You might have studied languages at school, evening classes or from an online course. But there’s nothing quite like immersing yourself in the daily life and culture of a country. Language learning holidays take your learning to a whole new level.
They’re not all about hard work, either. Typically you will be in class for half a day, and going off on excursions or visits at other times. In the evenings, there might be an organised social event, or if not, you can get together with course mates to go out for dinner or to the cinema. Or take time out to yourself – the choice is yours. That’s the wonderful thing about activity holidays – you can join in when you want to, or do your own thing when you don’t.
I’ve been on language holidays in Spain, France and Portugal, and thoroughly enjoyed them all. I met like-minded people of different ages, nationalities and backgrounds, and had lots of fun. To give you an idea of what a language holiday is like, I’ll describe three of those I’ve experienced.
I took a month off work and headed to this beautiful city to improve my knowledge of business Spanish. My Spanish degree from university had concentrated on traditional language and literature study, so I wanted to expand my knowledge of commercial vocabulary.
The school I chose was situated in the Albaicín, which is the old Moorish quarter of Granada. This neighbourhood is a picturesque maze of winding narrow streets and squares, with whitewashed houses, on a hill overlooking downtown Granada. Rising majestically on an adjacent hill is the Alhambra, the stunning fortress and palace which became the royal residence of the Nasrid dynasty in the 13th century. Walking up the hill to class every day in the heat was an effort, but I couldn’t fault the scenery!
I shared a flat in the city centre with 3 Algerians, 2 Germans and a Brit, all doing different courses at various levels. We sometimes cooked together. The Algerian girls in particular were excellent cooks, and always shared their tasty pastries and savouries. It was a lot of fun. At other times we went out to enjoy the flavours of Andalucia in the local restaurants. Gazpacho was a speciality, and I became very fond of it.
With our student cards, we were given free access to the Alhambra. I’m not sure if this perk is still available today, but I made full use of it. Granada in June is very hot, so I enjoyed relaxing in the Generalife gardens. I’d find a shady spot by the many fountains and trickling streams.
If my free time was in the morning, I would explore the city with its lovely squares and buildings, stopping for a coffee or lunch in one of the many pavement cafes.
Outside formal lessons, my classmates and I were taken to visit local businesses such as a farm co-operative and a spa resort in the Alpujarras, which were fascinating and gave us the chance to practise our new skills. For the whole school, there were various trips on offer. One was to the Sierra Nevada. Another was to Federico García Lorca’s family home in the nearby village of Fuente Vaqueros (see feature photo). During our day in the Sierra Nevada, we cooked up a huge paella for lunch.
We also spent a wonderful weekend in Seville, with stops in Córdoba and Italica. As we drove back into Granada on the Sunday evening, having exhausted ourselves singing our new repertoire of Spanish songs, one of my French classmates remarked that she felt like she was coming home. I think a lot of us felt the same way. We had all fallen in love with beautiful Granada.
The school I attended no longer exists, but there is another one based in the Albaicín. It’s called CastilLa and they assure me that they provide an equally fantastic student experience!
Annecy is a delightful lakeside town in the French alps. I chose this location for my French studies because it’s easily reached by TGV (high-speed train) from Paris and the major centres, and also because I had never visited this stunning region before.
The school, which was run by the Université de Savoie, was based at Annecy-le-Vieux, a village outside the main centre of Annecy. I stayed in a student residence called the Foyer d’Evires, which was very comfortable. It was managed by a lovely guy called Bernard Chevron. I’ve since heard that the foyer has been re-named after him, which says a lot about how he was regarded, clearly not just by us.
As in Granada, the student body was very international and of different ages. There were Americans, Canadians, Singaporeans, Danes, Germans, Swiss, Belgians, Irish and Brits – and also some French people studying advanced language subjects. On this occasion I chose the intermediate class, but after sitting a test to determine my level, I was pushed up to the next class. This was a little disappointing – I didn’t want to work TOO hard. But in the event, it was fine, and our teacher Louise was great. Classes were held in the mornings, then we were free in the afternoons.
Most people head to the French alps for winter sport, but this region is also well worth visiting in summer. There are many picturesque towns and villages around Lake Annecy, and walks in the countryside. The town itself is beautiful, with its canals and medieval buildings. It’s sometimes referred to as the Venice of the Alps. Local cuisine was very similar to that of Switzerland – lots of cheese dishes including fondue and Savoyard potatoes. Shellfish was very good too. I discovered cocquilles St Jacques à la crème, which I’ve loved ever since.
Social activities included wine and cheese tasting, picnics, visits to restaurants and a day trip to Switzerland. I particularly enjoyed the latter. We visited Geneva, Lausanne, Evian and a beautiful medieval town called Yvoires on the French side of Lake Geneva.
Having mastered Spanish, I was keen to learn Portuguese. So I enrolled on a beginners’ course at the Centro Internacional de Linguas in Lisbon. Once again, since it was also my summer holiday, I didn’t want to work too hard. So I was a little dismayed to find that I was the only student signed up for the June beginners’ course!
As a result, my class turned out to be intensive one-on-one tuition. There was no escape, and no slacking! Of course this was a wonderful opportunity. It gave my teacher and me the chance to be a little more flexible, so that sometimes we would switch our classes to a local cafe, or to the Gulbenkian Foundation. I certainly learned a lot more than I would have done in a conventional class.
Teachers at CIAL came from Brazil and Portugal, so we were exposed to different accents. Of all the schools I attended, this was probably the most formal and professional, with business people and diplomats studying on the advanced courses. But fun time was still important. We went to port tastings, wine tastings, gallery visits and meals out at restaurants.
My accommodation was in a city centre flat owned by a Portuguese lady, Julieta, who slept in her lounge so that she could accommodate three students! The other two were Susanna from Switzerland and Timmy from Nigeria. We got along very well and although we weren’t always free at the same time, we did manage some visits together to the zoo, the Amoreiras (an out-of-town shopping mall) and the castle.
Lisbon is a wonderful city and I felt that I could live there quite easily. In June, Jacaranda blossom fills the streets, many of which are cobbled. I loved the trams trundling around everywhere, and the stunning waterfront along the river Tagus. There are many neighbourhoods to explore, all with their own distinctive character. My favourite is the Bairro Alto, which has an artsy, villagey feel.
If you want to get out of the city at the weekend, there are plenty of options. I took the train to Sintra, a pretty town inland from Lisbon, and also to Cascais which is on the coast. A little further away is Ericeira, another attractive town on the Silver Coast, which can be reached by bus.
Lisbon’s patron saint is St Anthony, and his feast day happened to occur during my stay. Grilling fresh tuna on the street was the order of the day, so flatmate Susanna and I decided to head out to experience this. Despite the crowds, we managed to find seats in one of the squares, where we were served the delicious fish with salad and crusty bread. June is fiesta month in Lisbon so we found that there was always something going on somewhere.
Other courses I’ve attended
I’ve also spent time improving my Spanish at Salamanca University in Spain, and learning Catalan in Barcelona. But as these were part of my degree studies and therefore don’t count as holidays, I have not included them in this post. I mention them because either Salamanca or Barcelona would be fantastic destinations for language learning holidays. There’s so much to see and do in these beautiful cities.
When choosing a location for your holiday, consider your main objective. If it’s to have a good time, with a bit of learning on the side, then go for a location that is holiday-orientated. If you are serious about your language learning, however, then a historic university city would be a great choice.
Different organisations offer courses, so make sure to choose a provider that has a good reputation. If the organisation is part of, or linked to, a university, you can be confident that the teaching quality will be good. Find out whether there will be an exam at the end, and whether you will gain a qualification or a certificate of attendance.
Check out what kind of accommodation is on offer, and how much it will cost you. Most schools offer hostals or a room in a host family home, with the aim of keeping your costs to a minimum. Rooms are usually basic but clean. If you prefer more luxurious accommodation, you can usually book your own hotel. But staying with a host family is a good option if you really want to practise your language skills!
Take a look at the extra-mural activities on offer. A good provider will ensure that you have plenty of opportunities to socialise and to get to know your city or region.
Make sure that you have decent travel insurance. I caught gastro-enteritis in France and had to pay for medications and doctor visits.
To sum up, I think language learning holidays offer a great travel alternative, whether you are going alone or with someone else. You meet people that you might not cross paths with otherwise, and you have at least one interest in common so there’s always something to talk about! I’m still in touch with some of the people I’ve met.
Also, there’s nothing like the satisfaction of speaking the language of your host country, even if it’s just a few basic phrases. You’ll feel far more at home and connected, just as my classmates and I did with Granada.
UPDATE, December 2020
As the pandemic continues, many language schools – like CastilLA mentioned above – have expanded their offering to include online courses. Which is fantastic if your main goal is to learn the language. But I’m crossing my fingers that it won’t be too long before we can enjoy the incomparable pleasure of immersing ourselves in the real world of the host countries.
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