Frankie Austin shares her top tips for finding the perfect English immersion course in the UK.
We all know that you are far more likely to advance in English if you take yourself to a country where you are surrounded and immersed in the language. There is also no secret of the importance of English globally. To throw a few facts and figures at you: English has official or special status in at least 75 countries; it is spoken by around 375 million speakers as a first language and 375 million people as a second language. It is also believed to be spoken by around 750 million people as a foreign language. So how do all these people learn English as a foreign language? Around 700,000 of them come to the UK to learn English each year.
If you are thinking about studying English abroad, read on. In this article I’m going to give you some useful tips on what any person thinking about taking an English course in the UK should expect and look for before dipping in and spending money on what may initially seem like a ‘great deal’. So let’s begin with…
Location, location, location. You know you want to go to the UK, but where? The place you study will determine a number of things and define the overall experience in a variety of ways.
If you go to a big city you may have to travel longer distances to class, home or to the home of a classmate. Things could be more expensive in a city and you might find yourself surrounded by other language learners or tourists if you go to one of the popular cities such as London, Oxford, Bath or Bournemouth. Although there could be more places to go out, the reality is that you probably won’t go to all of them anyway.
Is the town or city you are considering easy to get to from the airport by public transport? Does the course provider offer an airport pick-up service? Check how close airports are located to your school and which airlines fly there. Are there direct trains or do you have to change half a dozen times? If you have in mind visiting areas of interest near the place you are considering studying, how far are they and how easy are they to reach? Does your schedule allow time for this? Can you travel within the town or city easily? If you can walk everywhere, you will save a lot of money.
Aside from the above, think about the residents. What accent do they have? In the UK there is a huge variety of accents which you may or may not have difficulty understanding. Do the residents have constant contact with foreigners and tourists? If they do, it’s possible that they won’t want to lend time to you. That’s not to say that English people are not open-minded and friendly – they are. But the reality is the same in many cities, they can get a bit tired of too many tourists.
Lastly, does the school you are considering have all the facilities you need? The basics are: wifi and computers, books and DVDs for rental, audio and projector, whiteboard, tables and chairs.
Most language schools in the UK provide accommodation for their students in a residence or with host families. Finding good host families is hard and many schools now opt for a residence, which could be an empty boarding school, for example. This means a lot of language learners sharing space and spending time together without native English speakers. For obvious reasons, this is not a good option if your aim is to learn English, and it usually encourages students to fall back into their first language. You would also not have the experience of staying in an English home, learning the customs, traditions, habits, and language from the family you stay with.
Your host family will play an integral role in your learning process. They should be around at certain times of the day to chat or help you out with directions, for example. The amount your host does will depend on the agreement between the host and the course provider.
Some hosts provide all meals as part of the agreement. For adults, I believe it’s better to provide only breakfast. This is because students should spend as much time outside, communicating and experiencing the UK as much as possible. This includes going to the supermarket, reading products, speaking to the supermarket employees, listening to the people on the street and growing accustomed to the sounds and rhythms of the place and language. Buying English products and learning how to prepare a dish with your host is another way of ensuring that you take advantage of every moment in England and that you are not simply given everything ‘on a plate’. Check what the rules are for cleaning, washing clothes, towels and bed sheets, and if there are any house rules in general.
Things to check before you agree to a host are: age, occupation, work schedules, how many people share the house or flat and the age of children, if any. I usually find that host families which contain a retired couple are the best as they have the time and desire to spend it on getting to know foreigners. Their children have flown the nest leaving empty rooms, perfect for language students. Many homes in the UK also have pets – usually a dog or a cat, or both! If you have an allergy make sure you communicate this to your course provider.
Many homes in the UK are houses, or houses converted into flats in which case there will be no lift. If you have limited mobility you should also ask if there are steps leading up to the flat or house from outside. Don’t share a room unless you have specifically asked to, if you travel with your partner for example, or if it is reflected in the cost of your accommodation.
Homes in the UK are different to homes in your country. Remember that. You shouldn’t expect things to be the same as back home if you travel to the UK. This includes carpet on the floor (yes, even in the bathroom!), curtains which may let the light through in the morning, kitchen appliances (no coffee machine?!). The daily routine will be different. Expect to get up at around 8am or 9am, have lunch at 1pm, dinner at 7pm and television in the evenings.
Lastly, the location of your home: If you are far from everything or in a place which is not easy to get to by public transport, as always, expect to spend time and money travelling.
Every student MUST complete a needs analysis before starting an English immersion course. This is a list of questions to find out more about you, why you want to learn English and your language goals. If you have signed up to a course but have not completed a needs analysis you can expect to receive classes which cover general skills for your level but which will not teach you all the language you need. It’s simple. If you don’t tell them what you want, they are unlikely to give you what you need.
A successful English immersion course must have structured classes which tackle the student’s language ‘obstacles’. If you are in a large class (which I consider to be more than 8 students) and you haven’t completed a needs analysis, expect to feel unsatisfied in some areas.
That’s not to say that private classes are better than group classes. As I have said, up to 8 students in a class is acceptable if you want maximum teacher attention, yet you still maintain the dynamics of a group class, enjoying individual, pair work and group activities within the classroom and as catalysts for language acquisition.
Be sure to check the maximum and average number of students in a class. Bear in mind also that large groups can be fun but a mix of levels as is commonly found in large groups can be frustrating for the teacher and the students.
Which leads me on to the teacher: The pivotal make-or-break of any language course. Finding good ones is hard. But when you do, you don’t want to let them go. TEFL teachers with many years of experience are not always the best ones as they sometimes lack the same energy and buzz that some new-kids-on-the-block have. However, experienced teachers do have that instinctive know-how that you only get after years of teaching English as foreign language. I’m talking about those gems who know instinctively how to get the most out of a person, when to stop talking and let the student talk, or how to improvise a class in an emergency. Also, a happy teacher projects this onto the students with well-planned classes and attention. A teacher who is being badly paid as you often find with low-cost English courses abroad probably won’t make a lot of effort with their classes. Oh, and let’s not forget the all-important qualifications: at least the Trinity Cert. TESOL or Cambridge CELTA. If it’s not Trinity or Cambridge, be careful!
An immersion course is not only about your classes. If you want to learn and enjoy, you should be offered activities to complement the course. I’m not talking about just going to the pub (though this is an integral part of your experience while in the UK too), I’m talking about things to do which will enrich, educate and encourage you to communicate in English. If the course provider offers activities, will a teacher be present to help with any language problems and guide you through these real-life situations? Or will you be left with a bunch of other language learners to recycle mistakes or speak in your first language?
I firmly believe that on an immersion course, the more exposure you have to speakers of English, and local people, the better. What better way to learn a language than by conversing with those who speak it naturally? Nowadays there are also plenty of non-native speakers of English living in English-speaking countries. We are therefore required to speak English as an international whenever we travel, work and socialize.
Being an accredited school means being part of a group which can guarantee a degree of quality which language learners can trust. It is a stamp of approval. Schools with an accreditation have to pass certain tests and inspections before being accepted. It’s certainly worth checking out the list of accredited language schools before making a decision about which academy to provide you with a language course.
However, having an accreditation is not the be-all-and-end-all. There is a long list of organizations which offer very good courses abroad and which don’t have an accreditation. If you are happy in the other areas of the language program, go for it.
How much does an intensive English immersion course cost? How much should you spend? What exactly do you get for your money? Like many companies, beware of hidden costs. What may seem like a great deal at first may turn into an expensive decision further down the line. Look out for hidden costs in sign up fee (which could be between €100 and €200), airport pick-up, use of internet or other facilities, materials or books, or assessment fees. Oh, and don’t forget daily travel expenses if in a big city like London, travel and entrance during activities (if any), meals, higher prices in hot spot tourist areas or during peak season and accommodation extras such as en suite bathroom.
If the cost to you per hour of class is below €18 in the peak season, which is June to September, I would avoid it. This to me suggests larger classes and a badly paid teacher. Carefully planned lessons, checking student’s needs analysis and adapting class content, using a variety of engaging materials and having a well-managed course do not come out of thin air. This takes time and thought processes to get it right. If somebody is not being paid for this, then it is likely that it is not happening at all.
Does that course you spotted recently still seem like a fair deal? The harsh reality is, if your level of English has not improved by the end of the course because you went for the cheaper option, then you have not saved money at all.
What else could persuade you into spending your hard-earned cash on an English course abroad? If you are having trouble choosing your course provider, check out their written and video testimonials. Some videos may seem a bit planned or unnatural. In my opinion, if a person is willing to appear in a video in order to recommend a course to others, that’s a good sign.
Still not convinced? Visit the school’s Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn page and other social networks to see ratings, comments, photos, news and events. If you can see what other students have contributed to the pages, it’s even better as this demonstrates transparency in the service provider and allows you to read between the lines before jumping in.
How to choose
If you still need help choosing, or you don’t know where to begin, here is a step-by-step guide to searching for an English immersion course in the UK:
- Decide why you want to take an English course abroad. Do you want to pass an official exam? Do you need English to get a job? Are you serious about improving your general English skills? Do you just want to have a bit of fun and meet some new people in English?
- Write down three things which you want to achieve by the end of the course. They can be specific or non-specific. Do you want to be able to learn how to use English in a job interview? Do you want to become more fluent?
- Research 8-10 schools at least to get an idea of what’s out there. You shouldn’t search only with the names of the places you already know such as London or Bournemouth as this will limit your options. Don’t forget to write down the details of what each school can offer you based on your aims, and whether they offer something original/ unique. Consider all of the things you have just read about in this article.
- Now narrow down your search to three schools that you like and which seem to offer what you need in order to achieve your goals. Take a closer look at the details of the course, social networks and reviews. Do your sums and research the locations.
- Make contact by telephone or email with the three schools of your choice and pay attention to the level of service you receive. Does the person who picks up the phone answer all your questions well? Are they friendly and helpful? Is the service professional? Do they try to sell you something you don’t want? Are they really listening to your questions and requests? You may find that the level of service you receive from some companies worsens between the sales/customer service phase (that means before you have paid) and during of the course (that means after you have paid). Think about the size of the company and use your instinct with this one.
I run intensive English immersion courses for adults in Winchester, UK every year. It has been a big learning curve to arrive at a place where I believe 100% that the courses I provide at Immersed English are those which will not only make my students feel comfortable when they travel and live temporarily in a foreign place, but also that they achieve their goals in English and have an experience they will never forget. And that’s not easy to achieve.If you are interested in finding out more, have a look at my website and the photographs below.
I hope this article has helped you to choose your English course in the UK. Whichever program you choose, I hope you will achieve everything you want and have an unforgettable experience. Good luck!