Hablas espanol? How to find the right language school.
How do you choose a good language school in a city where the local Yellow Pages list more than 1,000 of them?
What questions do you ask the director to find out whether the school can help you achieve your unique, specific learning goals, which must include the vocabulary and jargon relating to your work?
The obvious answer is to find the school with the best teachers, but that's not easy to do when language teaching is completely unregulated, as it is in Mexico, and just about anybody can be a language teacher.
"The quality of teachers can vary enormously," said Ariel Lopez, general director of International House Language Centre. "It's incredibly easy to get a registration."
Setting High Standards
As with finding a good hairdresser, the priciest isn't always the best.
"The market doesn't always differentiate between products," said Lopez. "Sometimes quality is punished by the market."
British-based International House (IH) uses the savings of scale it has amassed through its network of 128 schools in 43 countries, and its 35-year-old joint venture partnership with Cambridge University to bring quality to its clients.
That represents a lot of students--more than one million over the school's half-century of operations--and Lopez estimates that its Mexico City school currently has about 1,000 students. It also has schools in Veracruz and near Cancun.
Although there are no formal standards for teachers in Mexico, IH is proud of the standards it has set for itself on a worldwide basis.
Before they can work for IH, teachers must pass the International Teacher Training certification test from Cambridge University. This usually means spending time at Cambridge, where they are trained in the methods used by IH.
Most clients want to be taught by native speakers, and the majority of IH teachers work with their first language. However, anyone who meets the exacting standards of Cambridge for speaking, listening, writing, and teaching in an idiom that is not their birth language is defined as a "native speaker."
Another advantage of worldwide standardization is that course results are tangible and measurable. To move to the next proficiency level, students must pass examinations set by the linguists at Cambridge.
"In the end, their courses are delivered through us," said Lopez, "and they're the same all over the world."
"The concept of teaching Spanish as a second language is relatively new in Mexico," said Lopez. "Very little has been done in academic terms, especially when compared to what has been done with English. At IH we have developed and adapted methodology and materials to teach Spanish as a second language."
When a client approaches IH, he or she is given not only a proficiency test but also what Lopez calls a "needs analysis"--a session in which the specific goals of the client are established.
The initial goal of most potential clients is to develop or polish their speaking skills, but many discover through the needs analysis that they also need to work on listening skills, telephone skills, or writing skills, as well as mastering the special language of their business world--and perhaps the lingo of golf.
Many clients are executive spouses. They need to be able to communicate with the household staff and most want to pursue hobbies and interests in Spanish.
For group classes and those who come to Mexico expressly to learn Spanish, IH offers an ongoing social and cultural program that includes cooking classes, dancing, and socializing with Mexicans. It has arrangements with a wide price range of hotels and a live-in program with Mexican families for those who want to further enrich their experience in Spanish outside of the classroom.
For executives and group corporate classes, the school is flexible in terms of scheduling--in groups or one-on-one, in-house or on-site, at varying times of day.
Teachers are trained to be flexible in methodology as well, so they can respond to the learning preferences and style of their students. For example, Lopez said, "Some students hate working with grammar rules; others can't live without grammar."
Despite the stringent standards set by IH, its tuition is surprisingly inexpensive--at 200 to 500 pesos an hour for individual classes, it's competitive with the rates generally charged in Mexico.
Demand For English
And for every foreigner who comes to Mexico wanting to learn Spanish, there are dozens of Mexicans, from hotel porters to executives, who want either to learn English or improve it.
Vladimir Klepacz, co-owner of OPSA, a school specializing in teaching English to Mexicans, urges students to think about their goals before even starting to look for a school. Then, he said, it's useful to look at the breadth of the school program.
"They offer classes for beginner to advanced levels in one section; they might be offering test preparation; they might be offering not only preparations but also the testing, which means they already have some kind of certification," he said.
"The school might offer additional things: writing classes, public speaking ... A school that offers a wide range of products, that would be the school I would give my attention to."
Klepacz was born in the Czech Republic and studied economics there before immigrating to the United States, where he worked for 13 years. He came to Mexico two years ago.
"I came to Mexico by accident," he said. "I needed a change ... I came here for a vacation originally, and during that time I found a job as an English teacher. While I was teaching I realized that there was a great demand for that skill."
"Most schools provide the basic services--reading, grammar, speaking at the basic level and they present that as a final product ... We offer that too, but we don't see it as the final product ... We are teaching our students grammar; we are teaching them how to speak; we are teaching them listening comprehension, but that is just the beginning."
Ariel Lopez said the market for language training worldwide was expanding explosively, but primarily in languages other than English, which remains strong but steady.
He said demand was growing fastest for languages like Spanish and the Eastern European languages. Mandarin? "Not yet, but it will come," he said.
Kenneth Emmond (email@example.com) is a journalist and economist who has lived and worked in Mexico since 1995.