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With a wealth of Spanish-language schools in Oaxaca to choose from, how can a prospective student determine which is best? The first step is to ask yourself what you really want from your educational experience. Do you, for example, want a thorough grounding in grammar in order to continue studying Spanish in years to come with the ultimate goal of linguistic competence in reading, writing, listening to, and speaking Spanish? Or is your immediate goal enjoying yourself and being able to communicate well enough in Spanish to make known your needs and to enjoy chatting with shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and your neighbors? Your needs determine the kind of school you should choose.

Asking friends is not necessarily the best way to find a good language school although it can provide helpful information. Everyone loves the school s/he attended, but few have taken the trouble to check out other options.

Whether you're already in Oaxaca or checking out schools long-distance, a school's website is a good place to start. Unfortunately, entering “Spanish language schools Oaxaca” into your search engine will yield only a handful of the dozens available (and “related searches” yields only one or two others), and neither the yellow pages nor local newspapers are any help at all.

Once you've narrowed the search by checking websites, the best way to find your ideal school is “boots on the ground.” Visiting half a dozen schools will not only help you pinpoint which ones offer what you're looking for but also give you an idea of the school's philosophy and ambience, important if you're planning to spend more than a few days there.

Before your visit, arm yourself with a list of questions. All schools promise small classes with individualized learning, workshops and excursions (for an additional charge), help with housing, a variety of class levels, and “experienced” teachers. Most are located in or quite near the city center. Almost all have Wi-Fi access although you may need to bring your own laptop. There is no licensing or governing body for language schools in Mexico, and many schools have formed their own consortiums, so it is not particularly helpful to inquire about membership in professional organizations. Also, most schools have open enrollment, which means that students enter existing classes on a continuing basis, usually on a Monday; however, if the group doesn't work for you, you can always opt for a private class. To narrow your search for the perfect school for you, you may want to consider asking some or all of the following questions.

How long has the school been operating in Oaxaca? A minimum of ten years at least ensures that the school has a solid presence here and has met with enough success to keep it running.

What are the qualifications of the teachers? Although a college degree may sound impressive, and many schools additionally train teachers in their method of teaching Spanish, a licentiatura in Teaching Spanish as Second Language (or TSSL certificate) guarantees that the teacher has had training in the science of teaching a foreign language. A “feeling for teaching Spanish,” in my book, is not sufficient. Additionally, you might inquire if the teachers also speak English. This can be helpful when you don't understand a grammar point and need a more in-depth explanation.

Is there a textbook for each class level? A textbook need not be limiting as the school needn't follow the text but can pick and choose lessons from it. Some schools have created their own textbooks, which are often equal to if not better than a standard text. Some use only handouts. Some use the textbooks only for homework. Again, it's important that you decide how much structure you need and if it's important for you to be able to refer to a textbook when you're not in class.

Asking “What single thing makes your school different from other language schools in Oaxaca?” may yield interesting answers; however, be prepared for the standard response of “we give individualized attention.”

A further point to consider is whether classes are composed of like-age students. Being the only 65-year-old in a class of 20-somethings can be a challenge, or it can be stimulating . . . it all depends on your personal comfort zone. Additionally, be sure your school offers at least a class in pronunciation. A grasp of grammar and a good vocabulary do you no good if no one can understand you!

Only after you've narrowed your list to the two or three schools which best fit your needs should you check out pricing. Although some schools offer pamphlets and price lists, most refer you to their website. While cost is important, it doesn't vary greatly among schools, and the school that charges a few dollars more may have value added based upon your individual needs. Bear in mind that if you're already in Oaxaca you shouldn't have to pay a registration fee.

Once you've determined your own needs, a few days spent checking out your options and asking the right questions will not only be a good use of time but can also be an extremely enjoyable experience and a good opportunity to orient yourself to the lovely city of Oaxaca.

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