A guide to finding the right school, what it costs and what to avoid
Each year thousands of tourists flock to Colombia’s city of “eternal spring” to get a taste of the life, work on their salsa moves and learn the local lingo at Medellin’s best Spanish schools.
But while Colombia’s second biggest city is now an appealing choice thanks to the weather, the “easy” accent and the accessibility of courses, navigating the wealth of schools here can be tough.
First things first, Spanish schools might be a dime a dozen thanks to the growing “Gringo language tourism” but they certainly don’t cost a dime and they aren’t all created equal.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a school that offers group classes for less than about $10 USD per hour and while that might be chump change to a cashed-up Gringo, it’s very pricey for here and doesn’t guarantee you a quality experience.
While living in Medellin for six weeks, we reached out to several schools (and went personally into three including spending an entire week at one and a second week at another). The first school (Colombia Immersion in Laureles) was nice and close to where we lived but disorganised and unprofessional. They asked us to come in and do a verbal placement test (which includes a five-minute conversation with a teacher). Mine was in person but they were too busy to give Scott’s his in person and so handed him a phone and asked him to chat to the person on the other end. Scott speaks rudimentary Spanish, but the phone call cut out a couple of times and by time the three minute convo was up they’d decided he was a complete beginner – week one, A1.
The second school (Total Spanish in Poblado) had been recommended by an acquaintance and started off a little better by asking us to come in and sit a written placement test. I scored between B1 and B2 while Scott scored A3 to B1. We were then told to come in the following Monday and sit a verbal test before classes commenced. The verbal test was a one-minute conversation where we were simply asked: Como te llamas? (what is your name?); De donde eres? (where are you from?) and cuántos años tienes? (how old are you). That was it. We answered all those questions correctly and were then placed in Spanish A1/A2 (which is essentially week 2 of courses if you start right from the beginning.
We forked out 500,000 COP each for that week ($160USD) and 90 per cent of the course material we already knew. Secondly, along with our four other classmates, we were all starkly different levels.
language schools are notorious for changing staff faster than their undies
After just one day it was clear what had happened. You see, this wasn’t our first rodeo (only the first time round we were on the other end – working in one of these schools as English teachers in China… you can read about it here). We knew the tricks: sell whatever you could, promise the world, make a song and dance about placement tests and then plop students wherever the hell there was room to make as much money as possible.
At the end of the week (and despite having a good teacher in a professional and engaging environment) we were pretty reluctant to pay for another and so we confronted the school manager. We told her our concerns (particularly re: the different levels of the group) and she insisted that no, we were all the same and “you just learned faster”.
And so we searched for school number three.
Run by an American expat and former vice principal, The Official Language School of the Americas (OLSA) seemed a good choice for option number three. Unlike its “intensive school” counterparts, it offered just 90 minute group classes per day with a free language exchange on Wednesday nights.
The school certainly seemed to be less bells and whistles than the others (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) and touted a focus on conversation “because you can learn grammar online for free”. That sounded promising.
We booked a week, had a pretty lengthy chat with a teacher for our placement test and were told that they had a group for us that would challenge us. And it did. We struggled to understand 80 per cent of what the teacher said (she spoke quite fast) and we spent quite a lot of time on grammar. Because of this I didn’t find the lessons overly engaging and actually made little progress.
That said, I really loved the space and the staff were relaxed while the boss encouraged you to hang out as long as you liked at the school, which was a nice touch.
5 tips to consider before booking your Spanish school
High prices don’t guarantee quality. As the owner of OLSA openly admitted to us, you don’t make money teaching English to locals in Colombia – the real cash cow is the foreigners who’ll pay through the nose for Spanish. Of the three schools we attended, not one of our Spanish teachers was a qualified teacher and they were all incredibly young (under 30 exclusively) and had less than two years’ experience. According to one of the Colombian teachers we worked with, language schools are notorious for changing staff faster than their undies (particularly Toucan Spanish School – which is one of the more expensive but allegedly don’t pay teachers accordingly).
Intensive lessons aren’t always better. Most of the Spanish schools in Medellin will offer a four hour per day “intensive group class” touting it as the most efficient way to speak Spanish fast. But when it comes to these four hour Spanish classes you don’t necessarily cover a lot of curriculum in that time. During one lesson we spent the entire four hours on the difference between Ser and Estar, which was particularly unfortunate for us as we already knew it. Moral to the story, quantity does also not guarantee quality.
Consider what you want from the course. If partying, extra-curricular activities such as sky diving and salsa nights are really your jam then Medellin’s wealth of private Spanish schools are perfect. You’ll get some Spanish lessons during the day and then have the full tourist experience at night. You’ll make friends, learn some sweet moves and probably have a blast. If legitimate, well-rounded Spanish lessons minus the package tours are your thing, consider Medellin’s EAFIT university. Or betters still (particularly if money is an object) consider hiring a private tutor and meeting at a café such as Hija Mia. You can find tutors on Craigslist and on expat Facebook pages such as GringoPaisa. The popular and free website SpanishDict is also an outstanding learning resource that even plates up lessons and quizzes to help you further progress.
Be assertive in your language placement course and ask for a lay out of the curriculum. If you have studied Spanish before – tell them! Be specific with what you have already learned and don’t be afraid to push for a different level if you think the one you have been lumped into isn’t a good fit. Don’t be afraid to be ask for a trial class – especially if you’re considering a three or more week stay.
Enhance the experience by staying with a local family BUT NOT a homestay. Again, if money is no object, a pricey homestay where all meals are provided might be just what you’re after. But if you’re looking for a similar experience minus the extortion just stay with a local family on Airbnb. The money goes straight into the pocket of the locals, you’ll have full autonomy with the ability to practice your Spanish each day and you’ll have complete control over your living situation. We stayed with a fabulous family in Estadio, Medellin, where the room cost us about $8 USD per night and we had a fantastic cultural exchange while we were there. They hardly spoke a word of English and it forced us to really use every bit of Spanish we had.
Want more info? Check out the below list of Medellin’s top Spanish schools including prices.
(Please not, all prices quoted are current as of March, 2019, and are for group classes. Most schools begin classes on Monday).
Colombia Immersion in both Laureles and Envigado (costs 575,000 COP for 20 hours per week with small discounts for three weeks or more)
Total Spanish in Poblado (costs 560,000 per 20 hour week with discounts for courses over three weeks or if two or more people enrol)
EAFIT Universidad – Centro de Idiomas in Poblado area (costs 1,390,000 for a 38 hour course held over either two or four weeks)
OLSA in Laureles (costs 180,000 COP per week for 7.5 hours, discounts after two weeks or more).
Toucan Spanish School in Poblado (costs 575,000 per 20 hour week with small discounts after two weeks)
Universidad Pontifica Bolivariana – Centro de Lenguas in Laureles (costs 1,327,000 COP for a 40 hour course over four weeks)
Orquidea Spanish School, in Envigado (costs 475,000 COP + tax for a 20 hour week.
Elefun Spanish School, in Estadio (costs 560,000 COP per 20 hour week or 500,000 COP for three weeks or more