In a previous article, we explored the idea of learning English in a language school where we looked into studying in an English-speaking country. As we saw, learning English abroad is an expensive endeavour. There are travel expenses, applying for a visa, paying for the actual course, and other elements that put a big price tag to your learning English trip. What we also saw, though, was that there are a lot of benefits to studying in an English-speaking and in this article, we’re going to analyse them as well as answer some of the big burning questions study abroad students have. Should I go for a whole year or for a short time? Would going for two weeks be worth the money? What if the school I’m going to ends up being not good? We’ll be looking at all of these and more below.
Advantages of studying English in an English-speaking country
For a lot of people, learning English while spending time in an English-speaking country, such as the UK and the USA, seems like a no-brainer. The main reason for this belief is because while studying English you have the opportunity to practice the language with native speakers of English. It’s true that practising with native speakers when learning English will help you improve, particularly because when you communicate successfully, your confidence goes up. It’s also more likely that you will be learning English from a qualified English language teacher. A qualified teacher is better able to understand your strengths and weaknesses and help you improve in the areas that you need. Studying in an English-speaking country has a few other less obvious advantages.
If you’re studying in a language school, regardless if it’s a large company or a small school, you’re going to have classmates from various parts of the world learning English with you. When you’re surrounded by people who are also learning English, you will be forced to communicate with each other in English which means more speaking practice. In addition to that, you and your new friends can help each other with things that may or may not have learned yet. Being surrounded by people who are feeling the same as you about their English can help you cope better with the difficulty of living in an English-speaking country.
Another key advantage of living and studying in an English-speaking country is that you have to survive by using English. A common mistake students who are learning English make is that they find people from their own country and spend time with them. This, along with other such mistakes, removes an important part of your English learning journey and that is practice. By living in a place like the UK and Australia you are placing yourself in the perfect position to give your English skills a boost. Living in a country where you have to use the local language will inevitably make you more fluent because your brain wants you to survive so it adapts quicker. This is how I was able to rapidly improve my Mandarin Chinese skills from beginner to B1 in a little over a year. If you accept that your English will be rough at first you will have the courage to practice what you’ve learned and the more you do it, the better you will become.
So, now we’ve established that there are advantages to studying in an English-speaking country. But what about how long? Should you go for a year? A few weeks? Does it matter? Let’s find out.
Long-term vs. short-term courses
Whether you’re going with a big company or small school, both will have a selection of long-term and short-term courses for you to take. These are typically described as academic year and intensive courses respectively. Before you can make a decision on the length of your course, you should consider where you are in your English learning journey. Before moving on, I want to make something clear: learning English, and any language, takes time. The speed at which you learn depends on a number of factors, such as your own mother language and how well you learn. Unless you’re planning on spending well over a year in an English-speaking country, it’s important to manage your expectations when it comes to your studies there.
Intensive courses take many different forms. There are summer courses, which are typically part of a language travel package, courses that are focused on a specialty, like business English and exam preparation, and general courses that are meant to give you as much knowledge as possible in a short amount of time. What you choose will depend on your English learning goals. But, will you actually see any improvement by taking a short intensive course? The quick answer is: yes, you will but there’s a caveat: your expectations on how big this improvement will need to be managed. A single English lesson as part of a series of lessons will typically be focused on a single language point. For grammar lessons, that will mean you will learn how to use a single grammar point. Vocabulary lessons, on the other hand, will typically focus on a set of 8-10 words and how to use them. Each lesson will likely contain some secondary skills and if the teacher is experienced enough, you will learn a few extra things along the way. This doesn’t mean that every single lesson will be something different. In some cases, you will have a series of 2-3 lessons focused on a single element or set of vocabulary. The first lesson will focus on introducing the language point and the following lessons will be about practising it. This is typical of modern language teaching practices. Depending on the structure of your English learning course, you will have some review and project lessons as well. In fewer words, a short intensive English language course abroad will teach you a few new things but the real improvement will come from your daily interaction with your teacher and classmates. It’s important to take advantage of your time there by being as active in class as possible while at the same time making sure you have picked a course that matches your goals.
Now, let’s look at the other end of the spectrum of learning English abroad: academic year courses. These courses are typically meant for people who are willing to take up to a year off to study English. If you’re looking to take a gap year from your studies or are being sponsored by your job or you just have the time and want to live in an English-speaking country for a while, this will be the right choice for you. Academic year courses for learning English are structured around getting you through two to three CEFR levels (A1-C2) in about 9 months or longer. This doesn’t mean, though, that you would have actually acquired these levels as language leveling isn’t as straightforward as you’d expect. Throughout your time learning English in an academic year course, you will be introduced to quite a few language points and concepts. You’ll also get a lot of practice through projects and other activities that are offered by your school. This of academic year courses like any typical school curriculum: there’s a cohesive structure from beginning to end. Your weekly schedule will likely not be as dense as an intensive course which means you will have more free time to either self-study or go out into the wild to practice your new skills. Depending on the school, you might have opportunities to organize events, like Halloween activities, and do some extra activities (I used to run a Karate class in one of the schools I worked for!).
To recap, short-term courses have the benefit of costing less while giving you a lot of knowledge in a short amount of time. The main drawback is that you don’t get to spend a lot of time in the English-speaking country of your choosing. On the other hand, long-term courses give you more time to explore and practice and English skills while being a more expensive choice and needing nearly a year away from whatever else you’re doing. Whichever choice you make, it’s vital to understand that when learning English in an English-speaking country there are some risks regarding your course of choice and the value you get for your money.
Managing the risk of studying abroad
When I talk to my students about the risks of studying abroad, they usually think I’m talking about health and safety issues. Those are important to keep in my mind no matter where you’re traveling. However, when you’re learning English in a place like the UK and the USA, there are other risks that are important to take into account when deciding your school and the course you’ll be taking.
First things first, your course level. The most common complaint language schools receive is related in some way to the English level they place their students. Some people find the level they’ve been placed too easy or too hard. Others feel that the level of the material is okay but the rest of the class needs more or less attention from the teacher. Finally, and this is the most problematic, is that students want to be placed in a specific level because that is what is required by their job or a university they’re applying to. The way schools typically place students in levels is through placement tests. These are designed to check your prior knowledge of English to determine what level you have attained in your own English studies. There might also be a speaking test or interview before or after you arrive. What’s important to understand here is that these tests aren’t perfect and some mistakes may happen. Another thing to keep in mind is that while there is a Common European Framework that determines language levels, not all countries follow the same criteria. I’ve had students who were barely able to string a simple sentence together in A2 tell me that they were given a level of B1 in their own country. The main problem here is that non-native English schools and teachers rely mostly on graded written material and don’t evaluate the whole picture. If you find yourself at a level that you think is too low for you, talk to your teacher. They will be trained to give you some extra work to help accommodate your more advanced knowledge. Ask them where you need to improve and what you need to do to get the most out of the class. Remember that a teacher has other students to work with so it will help both you and them if you take a proactive approach and regularly give them feedback and ask for more help. We’re knowledgeable but we don’t know everything!
Another big risk of traveling to an English-speaking country to learn English is about the school environment you go to. For most people, the big advantage of making such a trip and spending all that money is that they get to meet and speak English with people from other countries. The big surprise comes when they find out that there are many people from their own country there, too, and they’re not using English as much as they should. This is very common if you come from a Spanish-speaking country as Spanish is one of the most spoken languages in the world. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the halls of your school might be filled with Spanish rather than English. The problem here is that people find themselves in a foreign country and immediately feel insecure. They try to fight this insecurity by finding something familiar and there is nothing more familiar than people who speak their own language. I don’t blame them, to be honest, because I did the EXACT same thing when I started living in China. So what can you do? First off, there’s no harm in making friends from your own country. They’ll be there for you if there’s trouble and if your language level is low, they can provide you with help should you need to go to a doctor or other emergency. With that in mind, do your best to emphasize interacting with people from other countries as well. Make sure in class you sit next to people from other parts of the world. Go to school activities, parties, and gatherings. Make friends based on interest instead of age or language. Studying in an English-speaking country is more than just about learning English; it’s an opportunity to expand your horizons and learn more about the world. The key here is to remember that you are in control of your time. Nobody can fault or blame you for trying to make the most of it.
Finally, and this is the big one, a lot the time students find that the course they chose for learning English abroad was not what they were promised. This is where I need to give you some reality. Language schools, especially those attached to large companies, are businesses and their aim is to make money. A big part of achieving that is through marketing and doing what they can to sell you on a course. What you need to keep in mind is that who you’re talking to while you’re booking your course may or may not know all the details about it. Most likely, they’re a salesperson who’s being pressured to sell as much as possible. They will likely either say “yes” to a lot of your questions or use a lot of words to evade them. What you should do is treat your choice of an English course abroad like any other purchase out there. Do research; a lot of it. Read as many reviews as you can. Find out the exact information about the location you’re going to. I had a student once - and this is 100% true - tell me that her sales representative insisted that Brighton was sunny and warm and that she would practically be in her bikini all the time. Brighton is a city in the UK and while it’s definitely one of the warmest places here, it’s still not California. My point is that you do what you can to learn about the school you’re going to, the place you’ll be living, and seek out what other people have to say about it. One final note about accommodation. Your school will offer either homestay (living with a local family) or dormitories or both. If you have the choice and want to reduce as much risk as possible, pay the extra for a dormitory. Host families can be a great experience but there is a chance you might be placed in an unsuitable one. Keep in mind also the cultural differences you have and how many concessions you might have to make in terms of food and living conditions.
Does it matter which country I study in?
The short answer to this is, no. English is English and the country you learn it in will only matter in minor details. Your choice will depend on where you’re comfortable living, what sort of climate you prefer (expect a lot of rain and wind in the UK!), how close or far away you will be from home, and which country you’re most interested in from a cultural standpoint.
English teachers are nomadic and, therefore, travel and live abroad a lot. While you’re more guaranteed to be taking lessons from a British teacher in the UK, there will also be teachers from both other English-speaking countries and non-English-speaking countries. I’m a prime example of this as I speak American English but live and work in Brighton, UK. The quality of the English you learn and the applicability are only determined by your school of choice, your course, the teacher you have, and, ultimately, your dedication and involvement in the learning process.
So, should you study English in an English-speaking country? Yes, you should, after you consider all of the things we discussed in this article. Taking a course abroad to learn English isn’t something you should make as a snap judgment. Research is important as well as setting the right goals for your English learning adventure. It’s important to remember that everything in life carries risk and it’s up to you to reduce that as much as possible. What’s also important is that learning a language isn’t the same as learning other subjects so enjoy the process, open yourself up to new ideas, and make new friends. I personally believe that as long as you go to a place with a decent reputation, qualified teachers, and students from lots of other countries, you will get a lot out of your course.