Antigua, Guatemala is one of the most popular places in the world to study Spanish and there are scores of schools to choose from there. In Summer 2008 I spent 10 weeks studying Spanish in Antigua and the following year I also took classes in Xela as well as in Granada, Nicaragua (also very popular Spanish study destinations). During my various studies I regularly asked other students I met for opinions about their schools. Obviously, with so many schools in town, there is a wide range of opinions, quality, etc. What I have concluded is that the following are the primary issues to consider in choosing a school:
Teachers – Ultimately, this is the single most important issue since a bad teacher will ruin an otherwise good school and vice-versa. I think the biggest concern is usually experience. That 22-year old may be the nicest person you’ve ever met, but if they don’t know how to teach well, have a firm grasp of grammar, etc. you won’t get the most out of your learning time.
Another consideration is flexibility. Sometimes this is a function of the school but almost always it is a function of the teacher’s personality and experience. You may have specific learning objectives that conflict somewhat with the style or system used by your school and/or teacher. If the teacher is flexible, s/he will adapt to meet your goals and interests. If not, you will be wishing you chose a different school.
You may also want to discuss with your teacher your preferred learning style. Some people are more visual, some learn more from trying than from books, etc. And, some prefer to be corrected regularly, while others find that frustrating or discouraging. Some students are primarily interested in basic communication skills while others want to master the grammar. This could be important in deciding how fast you will progress from one topic to the next. Again, a good teacher will accommodate your learning style and preference.
One final thing to consider is whether you want to have one teacher or multiple teachers. I see pros and cons to both choices. At first, I planned to switch teachers regularly, thinking that exposure to different teaching styles, accents, ways of speaking, etc. would be good for my learning. I still generally believe that, but I ended up studying with one of the very best teachers in Antigua and I was starting from a beginning level. So, what I ultimately decided was to stick with her until I finished studying all of the basic grammar. I met others who studied in larger schools and who rotated teachers occasionally. Some of them were happy with the situation (especially if they didn’t like their first teacher) but others (most) seemed to end up having a mix of good and so-so teachers. If I had to do it again, I think a good compromise would be to stick with one good teacher for the basic learning 4 hours each day and then get a different teacher to focus on conversation for 2 hours in the afternoon.
System – As far as I can tell, there are only a handful of schools that seem to actually have a well planned system of instruction. I’m not trying to argue that one is necessary to have a good school. It really depends on your goals. If you are interested in starting from a beginner level and mastering all the grammar, then I think a good system of materials, ordering of learning principles, etc. is a huge advantage. If you only want to spend a week studying survival phrases or if you are an advanced student trying to refresh, learn a specialized vocabulary, or generally advance to the next level, such a system is probably of little use. Having said that, if/when you study the subjunctive I would make sure your school has some good materials for this as most I have seen only cover the very basic uses and there are in fact a great many (spanning four “moods”).
Other students – It’s not difficult to meet other folks in a place like Antigua, but naturally, it is easier meeting them in school. In this regard, schools differ principally on size and nature of the student body. Since some schools have associations with foreign groups (nonprofits, travel organizations, universities, etc.) their student population often is skewed toward a representation of those associations. Some don’t seem to have these associations, but still seem to have a predominance of certain nationalities, etc. Likewise, some schools are very large and some are fairly small.
Homestay – I did not stay with a family for several reasons, but most other students I met did, so this may be a big consideration for you. I heard stories of wonderful and horrible experiences and shades in between. I think some of this is a simple function of having a good fit between the personality types, but some families and homes truly do excel or come up short. I didn’t notice any pattern associated with schools. Two things I would consider with homestays are location (how close to the school, whether the house is in town or a well-lit area, etc.) and whether you can easily change if you are unhappy. You might also wish to consider the size and makeup of the family, presence of pets, etc.
Specializations/Intangibles – There are a few schools which try to separate themselves by having specialized courses (e.g., for doctors), a social mission or good treatment of the teaching staff. Others have exceptionally nice facilities. The only warning I offer is to do your homework thoroughly as I heard rumors that some of the schools make false claims.
Price – There are certainly a few rather expensive schools in Antigua, and quite a bit of variation, but many schools are more or less in the same price range. Some schools offer discounts for extended studies, extra hours, etc. The price including a homestay also can add variation to the overall cost.
Location – The three cities where I took classes were not very large (though Xela wasn’t small either) so I didn’t see any real advantage to having a school in one location versus another but that is really a function of the city you choose and your personal preferences. Will you have transportation? How long is the walk or commute? What kind of weather will you be experiencing? Etc.
Activities – Most schools in Antigua offer some form of extra-curricular activities. Standard ones include a visit to La Azotea coffee farm and museum, a hike up the cerro de la cruz, a trip to a local macadamia farm, local museums, etc. Some offer occasional salsa lessons.
A Note about Spanish School Review Sites
I met a lot of people who chose their schools based on one or more of the review sites out there. There’s nothing wrong with that; after all, I run a Spanish school review site for Antigua. But, do be aware that some actually charge the schools to be included. That doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable, but it does mean that some schools, especially smaller ones, may not be included. I also heard some rumors that some schools try to manipulate the feedback on these sites, though I cannot in any way confirm if that is true.
It’s impossible for anyone to say what school is “the best.” It depends on your goals, your personality, your current level, your budget, etc. I found my school (for disclosure, I attended Escuela de Español “Cooperación”) to be professional, reasonably priced and friendly. The great thing about most schools in Antigua is that you can take lessons for as long (or short) a time as you like. Give one a try and if you’re not pleased you won’t have any problem finding a different school to suit your tastes.