How to Choose Your Study Abroad Program

When choosing to study abroad there are many things that go through your head – is it worth it? Will I really learn the language? Can I get enough course credit? All these questions and anxieties are completely normal and ultimately important to your decision making.

The first thing you should do if you are looking to study abroad outside of your home University program is to meet with your school advisor about what you want to do and what you want to achieve. The most important part of your education abroad is that you are rewarded not only in the experience but for the work you did while you were there.

Every University has a different list of criteria for issuing US credit for the courses you take abroad, so before booking a course you should always consult with your advisor on how many hours you’ll need to complete and what type of courses you’ll need to take to not only get the experience you want but the course credit you need.

By confirming the amount of hours you need to complete and having a detailed list of the documents you need from the institution aboard to submit to your home University, you will be well on your way to making your study abroad experience happen. Having this information at the beginning of your search will help you determine which program in which location is the best for you and allow you to make the best decision more efficiently.

Once you have that information, it comes down to how much time you can commit to studying abroad and how many credits you ultimately want to receive. Do you have a week, a summer, or a whole semester? Do you need 12 credits or just 3? Here’s a breakdown of types of study abroad programs and what will work best according to your goals:

Winter and Spring Break

If you want to make the most of the few weeks you have off for winter or spring break there are plenty of options around the globe. The best option for this short period of time would be an Intensive Language Course or a Combined Language Course. These courses are 30 lessons (25-30 hours) per week and focus on advancing your language skills as quickly as possible in the short amount of time that you are there. The standard rule is that 45 contact hours equals 3 credits, so take 2 weeks of the Intensive or Combined course and there’s a solid chance your University will issue you the credits for your time abroad


Doing a study abroad program in the summer is a great way to make sure you take enough hours of a course to gain the credit you need while still allowing you a varied amount of programs to choose from. You can take a Spanish and Mayan History Course in Merida, a Language and Culture course in Paris or Aix, a German and Music course in Vienna, or a Japanese and Traditional Culture course in Fukuoka, Japan. These courses will not only advance your language skills in a short time period but give you extra elements to the course to provide your home university with good reason for issuing you more course credits.


If you’re going abroad for an entire semester, it’s most important that you focus on a program that offers you variety to allow you to get the most credits for your time abroad. The reality is that if you’re looking for a whole semester of credit, taking just a language course won’t be enough. Focus on the programs that offer language courses as well as cultural courses so you can get a well rounded academic semester. A good example of this is the semester program in Malaga, which offers a Spanish course as well as courses on Spanish history, literature, economy, and media. Taking this type of program will not only make your time more enjoyable, but will make it much easier to transfer credit upon your return when you are able to present varied course syllabi and assignments for approval.

Ultimately, the options are endless, but the more organized you are about your goals with study abroad, the more likely you are to gain the credit you need and make the most out of the experience.

Still need advice? Feel free to contact us for information on possibilities and programs.

English Language Awareness: why TEFL teachers still need help with grammar

John Hughes, author of Cactus TEFL’s online courses, looks back at three years of raising English Language awareness and explains why prospective TEFL teachers still request help with their grammar.

About twenty years ago I was being interviewed for an intensive four-week course in teaching English as a Foreign Language. It felt like a real make or break situation. I’d given up my day job and saved enough money to live on for a month. Then I was going to head to the first country with a language school that would take me. The Training Course Director asked what most worried me about taking the course? I had no doubts about the answer: “Teaching grammar”.

Years later, having taught EFL in many different countries, I also found myself interviewing and training would-be teachers for intensive TEFL courses. And, in most cases, people’s concerns still echoed my own: their lack of knowledge and confidence with grammar. Like me, they’d never had much formal education at school into how the English language works, so wondered how they would be able to teach it.

Three years ago, Cactus TEFL set about changing this situation by offering a grammar course either to help people before taking a TEFL course or for existing teachers who wanted to brush up their skills. Perhaps one reason why no one had really offered this kind of quality language awareness training before was because there had never been the opportunities suddenly provided by the internet and online training. In terms of course content, the online format allowed us to present aspects of language in conjunction with video extracts of how a teacher might present the language to students. We were also determined that – unlike many other online courses at the time – our course would have a ‘real’ tutor who could help participants with questions and queries as well as facilitate and moderate discussion in the forums.

Now, Cactus TEFL’s first ever online course is three years old. The course has evolved and grown over time which is what we’d hoped for. As a writer of courses both in book-form and online, the key advantage for me of online courses is that they are much more organic than a book-based course. Course participants can post feedback and suggest improvements which help with the process of writing and developing the course. Over time the Cactus course has expanded from being an introduction to the English language into also covering areas of methodology and classroom skills.

Having said all that, what surprises me most is that the basic format of the course remains more or less the same as it was three years ago. There are thirty lessons in each course and we use a combination of readings, video and audio to present language items. Then there are exercises which follow to help consolidate what has been learned.  The tutor support has always been a key feature of the course and it’s the area which receives more regular praise.

The best part about being involved with these Cactus courses is that you know so many of the people taking them will go on to take TEFL courses (such as CELTA or the Cert TESOL) and then go off to teach in every corner of the world. Raising your language awareness and then teaching English as a Foreign Language really will change your life. Take me, for example. When I completed my first TEFL course I expected to travel and teach for a few years and then do something else. Now, I find myself still heavily involved in TEFL – and as for my concerns about grammar? Well, my third grammar textbook for language learners comes out later this year, so at least I’ve finally laid that fear to rest!

Cactus TEFL is the only international admissions and jobs service for TEFL. It works with over 125 TEFL course providers in 35 different countries. Its English Language Awareness course has been nominated for a British Council Innovation Award.

Cactus uses a so-called ‘full immersion’ method of teaching. What are the benefits of this?

What is Full Immersion?

Full immersion in language learning refers to the foreign language (the ‘target’ language) being taught in that language, with no other language being used during the teaching. It is the preferred method for Cactus’ teachers, and is also used amongst Cactus’ partner schools abroad.

We could say that it is learning a foreign language the same way we learned our native language: by ‘living’ it. The student doesn’t only study the language – they live it, in an exclusively target-language speaking environment: the classroom. A well designed, full immersion course can surround students in the language, giving them opportunities to speak and hear it and, most importantly, teach them not to depend on translation for understanding.

Where did Full Immersion originate?

Full Immersion is originally a teaching method where non-language curriculum subjects, such as history, art or science, are taught in a foreign language. The foreign language is learnt alongside the non-language subjects. The first full immersion programmes, in French, began in the USA and Canada in the 1950s and 1960s.

The approach has been found to be successful in language teaching, with students showing better progress, learning more, and more quickly.

How do teachers use the Full Immersion approach?

Good teachers are able to make themselves understood without using the students’ language, even at Beginner level. They use gestures, pictures, objects, dialogues and other means of getting the message across. And they always teach ‘in context’. Students know from the context what is likely to be said – there are only so many variations on what people say to each other in a restaurant, in a shop, at a party and so on. So students already understand what would be said in that context in their own language and are then receptive to learning the target language forms. As the level advances, simple explanation is effective in helping to get meaning across, as long as it is within the range of what the students can comprehend.

Right from the beginning, target ‘classroom language’ is used, ‘open your books’, ‘I’ll write it on the board’, ‘what’s the word for x’, and so on, and students can then generalise their understanding of much useful language in this context over to new contexts.

Teachers will move from a more controlled method of teaching to free practice during the class, so that students feel supported when they start to learn new grammar and lexis. As they become more familiar with it the teacher will give less and less reinforcement, so that by the end they are able to ‘do it alone’. Rather like riding a bicycle and taking off the training wheels, improvement is smooth and progressive.

What is the student’s role?

Sometimes it’s difficult for people who are new to the method to understand how it works – particularly with beginner learners. It’s ideal if the students are aware beforehand of what to expect. However, even if students don’t know what to expect, a good teacher will make it easy for them by teaching from Day 1 through means that make the meaning clear. Students have to work hard. It is so easy to freeze and panic and think they will never understand. A good teacher knows this and helps by encouragement and demonstration and example. Importantly, students need to go over what was covered in class immediately after the class and again the evening before the next class: this revision is essential to make it stick. And students should always ask teachers if, after putting in some effort, they still don’t understand.

Students should be prepared to speak up and take risks and not be afraid to get it wrong; students should just say whatever seems ‘right’, and keep trying: they will learn from their own and their classmates’ mistakes, along with judicious correction from the teacher.

Is learning through Full Immersion similar to how we learnt our own language?

Although there are differences between the way we learn our own language as a child, and the way we learn a second or subsequent language as an adult, there are many similarities, and immersion learning exploits these similarities. Hearing and seeing language in context, simple listening and repeating, and trying things out and receiving feedback are features common to learning our first language and learning a second language in an immersion setting.

The secret is to ‘train’ yourself to ‘think’ in the target language, and to resort to translation as little as possible. Initially, students think in their own language, translating somewhere between the thought and the spoken word, until eventually there comes a point where suddenly the thinking is happening in the new language – (and even, some say, the dreaming! )

On the other hand, translation is in fact a natural resort for students when they are trying to fully understand a word or phrase in a foreign language. If used deliberately and appropriately and in moderation by the teacher, translation can be very useful in the language learning process. It’s a question of balance.

What about learning the culture of the target language country?

Ideally, full immersion would mean full contact with the culture too, such as may be experienced in the target language country. However, students don’t have to go abroad to experience the target language culture. In a good class, the student will learn much more than just grammar, sentence structure and vocabulary, also getting a good idea of the history, culture and sociological aspects of the target culture. At Cactus we take the view that the teacher is the student’s connection with the culture, and the classroom is the world of the target language for the learner. Class time is short, so this language world needs to make the most of all the time available to surround the student in the language: to fully immerse them.

What are the advantages of Full Immersion, in a nutshell?

There are many advantages to learning in this way, but the main benefits of the Full Immersion approach are:

1.  You learn faster! Once used to the method, you should pick up pieces of vocabulary more naturally and quickly.

2.  You learn to speak more naturally. This method trains you to think in the target language, not translate word for word.

3.  You’ll have the confidence to use what you have learned. Because you are ‘living’ the language in the classroom, you will be better prepared to use it in ‘real’ scenarios.

4.  You will understand the spoken language. Because you are used to hearing the language spoken, you will be able to understand it in real-life situations.

5.  You develop good pronunciation. You get maximum exposure to the language and are encouraged you to use it, helping you to develop speech patterns and pronunciation.

6. You gain a cultural insight into the language and the people who speak it.

7.  It’s fun! You will be using the new language straight away, which is a lot more motivating, engaging and fun than studying language theory.

Cactus offers a range of part-time language courses in locations around the UK and North America. We also work with language schools all over the world to provide language courses at a range of levels, lengths and formats. For anyone interested in a more bespoke type of training course, we also offer tailor-made and corporate language training options all over the world. 

Academic viewpoint: Learning a language through podcasts

As we all know, learning a language isn’t just about sitting in a classroom for 2 hours a week, hoping to absorb the information the trainer provides. It takes a bit more effort than that, but one of the main pitfalls we have is time, or rather the lack of it. However, for most people every day brings some minutes or hours spent unproductively – sitting on the bus or subway, or stuck in traffic – and what better use of that time than to brush up on some language.

Listening to short podcasts is very convenient, since we can use this learning tool at any time, for instance on our way home, during coffee breaks or even on holiday, to improve our language skills. A podcast is an audio file that is generally free and distributed on the Internet. There are now hundreds upon hundreds of short, interesting files that you can save to your MP3 player and listen to, ranging from basic grammar and vocabulary practice to news casts and lectures.

While podcasting is no alternative to a traditional face-to-face class, it provides good support material, and with authentic texts can help in a number of ways. ITunes has many options (go to

How can you use a podcast?

The content of many podcasts is based around a short dialogue, which is repeated for you to be able to listen a second or even third time. Here are some more specific ideas:

• If you’re about to go abroad on vacation, listen to the appropriate chapters of the podcast the day or week before, and learn some of the phrases you’ll need for different situations.

• For higher level students, try to find a podcast about a museum or location you will visit on your travels. Listening to commentaries about that place in the target language is useful and interesting.

• For fluency practice – mimic the voices on the podcast to improve your fluency.

• For specific new language focus – listen to a dialogue and use a dictionary to learn new words that aren’t in the podcast glossary.

• For pronunciation practice – listening and repeating key words and sounds on the podcast to improve accent and pronunciation, as the voices used are authentic speakers of the language.

• For examples of how to describe different lexical items – because of the detailed vocabulary list on the podcast the listener can follow how to give explanations and how to describe items.

• To practice reading aloud – using the PDF versions of the podcast.

• If you are having specific difficulty understanding the audio, you can read and listen at the same time, going through the dialogue a few times until you are more certain of the content. Then you can practise without the written support, developing your ‘ear’ for the language.

Happy podding!

If you want to brush up your language close to home, Cactus runs daytime, evening and weekend language courses in the UK and the US & Canada. For tailor-made, private tuition in your home or workplace, Cactus Language Training will gear a course to your specific needs and interests.

Cactus also runs language courses in more than 30 languages, 60 countries and 500 destinations worldwide. Courses are available from one week upwards, at all ages and levels, and can be combined with a range of fun activities ranging from surfing and diving to cooking and wine tasting.

Learning a language through film

Some people can learn more quickly from reading in their target language, others from hearing it. Probably the best technique includes learning from both reading, speaking and hearing, since you use different parts of the brain for different activities. It’s quite common for students who have reached an advanced level of study in foreign languages to have difficulties in carrying out a simple conversation.

Especially if you are a beginning language learner, you will likely not understand much of the language when watching a movie. Native speakers talk rapidly, use slang, and often speak in accents or local dialects. Nonetheless, watching a foreign language film is a fantastic way to attune your ear to the sounds of the language. You’ll probably notice that by the end of the film, you’re able to understand bits and pieces of what you hear. Gather your friends together, make some popcorn, sit back and enjoy the adventure!

Movies with or without subtitles are a great way to hear the natural sounds of a language. You can close your eyes and listen or read subtitles to see how the translation differs from the original. If you have a DVD of the movie then you will have the opportunity to watch a few times, first with and then without subtitles, and you will be amazed at how much your comprehension improves.

Another important factor with modern foreign movies is the cultural insights you will have into another country and way of life.  Especially for people planning on visiting or working in another country and culture, you will be able to see the way people behave in different situations, and will be able to bridge the distance that separates you from the other culture.

Visit your local movie rental store and browse the foreign film section. Most films will be in the foreign language with English subtitles. Some university libraries have foreign videos that you can check out. Another alternative is to join an online DVD subscription service. Netflix has over 3500 foreign films available for rent—by far more than any other rental service. And some of the films are even available for download, so you can view them immediately upon joining Netflix .

Here is a short list of some recommendations from our teachers of good movies to watch in different languages.

French L’Auberge Espagnol (The Spanish Hostel)
Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (Amélie)
Le scaphandre et le papillon (The diving bell and the butterfly)
Italian Il Postino (The Postman)
La vita è bella (Life is beautiful)
German Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run)
Das Leben der Anderen (The lives of others)
Spanish Diarios de Motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries)
Cantonese Gong Fu (Kung Fu Hustle)
Mou gaan dou (Infernal Affairs – and the movie ‘The Departed’ was based on this)
Portuguese Cidade de deus (City of God)
Central do Brasil (Central Station)
Japanese Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai)
Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story)
Polish Popiol i Diament (Ashes and Diamonds)

How to get past the language plateau

As I know to my chagrin, there is no end to learning a language, and even when you think you’ve made it and are ‘fluent’, there’s always more to go. Prior to my move to New York I was living in Mexico City for 5 years, and even though I say so myself I thought I had mastered the language pretty well. I was able to work in a bilingual office and speak Spanish without the locals wincing at everything I said. My writing was cohesive and accurate, and I even gave a speech in Spanish towards the end of my time there. Yippee – I’ve done it!!

But now, 2 years later, as I get comfortable in New York, speaking English all day and having less and less opportunity to speak Spanish, I can feel myself stagnate. I’m not going upwards with the language, and without a bit of effort I will definitely go backwards. It’s a natural stage to reach, where you can manage most things, and get around the rest, but the pleasure of speaking and getting better has gone, and I want it back. I’m also trying to be realistic about what I will actually do to keep my Spanish going. So here are some ideas I have had to keep myself moving towards that peak:

1. Set goals

What do you want to be able to do with the language? Find a new job in another country? Speak to your in-laws? Have a more rewarding vacation where you can actually speak to the locals, as opposed to gesturing when all else fails? Think about why you are learning the language, and set about finding ways to practise it in those areas.

2. Read in your chosen language

And read more and more – as much as possible. It doesn’t matter what you read really – currently I’m reading an Agatha Christie novel in Spanish – as everything will help you to recognize correct grammar, and will build your vocabulary. Of course reading something written by a native author will be much more rewarding – there’s a range in Spanish from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Isabel Allende to suit all tastes. If newspapers and magazines are your thing then buy one in the language and read the news from a different perspective.

3. Ask friends to help

Whether you’re living in your home town or abroad, there will be people there who you know who speak your chosen language. Obviously if you have moved to the country where the language is spoken you will have many more opportunities of this sort for practice, as even a trip to the Boulangerie will give you a chance to speak a few words. However, in order to improve you need to have correction, which won’t often come from a stranger. Ask your friends to correct you when you speak or, better still, set up a conversation exchange, where you help your friend with English for an hour, followed by her helping you with her language for an hour.

4. Use flashcards

One of the best ways to build your vocabulary is with flashcards. I remember when I lived in Japan I used to travel to work on the train each morning, and would be surrounded by scores of schoolchildren all flipping through little stacks of flashcards all bound together on a ring, with the Japanese word written on one side and the English one on the other. It is a great idea, and easy to reproduce too. Reviewing vocabulary is essential for progress.

5. Podcasts

I have my favorites for Spanish and Italian, and living here in New York I have time on my daily commute to listen to them. There is a wide range available these days, from language-learning based ones which go through grammar and give you exercises, to radio show style commentaries, discussing the latest news and other more irreverent subjects. You just need to have a look at the ever-increasing selection on a site like i-tunes, and select the ones you like best. Many are free, so you can sample until you find something you really like.

6. Take a course

It’s never too late to learn, and you will find that however good you are at a foreign language, there’s always something more to learn. The ideal way, if you have the time, is to join a group at the right level and have a regular opportunity each week to focus on the language with a teacher to help you and point out all the little errors.

If you want to brush up your language close to home, Cactus runs daytime, evening and weekend language courses in the UK and the US & Canada. For tailor-made, private tuition in your home or workplace, Cactus Language Training will gear a course to your specific needs and interests.

Cactus also runs language courses in more than 30 languages, 60 countries and 500 destinations worldwide. Courses are available from one week upwards, at all ages and levels, and can be combined with a range of fun activities ranging from surfing and diving to cooking and wine tasting.

Academic Resources: Making the most of your language course

Learning a language is great, and the fact that you have started a course is for many people a breakthrough. To make it easier on yourself think about incorporating the following 10 steps into your routine, and you’ll be surprised how easy it all becomes.

1. Buy a notebook specifically for your class notes, and try to organize it so that you can see information easily, and can review the content of each class.

2. Try to attend every class. If you can’t attend a class, ask your teacher to send you some information about the class you missed by e-mail, including the homework, and do your best to complete it!

3. Speak to your teacher if you don’t understand something that’s going on. Once you get lost you mentally ‘give up’. Teachers are nice people, and will be happy to recap, either during the class or for 5 minutes before or after.

4. Reinforce your language learning as much as possible. Try to find a website which will give you extra practice. The BBC site is good for many of the mainstream languages. Newspapers often have listening parts, and even though you won’t understand everything it’ll really help you get you ‘ear’ for the language. Find a club or group which meets regularly, and join them so that you speak and listen to the target language in different situations.

5. Don’t get disheartened if you find your new language hard. Learning anything new is always hard when you start, but time and practice will work wonders.

6. Speak as much as possible in the target language while in class (and ask your fellow students and teacher to do the same). Repetition of words and expressions really helps them to become entrenched in the mind, and you’ll progress more quickly.

7. Review the grammar of your Mother Tongue. Knowing how your own language works will help you to find similarities in the target language, and this will speed up your progress.

8. Participate as much as possible during class. Even if you make mistakes it’s the perfect opportunity to practice what you have learnt, and the teacher will be able to correct you so that when you get out into the real world you will be able to use the language confidently and effectively.

9. Do your homework!! 2 hours of class time each week isn’t really enough to progress at a good pace, and each time you look at material in the target language you will absorb more. Homework is set to help you progress and practice areas that are important for you to progress. Usually teachers won’t set too much, and will go through it in class so that you can be sure that you are getting it all right. If you aren’t given enough homework by your teacher then ask for more, or try to find additional practice on the web, in magazines etc.

10. And finally – have fun! Language learning is an enjoyable experience, and in class you’ll do a variety of activities to ensure that not only are you learning new grammar and vocabulary, but you’re also having fun with language. Ask your teacher to teach expressions that you use in your own language, and use them when possible outside the class.

Cactus Language Training is one of the world’s leading providers of tailor-made language training, providing high quality training to companies, organisations and private individuals. We believe that the best way to learn a language is the way that best fits around you, and so we offer all forms of language training including 1:1, in-company, public group courses, full-immersion courses abroad, online courses, and language teacher training programmes; all of this is available in over 50 languages and 30 languages.