotch among the schools in one-week increments during their stay). The founding campus is in San Joaquín de Flores, a small town half an hour from the Costa Rican capital of San José; another branch is in Monteverde, located in the country’s famed rain forest; and for those eager for sand and sun, there is Flamingo Beach, a coastal town bordering the Pacific Ocean.

Courses: Intensive language classes run either four or five and half hours a day. In addition, the school offers tailored instruction for doctors and social workers who want to improve their language proficiency for professional purposes. A popular option for older students is “Golden Age Spanish,” which combines three hours of Spanish every day with activities like hiking, snorkeling (the school offers diving certification), excursions to butterfly farms and volcanoes, and a jungle boat tour.

Extracurriculars: Free dance and cooking classes are available to all students. Volunteer opportunities in the rain forest and providing mentoring and services to poor Costa Ricans can be arranged through the school. Students can also engage in activities ranging from waterfall rappelling to guided nature hikes via treetop walkways for an additional fee.

Cost: Language courses run $315 a week for four hours of classes a day or $430 for five and a half hours per day. Home stay accommodation with families comes to $150 per person per week. The two-week Golden Age Spanish program is $2,100, which includes all classes, excursions, accommodations, and meals.

Malaca Instituto, Málaga, Spain. 00-34-952-29-3242 (fill out an e-mail via its Web site, and the administrators will call you directly to field questions you may have)

Setting: Located in southern Spain on the Mediterranean coast, Málaga boasts a very temperate climate (300 days of sunshine a year). While pristine beaches are a major draw, the city also has a diverse cultural heritage: The major landmarks include a museum honoring native son Pablo Picasso and a large Moorish castle that dates to the 11th century.

Courses: A dozen options are provided, including a two-week master class specially tailored for older adults, which combines intensive Spanish with activities such as cooking classes and visits to local markets and sites like Málaga’s botanical gardens. Other options include “Spanish and Cookery,” which in addition to intensive two-week Spanish instruction offers four cooking classes, talks on local food and wine, and a farewell lunch at a local culinary school.

Extracurriculars: With a campus set between mountains and the Mediterranean coast, there are many opportunities for sports and outdoor activities. The school can arrange golf outings, book reservations at both hard and clay tennis courts, and direct you to a set of nearby nature walks. The Instituto also offers excursions to nearby towns Grenada and Sevilla, and once a month provides a weekend tour in Morocco.

Cost: The two-week master class runs 655 euros, $909, at $1.39 to the euro. (See current exchange rates here.) Spanish and cookery is approximately 765 euros for two weeks. The school’s campus includes a pool; to stay on site ranges from 20 euros per night in a triple shared room, to 71 euros for an executive studio, which features flat screen TVs and a kitchenette. Students can take their meals at the campus restaurant (which provides a daily vegetarian option) or in town. Family stays can be arranged at a cost of 420 euros per week, including some meals.

FRENCH

Ecole de Langue Française pour Etrangers (ELFE),Paris, France. 33 (0) 1 48 78 73 00

Setting: The City of Light needs no introduction—with its first class museums, restaurants, and one of the most beautiful urban settings in the world, students will not lack for activities. ELFE is housed in a 19th century mansion situated within 15 minutes of the world-famous Opera de Paris and Boulevard Haussmann and 10 minutes from Montmartre.

Courses: Options include six different levels of French classes. Courses run either three hours every day or—for those preferring more intense pedagogy—three-hour sessions in both the morning and afternoons. Classes are capped at six students and teachers all have postgraduate qualifications in teaching French as a foreign language. One popular course offering is Mini-Group & Culture: Morning language sessions are supplemented with afternoon cultural classes focusing on subjects such as French painting, fine wines, the history of Paris, and cinema. The talks are followed by related excursions around the city.

Extracurriculars: Outings to neighborhoods like Le Marais and Ile de la Cité; cooking class at the Ritz Escoffier school, wine tastings, and instruction in French etiquette.

Cost: Three hours of French lessons plus Culture course is 455 euros per week. To do three hours of language classes a day is 400 euros ($516), and the intensive six-hour-a-day option is 780 euros. ELFE will arrange for week-long home stays for 220 to 405 euros, depending on number of meals taken with the family and whether rooms offer private bathrooms. Cut rates on local hotels (ranging in cost from 75 to 225 euros) and studio apartments (100 to 137 euros) can also be booked through the institute.

BLS, Bordeaux, France. 33 (0)5 56 51 00 76

Setting:Located in the southwest of France, Bordeaux offers the beaches and fishing villages of the Atlantic coast to its west, the pine forests and prehistoric caves of the Dordogne to its east, and the beaches of Royan to its north. Of course, most of us associate the city with one thing: superb red wine.

Courses: “French, Culture, and Gastronomy,” combines a three-hour daily French class with afternoon cooking lessons, meals in restaurants, cheese and wine tastings, and guided tours of the city and nearby Saint-Emilion and Arcachon. Oenophiles will be delighted by the week-long Bordeaux wine course: Morning French lessons are followed by afternoon sessions on Bordeaux wines, including a cellar master class where you blend the wine of your choice using the four main grape varieties grown around the city.

Extracurriculars: Daily offerings include film viewings, guided tours of local museums, day-long hikes, and (of course) wine tastings.

Cost: Courses run 825 euros for the week-long French and Bordeaux wine course and 895 euros for the two week French, Culture, and Gastronomy class. There are also special sessions for older adults: These combine two weeks of French classes with cooking classes, wine tastings, and excursions, for 795 euros, which includes the enrollment fee. Students can stay in hotels (28 to 360 euros, depending on the establishment), studio apartments (43 to 95 euros per day) or host families, which in addition to single rooms offer breakfast and dinner on weekdays and all meals at weekends for 30 euros per day.

GERMAN

Goethe Institute, Berlin, Germany. 49-89-15921-200

Setting:In a city full of language schools, the Goethe Institute is universally recognized as the most rigorous, professional, and (not surprisingly) expensive. Berlin itself is one of the most diverse and intriguing cities in Europe: With its skyline of modern steel and glass towers, it is also home to the Pergamon Museum where you’ll find some of the world’s greatest Greek and Roman antiquities. The Institute itself is situated in Mitte, the historic center of the city, with many museums, galleries, and cafés nearby.

Courses:A popular option is intensive German language instruction, which provides a little more than four hours of classes a day.

Extracurriculars:Guided visits to museums, the opera, and theater, as well as “encounter evenings” where students can mingle with native German speakers.

Cost: Four hours of language instruction, five days week for two weeks is 750 euros. Accommodation in a single room in a private home will increase the price to 1,050. The Institute can also arrange for hotel stays starting at 65 euros per night.

ITALIAN

Scuola Leonardo daVinci, Florence, Italy.  39-055-261-181

Setting: Florence, known as the “capital of the Renaissance,” has some of the finest art in the world, including Botticelli masterpieces like the Birth of Venus and Michelangelo’s David. Markets and festivals abound. The Scuola Leonardo da Vinci is located close to the Piazza del Duomo, one of the most dynamic corners of the city.

Courses: Four hours of language instruction are offered Monday through Friday, and student must enroll for a minimum of two weeks. That course can be combined with afternoon classes in jewelry making, Italian design, cooking, drawing, or painting—to name just a few of the available options.

Extracurriculars: Day excursion to Siena and San Gimignano or Pisa and Lucca; half-day excursion to the vineyards where Chianti is produced; free guided tours exploring Florence’s artistic legacy; Italian cinema screenings every Friday; sporting activities such as volleyball and soccer.

Cost: The two-week language class is 300 euros. Enrolling in drawing and painting will cost an additional 180 euros for two weeks, art and fashion courses another 250 euros. Professional cooking classes run for a minimum of one month, at a cost of 960 euros. Lodging with a family runs between 260 to 458 euros for a two-week stay, depending on the size of the room and whether the student is taking one or two meals a day with their hosts. The school can also arrange for accommodations in apartments or hotels.

Alexandra Starr is a frequent contributor toLive & Learn.

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