There's no better place to master a new tongue than in the mother country itself, says Charlotte Hindle

Imagine studying Spanish in the morning, then spending the afternoon working in a tapas bar - practising what you learned earlier in the day and getting right into the Spanish way of life. Alternatively you could combine learning the language with acquiring a new skill such as surfing or Spanish cooking. These are just a few of the options open to people who choose to learn Spanish in Spain itself.

Imagine studying Spanish in the morning, then spending the afternoon working in a tapas bar - practising what you learned earlier in the day and getting right into the Spanish way of life. Alternatively you could combine learning the language with acquiring a new skill such as surfing or Spanish cooking. These are just a few of the options open to people who choose to learn Spanish in Spain itself.

English is the leading language for international communication; second place is taken not by French, German or Chinese, but by Spanish - spoken by almost 500 million people worldwide. The more you travel, the more you realise this and wish you'd learnt Spanish at school.

In the past it has been trendy and inexpensive to learn the language in Latin American countries such as Argentina, Guatemala and Mexico. However, in recent years, learning Spanish in Spain has enjoyed something of a renaissance. The shift is mainly thanks to North American students who see a certain snob value in learning the King's Spanish in its native country. In turn, this has led to a greater number of Spanish language schools and, in most cases, high standards of tuition. This is good news for anyone wishing they could say more than "Dos cervezas por favor" en Español.

Barcelona, Salamanca and Madrid are the three most popular destinations to learn Spanish. But there are language schools all over the country so think carefully about whether you'd prefer a school by the sea, in a major city, small town or in the countryside.

Courses last from one week to nine months. Most people book a two-week course, although to become relatively fluent you'll need to sign up for at least 12 weeks. Classes normally comprise 12 to 14 students, which is just small enough to ensure everyone receives some one-to-one attention. Usually, lessons take place in the mornings, between 9am and 1pm, leaving the afternoons free for siestas, sightseeing, other courses or group activities. These days a lot of language schools offer combined courses where you learn Spanish in the morning and another skill in the afternoon, whether wine-tasting of the Flamenco. Language schools like to make sure you don't get bored, so in the evenings and on weekends they arrange a whole raft of group activities such as tapas-bar crawls, Spanish-language films, dance classes or excursions to museums.

Accommodation is an important consideration when booking a language course. Your school or language agency will give you a number of options: staying with a local family; hotel or self-catering apartment; or halls of residence (often on-site). To improve your Spanish quickly and immerse yourself in everyday Spanish culture, I recommend you choose to stay with a host family. After all, a course in Spain is as much about experiencing Spanish life as it is about learning the language. You'll have your own room and will join the family for breakfast and a late evening dinner, giving you lots of opportunities for Spanish conversation. This option is also the cheapest.

Spanish courses in Spain are sociable affairs. Students come from all over the world but predominantly from North America, Japan and Europe. They attract all ages so expect to be parsing and partying with 17-year-olds and 70-year-olds. In recent years there has been an increase in the number of older people learning Spanish and some schools run courses specifically for the over fifties (usually called something clichéd like Young at Heart). Many participants sign up for courses on their own but more couples are finding it a good way to explore a common interest together.

Most people book a Spanish course through a UK language agency. There are several reasons for this: language agencies act like a dating service, listening to your requirements and then matching you to a school with the right environment, facilities and location. They work only with the best schools and regularly visit them to ensure standards are maintained.

In addition, if you do encounter any problems they are usually sorted out more quickly if you've come through an agency. However, if you want to book direct look for schools that belong to one of the national or international associations that monitor standards such as The International Association of Language Centres (IALC; www.ialc.org) or International House (IH; www.ihworld.com). Online there's a huge range of options at www.languagecourse.net and some schools offer a 5 per cent discount on tuition fees if you book through this website. The UK's largest library for all things Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American is Canning House Education and Cultural Department (020-7235 2303; www.canninghouse.com), which has plenty of information on courses.

If you're not quite sure whether this type of holiday is up your calle then try it out for a weekend. Once a month Don Quijote Language Agency runs a weekend course in Barcelona where you attend two hours of Spanish lessons on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The company will book your accommodation - either a hotel or homestay - and you arrange your flights. Tuition-only costs £89 and tuition plus homestay (B&B) costs £143. You'll be surprised at the progress you make after only six hours of Spanish lessons and at least you'll have a wider vocabulary than Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Hasta la vista, baby".

Charlotte Hindle is author of 'The Career Break Book' (Lonely Planet, £12.99).

SPANISH IN TUITION

Caledonia Languages Abroad (01316 217 721; www.caledonialanguages.co.uk) offers Spanish on its own or combined with courses on cooking, dancing, or surfing.

Where: Barcelona, Benalmadena, Cordoba, Santa Maria, Granada, Madrid, Malaga, Salamanca, San Sebastian, Seville, Vejer de la Frontera.

Cost: Two-week courses start at £210, tuition only.

OISE (01865 258331; www.oise.com) specialises in intensive-language training for people seeking to learn Spanish fast. Lessons run all day from 9am to 5pm, with participants taught either one-to-one or in groups of four.

Where: Madrid.

Cost: Two weeks cost from £1,085 including half-board with a Spanish host family.

With Don Quijote (020-8786 8081; www.donquijote.org) you can study Spanish on its own or in conjunction with courses on Flamenco, cooking, golf, wine-tasting or tourism. If you're aged 18-30 they offer a special course where you study in the mornings and work in a Spanish bar or hotel in the afternoons or at night.

Where: Barcelona, Madrid, Granada, Salamanca, Seville, Valencia.

Cost: Two-week courses start at £269, tuition only.

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