Wedged between the Pacific and the Caribbean oceans, Central America boasts 30 active volcanoes, 16 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and more wildlife than you can shake a stick at. Thanks to the clear, comprehensible accents of locals, language study in Central America will be a linguistic dream compared to other Hispanic regions. Learn your verbos at a cafe in a stunning colonial city, practice your conjugaciones on a white sand Caribbean coastline, or learn the Spanish names of exotic animales while exploring the jungle (lémurs, anyone?). Central America is a place not to be underestimated; these seven small-but-perfectly-formed-countries will have you pushing back your flights home.
Comprising incredible forests, jungles, coastlines, ancient Mayan ruins, and historic cities, Central America’s outstanding natural and cultural diversity is reflected in the sheer number of places to choose from for language study abroad. Deciding on where you want to learn a new language is often a question of budget; luckily, Central America has options to suit all kinds.
At the more expensive end of the spectrum, but by far the most popular country for language study in Central America, is Costa Rica. A country known for its political stability in the midst of a historically turbulent Latin America, it’s no wonder that aspiring language students come to Costa Rica in droves. With language course options in San José, the capital and culturally sophisticated hub, the sensational white beaches of Playa Flamingo, or the cloud-forest community of Monteverde, anyone can find a language program in Costa Rica to suit their interests, whether they’re a culture, coast, or cloud lover. Given that locals often greet one another by the saying pura vida (or good life), you’ll likely learn to appreciate Costa Rica’s warm and welcoming vibe quite quickly.
For mid-range budgets, give Panama a chance. Offering a multi-cultural, international fusion, thanks to its historical positioning amidst world trade and communication routes, most language learners in Panama head to Panama City. Viewed as the most cosmopolitan capital in Central America, it doesn’t have the same colonial architecture of most other countries, but language students will still be able to escape the cities for weekends of relaxation (or study) on untouched beaches.
If cheap living costs are a priority, join many savvy travelers in discovering Guatemala, and its language hotspot, Antigua. Although the prices of language classes are rock-bottom, you won’t be skimping on stunning surroundings or, more importantly, quality teaching. Once the administrative center for Central America and Mexico during the Spanish Empire, Antigua now combines charming colonial buildings with a modern, international ambience. Language students can savor its bar and restaurant scene while chatting with locals over a strong Guatemalan coffee.
If you’re feeling adventurous, consider language programs in Honduras. Safety concerns do remain a pressing issue in this politically-unstable country, but Honduras is doing its best to shift its reputation as the bad boy of the Central America circuit. The daring, but still cautious, traveler can discover the reality of this fascinating country, particularly in the tropical city of La Ceiba. A port town known for its lively Caribbean rhythms and one of the largest carnival parades in all of Central America, you’ll learn more than just a new language in Honduras.
The best way to distinguish between your caballos (horses) and your cebollas (onions) in no time is through full language immersion in Central America. Whichever language program you choose, courses will normally be conversation heavy, giving you all the tools you need to get chatting the moment you’re released from class. Tandem practice with a language buddy is also a common feature of language programs in Central America; these are a chance to swap languages with a new, local friend, while sharing a drink or nibbling on a tasty delicacy, such as a Honduran baleada (a stuffed corn tortilla).
If you’re seeking to cover the basics quickly, find a Spanish language immersion program in Central America. Students can take up to 30 hours a week, a monster six hours per day, or slim down study time to have more time for other activities, such as surfing on the coast, or putting your best foot forward in a Latin dance class. Language classes in Central America are generally available year-round, for students who are absolute beginners to advanced language speakers. It is possible to take individual classes, which will set you back more financially, but mean greater interaction with your teacher, or small group classes, all of which will be delivered almost entirely in Spanish.
Still at university? Look into university language courses which are often run specifically throughout the summer holidays in June, July, and August. Often held at a university in your host country, you’ll study the local language (or another language) alongside local and/or foreign students and your hard work will count toward your degree program at home in the form of academic credit; not to mention, it will also be boosting your CV/resume.
If you’ve got more time to dedicate to your pursuit of linguistic prowess and bragging rights amongst friends, some language programs in Central America can be combined with volunteering. A perfect way to implement what you’ve learned in a real environment, you’ll feel the effects of this extra practice quicker than a shot of Honduran guaro (sugar cane liquor).
Prices vary significantly across locations within Central America, but the cost of living will ultimately seem pretty reasonable compared to living costs in the U.S. or Europe. The cheapest language courses in Central America can be found in Guatemala, where 25 hours of private lessons, plus a homestay (all meals provided), will cost around $150 per week.
Depending on whether you opt for an all-inclusive package or go directly through a language school in Central America, prices will differ. For 15 hours per week of one-on-one classes in Costa Rica, including accommodation, food, airport transfers, insurance, and in-country support, students will pay in the region of $2,000. Whereas studying directly through a language school will cost in the region of $550 per week for up to 20 hours of group lessons.
Local living costs can be very affordable. For a lesson in Central American cuisine, and cost-cutting options, check out local restaurants where you can find a cheap and tasty meal for around $5 or less. Dining in the local mercado will also be a great way to practice your new lingo, enjoy a steaming bowl of tapado, a delicious, rich seafood soup with lashings of coconut milk, and wish buen provecho to your fellow diners.
Local transportation is rarely included in the costs of language programs in Central America, but given the prevalence of cheap buses in most cities and towns, you should never struggle to get a ride for less than $1. For longer journeys, experience an important feature of Central American culture, the “chicken” bus. Despite being slow and uncomfortable, this form of transport offers a real window into daily life in Central America.
What’s the quickest way to learn to speak like a local? Live and practice with them, and what better way to do so than through a homestay with a local family. Homestays are the most recommended type of accommodation for language students in Central America who are serious about getting fluent. Host families in Central America will usually provide a private room in their home, all meals, and the perfect opportunity to exchange cultures and get involved with family life.
If living with a family isn’t your thing, alternative accommodation can be arranged through your language school in Central America, normally in the form of a communal house for students or a private apartment. The bonus of this is that you’ll have an immediate group of friends with whom to check out your new area and get involved with fun extra-curricular activities.
Tourists from the U.S., Canada, the European Union, and Australia are normally granted a 90 day visa, although you may need to pay a fee of between $5 and $20 upon entry. Some countries (Honduras, El Salvador, and Panama) also require that you present a return ticket. For up-to-date visa information, head to GoAbroad’s Embassy Directory and refer to the information for specific countries.
Language study in Central America will be affordable and rewarding. Depending on where you go, it’s likely that the number of English speakers will be low, meaning you’ll be forced to speak your new language from the outset and see your progress race ahead as a result.
You’ll also learn to adapt to a radically new culture and pace of life; life can move at snail’s pace, and it’ll take some getting used to. Learning to spend a few hours doing your Spanish homework in a palm-shaded plaza or chatting to your tandem partner on the beach will soon get you used to the chilled nature of life in Central America.
Language programs in Central America will do more than just help you to speak in another tongue; you’ll discover how knowing the local language can revolutionise your travel experiences, allowing for deeper cultural engagement and a better understanding of the fascinating countries that make up this part of the world.