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Chris Coté - Language Studies Abroad, Inc. LEFT: Christine Coté, president of Language Studies Abroad, Inc., describes herself as an "evangelist" of language learning.

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Like most American adults, Christine Coté never gave much thought to the idea of studying abroad. She assumed that "study abroad" programs were for high-school and college students.

Then she heard about a language school in Mexico where adults could learn Spanish while on vacation. She headed south to Cuernavaca. After that course, she attended a school in San José, Costa Rica. Her next language vacation was in Madrid, Spain. And when the language agency that had arranged her trips was up for sale, she did the sensible thing: She bought it.

Today, Chris describes herself as an "evangelist" for adult language learning--and she puts her money where her mouth is, touring the world to find language schools that meet the standards of her agency, Language Studies Abroad, Inc.

What a "language agency" is

Agencies like Language Studies Abroad serve as matchmakers for students and language schools. Although they aren't very well-known in North America, such agencies are very popular in Europe. In fact, Germany alone has more than 300 private language-study agencies.

Over dinner in Florence, Italy, Christine Coté told me that the European "language tourism" movement began after World War II when homestays in cities, resorts, and rural villages were promoted as inexpensive vacations. As travelers felt the need to communicate with their hosts, language schools were created to meet that need--and it wasn't long until homestays became an adjunct to language education, instead of the other way around.

With hundreds of language schools and programs to choose from, how does a student pick the right one? That's where language agencies come in. Like a good travel or cruise agency, a language-study agency can help a traveler find a suitable "language vacation" package, handle the business details, and provide any additional services that may be needed.

What a language agency does

You don't need to book language study through an agency, and--because agencies often charge service fees--you may save a few dollars, pounds, or drachma by dealing direct. However, there are several good reasons for booking through a language agency, just as there are good reasons for buying a tour or cruise through a travel agent:

Quality. Language agencies represent only the schools that meet their standards for quality of instruction, financial stability, etc. When I met LSA's Christine Coté in Florence last January, she was on a lengthy (and expensive) inspection trip of language schools in Italy and France--including the LSA school in Siena, Dante Alighieri, which I attended the following week. (See my report.)

Appropriateness. Are you interested in a course of several months, or just a week or two? If you're over 50, would you feel invigorated by studying with younger students, or would you be more comfortable in a special "mature adults" class? What would you like to do in your spare time? A language agency can help you find a school that matches your needs or preferences, based on the agency's knowledge and reports from previous students.

Convenience. Many European language schools don't accept credit cards or personal checks from abroad. If you live outside Europe, your savings on the cost of a wire transfer or bank draft can go a long way toward covering the agency's service fee.

Clout. Language schools rely on agencies to send them students, and this can work to your advantage. Lodgings are one example. Christine Coté explains: "The homestay is a big part of our program. Because we send so many students to each school, they're careful to place LSA students with 'preferred homestays' if they have to choose between giving it to an LSA student or one who 'goes direct.'"

Planning a language vacation

I'm not familiar with how every agency works, but here's the procedure for planning your "language vacation" with Language Studies Abroad:

1. Go to the agency's Web site. Find the language that interests you, and click the country you'd where you'd like to study (e.g., "German," then "Austria," "Germany," or "Switzerland.")

2. Compare schools. Programs vary from school to school, so examine the courses available in each city listed. (For example, the LSA school in Siena offers "Intensive Course + Culture," "Standard Course," and "Super Intensive," each with a two-week minimum. If you wanted a more personalized program and couldn't stay longer than a week, you'd be better off at the LSA school in Rome, where the choices include individual instruction with a 7-day minimum.)

3. Apply or request more information. LSA has an online form that you can use to book a course. If you want more details (as many prospective students do), you can contact the agency for brochures or answers to specific questions. 

Update: Christine Coté has sold Language Studies Abroad, and the agency's Web site was no longer working the last time I checked.

For more information on language studies abroad, search Google for "language studies in Europe" or "Europe language schools." And if you're interested in studying Italian, you won't go wrong with Dante Alighieri in Siena, Italy or Istituto Venezia in Venice and Trieste.

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