5 cool places to learn a foreign language abroad

By Maureen Jenkins, Special to CNNUpdated 8th October 2012
When you travel to a foreign country, everything from greetings to requests to simple transactions can get "lost in translation."
Since learning the language is one of the best ways to understand a culture, why not study it while you're there on vacation?
"The more we learn about a foreign language, the more we learn about our own language and about ourselves -- who you are in that other country with other greetings, foods, ways of interacting," says Brazilian native Ana C. Thomé Williams, a senior lecturer in Portuguese at Northwestern University.
Sure, you can study in a traditional classroom, but there are other, wonderfully interactive ways to pick up skills.
In some places around the world, you can swap foreign tongues in hip urban bars. In others, learn a new language while sailing, picking up culinary tips in an ethnic kitchen or rock climbing. And you're likely to meet some new local friends along the way.
"Psychologically, when you are in another country, you need to be more open to challenges. It will help you be more open to challenges back in your own country," says Williams, who specializes in intercultural communication. "It's a good training for life."
Here are five ways -- and five cool places -- around the world to learn a foreign language:
1. Spanglish Exchange in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Madrid, Spain.
Call it language learning-meets-speed dating. Created by Maya May, a Chicago-area native who's lived in Buenos Aires for years, Spanglish Exchange pairs native English and native Spanish speakers for a couple hours.
Here's how it works: You rotate every 10 minutes from table to table and partner to partner. Instead of talking about how you love sunsets and walks on the beach, you alternately chat for five minutes about life in both languages, even if neither of you is terribly fluent in the other's mother tongue.
These several-days-a-week evening events take place at hip restaurants, bars and clubs in Buenos Aires barrios such as San Telmo and Palermo and in equally cool venues in Madrid. They give you a great excuse to get out and experience city nightlife for just $9 (student discounts are available).
"We've been seeing Spanglish-style events popping up in cities all over the world. We're happy to have started a language learning trend," says May. "Face-to-face conversations with native speakers are the best way to gain fluency with the added benefit of meeting people from all over the world." And over a beer or cocktail, no less.
2. Parler Parlor Conversation Group in Paris, France
Visiting the City of Light and looking for an easy way to both meet locals and brush up on your French? Parler Parlor offers free-form chats between native English and French speakers three times a week at two spots in central Paris.
Launched 14 years ago by "House Hunters International" favorite and American expatriate Adrian Leeds along with French-language expert Marie-Elisabeth Crochard, Parler Parlor has members (who sign up for multiple sessions or pay a one-time fee) from 45 countries. Equally divided groups of between six and eight English and French speakers spend 45 minutes chatting in one language, then the other.
Says Leeds: "It's one voice at a time, period. (Visitors) should never feel intimidated because everybody is there for the same reason, regardless of the level."
Another benefit: "I think it's really therapeutic. Regardless of what's going on in your life, for an hour and a half you get to talk and think about something else. It can be like a group therapy session."
3. Instituto de Lenguajes Puerto Escondido in Puerto Escondido, Mexico.
If world-class surfing and studying is your thing, the Instituto de Lenguajes offers small-group and private instruction Spanish language lessons. Based in a coastal village in the state of Oaxaca and about 200 miles south of Acapulco, the school prides itself on immersion into Mexican culture.
Keep yourself challenged by learning to speak while adding surf tours -- or perhaps Oaxacan cooking lessons or salsa dancing, all in Spanish -- to your daily agenda. Extracurriculars are plentiful, but the Instituto is first and foremost about foreign language. Its teachers are native Spanish speakers who come from across Latin America and Mexico and all know English.
You don't have to stroll far to sleep here.
Stay on school grounds and rent one of the Instituto's affordable WiFi-enabled bungalows, which start at $30 a night and $650 for four weeks and overlook the popular Playa Zicatela beach.
Also available in a bus-accessible nearby neighborhood are studio apartments with full kitchens and ocean views. (And the next-door family is happy to help guests practice their developing language skills.) For those wanting to live with and like the locals, the Instituto arranges home stays with area residents.
4. Kyoto Minsai Japanese Language School in Kyoto, Japan.
Whether you're a beginner trying Japanese for the first time or an advanced speaker preparing for language proficiency tests, this Kyoto school is just the ticket. Its morning and afternoon short-term intensive courses range from two to 10 weeks -- four weekdays of study and one field trip day.
The school prides itself on offering a "living and breathing" language program that introduces students to Japanese culture and the country's way of life. Instruction here is intense. Even the most elementary classes are in Japanese only.
Students at Kyoto Minsai can bunk in the school's dormitory while taking in the city's rich history, high-tech vibe (gaming giant Nintendo is based here), cultural arts and intellectual offerings (about 10% of Kyoto's residents are enrolled in universities).
The Kyoto surroundings add texture to the language lessons taught here, as do the school's complementary studies on Japanese culture, everyday life, and customs.
5. Vela & Lingua in Elba, Italy.
Think you can multitask well enough to learn Italian and sailing at the same time? If you're up for the challenge -- and some awesome Tyrrhenian Sea views while you're at it -- then check out Italy-based Lingua's language learning program. Usually offered May through September, its sailing season can stretch into the rest of the year if student groups form and weather permits.
One Vela & Lingua ("Sailing and Language" in Italian) option lets small student groups study Italian on weekday mornings and then sail on Saturday to the island of Elba (yes, where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled in 1814). Another condenses this study-sail-then-swim-in-a-cove program into a weekend.
Yet another lets student groups sail all week long, taking Italian classes with a Lingua instructor and sailing lessons from a skipper of nearby schools Sud Ovest and Gatticorsari. Students will head from Marina di Salivoli or Baratti on the Italian mainland to Elba or one of the other islands of the Tuscan Archipelago.
Language lessons take place in the mornings, while afternoons mean stops on the islands' scenic beaches and land excursions to interesting sites. Talk about putting a new spin on "immersion."
Maureen Jenkins is a freelance travel, food and lifestyles writer. A Chicago native, she lives outside Paris and blogs about her expatriate life at UrbanTravelGirl.com.