Last year I bought an oven.  Cooking healthy meals for my family is a high priority for me, a huge part of the way I love my family.  I knew it would be the oven I would have for a good many years and would affect every meal we would eat.  Making an informed choice required that I visit many stores to compare brands, warranties, and the reputation of the manufacturer.  In the end, it was not the least expensive oven that I chose.  I purchased the oven most likely to yield the best possible muffins and chicken pot pie one could bake.

The same careful process should be followed in order to select a language center.  True, some things one cannot control. No matter how sophisticated the oven, you can’t throw in a bag of groceries and expect it to produce a three course meal.  When it comes to language, learners have to be driven, relentless and social in order to pursue fluency.  However, there are a good deal of factors that affect your ability to grow rapidly in understanding and communicating.  

Sometimes choosing the center closest to where we live, or perhaps the least expensive option, may cost us more in the long run.  Choose the center working hardest to serve you.  

These questions may help you decide who that is:

1. Are certified language coaches on staff?

Certified coaches that have the proper experience necessary to help one grow, develop grammar activities and offer feedback in order for you to stay encouraged day in and day out are an essential ingredient in any center offering to support your growth.  Are sessions observed occasionally to offer you feedback and suggestions for further development?  The best coaches are those who have been through the process of learning the same language you are, and have created strategies for helping you do so with more ease.

2. Is the staff fully committed to you?

A tendency can be to employ part-time or hourly staff.  Being an ambassador for your language and culture is a skill that requires a considerable amount of on the job training. Is your center utilizing a full work day for job development and training beyond session time in order to upgrade skills?  Is some of their time given to further enhance and develop resources used in sessions?  Language learning has the potential to significantly impact the world, bringing down walls between cultures.   Does your language center share this vision and a full time commitment to you?

3. Accountability – where is the source?

When I was learning Arabic, occasionally I’d be heading out the door in route to a center when I’d receive a call.  My session had been cancelled.  Not by the center’s management, but by the staff member himself.  Punctuality, professionalism, job competence, these are all areas westerners highly value.   “As a customer, make sure that you are getting the greatest return on your investment. Ask about cancellation policies, what procedures are in place to ensure sessions happen, and if back up nurturers are on standby for unavoidable absences. Your language learning should not be in the hands of one person’s decision to come into work.  A key factor in your success is making sure you are progressing at the pace that you have set out to grow.

4. Are cultural understanding and growth prioritized?

“Growing in Participation” is a new concept as an approach to learning language.  It supports our underlying motivation to learning a language in the first place; to understand people whose language you are investing in.  Will you be getting an education on the culture of the host people you’ve come to live among?  After hundreds of hours spent learning language, will you then also deeply know and understand them?  The best program will build into their vision, resources and methodology a vast amount of cultural knowledge that no academic degree in anthropology could achieve.  When you isolate language from the culture that it represents, you rob yourself of growing deeply into understanding the world it belongs to.

5. How much time will be spent on activities that build communication?

In traditional programs it is possible to spend a full two years learning grammar, reading and writing and exit without the ability to form spontaneous sentences, tell a story or feel confident that you will understand someone who approaches you in this new language.  Reading, writing and grammar are important aspects of language learning, but are they given at the sacrifice of understanding and conversational ability?  Make sure you are in a program that gives priority to the functions that you do most in any given day – listening and responding.  Once we learn to do those two things, reading and writing will have their place, in the same order as it did when we learned our first language.

Learning a new language can be an amazing and enjoyable experience that opens new relationships and opportunity and a world of thought discovery far beyond what a mono-cultural life experience can yield.  It can also be frustrating, confusing and discouraging.  Often those emotions and joys can take place at the same time.  Make sure you are in a center where entrance into this new world is being opened to you by those who are excited to journey with you and are creating a both a professional and nurturing space where session imitate real life functions and interactions.