Four Tips for High School Language Trips with Mixed Skill Levels

How can a trip support language learning for high school students?

Language immersion trips are one of the best and longest-running reasons for schools to travel internationally. Homestays can foster a deep connection and grasp of a language. Taking full-time language classes in a place surrounded by native speakers is a huge opportunity for language learners. Travel and language go together.

While we at Atlas Workshops love languages, we don't run traditional language programs with homestays or a focus on language classes. Our specialty is place-based learning. We think a great way to learn a language is to need the language in order to accomplish a goal. In the same way that researchers and designers need to use local language in order to understand a problem, our students inherently strengthen language skills while developing solutions to the global issues they investigate on our programs. Even on programs where language learning is a stated objective, we prefer to design the trip content to drive students' curiosity and help create a real demand for the language skills we’re hoping to build.

Can I run a trip where not every student speaks the language?

We think language skills can enable diverse and deep connections. On the other hand, technology and globalization have enabled more opportunities around the globe without language skills than ever before. As high school trips become more thematic and interdisciplinary, it’s important to think about how the experience aligns or balances with language learning.

Our place-based approach to global education means that a trip can include students with either an interest in the language OR the theme (or both)--leading to a bilingual travel experience for some that's still open to all. We often run high school travel programs that blend real-world practice for advanced foreign language speakers with meaningful engagement for novices. Here are four things we’ve done that worked:

1. Surrounded by a Local Language

On any trip where students are learning a local language, there will be practical opportunities to apply their skills. From ordering in restaurants to reading street signs, or just interacting with different people they meet, students will find a need to use some essential words and phrases.

Being surrounded by the language provides a huge amount of language learning opportunities and exposure -- and some of those moments can be quite engaging.


In Sevilla our group of very novice Spanish students joined in on a Flamenco class with a local teacher. She was an incredible teacher and a talented communicator, but she only spoke about 10 words of English in the entire class. As an experienced teacher she knew how to communicate to the group non-verbally while continuing to speak Spanish. Students picked up elements of the language but also had more exposure to contextual Spanish. Even the trip leaders learned a bit about accents with a helpful drawing on the whiteboard.

2. Inquiry-Based Approach

On Atlas programs, our goal is to help students become not only skilled travelers but critical thinkers. We have found that introducing a place-based approach with an essential question or theme can deepen language learning even further by making practice about its application.

Recently we traveled with a group of mixed-level French students to Avignon on a customized version of our regional French food trip. The students were learning about how French cuisine is influenced by environment and culture. After a few days of the program, students had generated a lot of questions about the origins and stories behind the delicious French foods they had tasted.

We then visited a local olive shop and chocolate maker, a key opportunity for students to have their questions answered; however, our host didn't speak a word of English. Driven by their curiosity, students’ only choice was to communicate in French. Some of the more experienced students asked their questions right away and listened closely to the responses. One of the beginner-level French students pieced together the words she knew to ask her question, and then looked to the group to help make sure she understood the answer. This moment of need pushed students at a variety of different levels to expand their language skills through teamwork and experimentation.

3. Differentiated Learning Opportunities

On another recent trip to Uruguay about wind energy, the group included a lot of students who really wanted to improve their language skills. But the trip also attracted students with very limited Spanish who were more interested in the sustainability theme. One of the trip leaders, as well as our local partner, were native Spanish speakers, while the other leaders were less fluent, so we used this mix to create intentional moments of immersion.

For designated debrief discussions and at certain meals, the native Spanish speakers would hold conversation in Spanish at one table, while the other table would converse in English. The groups would share back with each other so we all had a shared experience, but the trip could still provide moments of immersion for the students looking to improve their language skills with their peers and native speakers.

4. Student Collaboration

On the same trip to Uruguay, we also took advantage of the mixed language levels on the trip during meetings with local field experts.

We met with the owner of a windmill, which he used to power some of his farming machinery. He explained in great detail how it worked and the pros and cons of the system they had installed. This was only in Spanish, so while he spoke, we paired the more advanced students with the non-Spanish students as interpreters. The Spanish students got to practice their translation skills while the students who otherwise wouldn’t have had any context were able to get a lot more out of the meeting. We also had help from our Spanish speaking leaders who could help make sure the translation was accurate and relieve the advanced students when they wanted to ask their own questions too.


While we have groups where the majority of the program is conducted in English, we've also had groups where a large part of the program was not. While creating more immersion experiences is possible with a group of language learners, we see a lot of specific opportunities in mixed-level groups as well.

There will always be an important place for traditional language learning in global education, but we also think that having multiple objectives and nuanced themes can help create interdisciplinary travel programs that accomplish some language goals while integrating other students and interests.

Are you thinking of planning a foreign language trip? We are always happy to brainstorm destinations or themes that keep the itinerary focused and engaging for the entire group, and create language learning opportunities for students at multiple levels. Get in touch and let’s see where we can go, and why.

Andrea Bachmann