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Home  > Article

Learn a Language Lately?

By Martin Lieberman

Working abroad is an exciting opportunity, but what if you don't speak a foreign language?

One of the best things I did was just walking around Paris listening to people speak. - Michael Klein, consultant

When deciding where to hang your hat in the professional world, the chance to work overseas may be an attractive opportunity. But if you didn't major in French or Spanish, could you pull it off? The few words that you still can't pronounce from your high school classes definitely aren't enough to get you by working abroad. You need to enroll, buy, or log on to one of the many resources that can help you brush up on a foreign language.

Learning online
The "World Wide Web" may sound like a great place to pick up on a foreign language, but only a few sites are worth using. Some web sites only feature vocabulary, including extensive lists of common words and phrases. Others offer full language classes that vary in quality. As Jacques Leon, the creator of one particularly good online course writes, "I would have liked to teach you spoken French, but unfortunately, the web is not a good medium for that."

Still, one of the better places to learn a new language online is, which offers interactive language courses. The site offers classes in Spanish and German geared to beginner and intermediate students. Each of LearnPlus' 30- to 50-hour courses includes lessons, role-playing exercises, and quizzes, each with sound so users can hear the words and phrases they are learning. There is even an option to have a personal tutor. LearnPlus guarantees that within six months (and for $49) you will be able to have basic conversations (such as asking for directions, or placing an order in a restaurant) in your new tongue, and will be on the road to speaking fluently.

There are also a number of translation-oriented sites that aim to familiarize travelers with foreign languages. One of the most popular is Babelfish, which lets users translate simple phrases and entire web sites into other languages. "Before I went to France, I tried reading everyday in French," says Michael Klein, 26, a consultant who worked in France for six months and had only taken French in college previous to that. "I was able to pick up keywords and familiarize myself with how news is written there." Some people prefer this non-academic method of learning, as opposed to the classroom structure of other programs.

Speaking the language exclusively
Some students may prefer to interact with an instructor in an off-line setting. The industry leader in this field is Berlitz, which has been teaching foreign languages for more than 120 years. Berlitz offers both private and group sessions at all levels, and uses a conversational method of learning, rather than the remedial lessons taught in high school.

"The target language is spoken exclusively," says Erin Giordano of Berlitz. Most languages are taught over a intensive four-week period, after which Giordano says students should feel confident enough to speak the language. "So many people come to us wanting to be fluent. That's a nice goal, but the real goal should be just to communicate in that language. Being fluent is a lifelong endeavor."

Berlitz is also just one of the companies that produces computer software for learning foreign languages. Berlitz's Passport to 31 Languages, which retails for around $30, allows users to learn by using speech recognition technology-merging the benefits of online and off-line education. The Language Zone, World Language Resources, and The Learning Company also make a variety of programs that are helpful for beginners and experienced speakers alike.

Klein, who brushed up on his French by reading the foreign language version of CNN online, also took an off-line course at an extension school in New York City. He says it was helpful in backing up what he already knew. Each major city in the U.S. should have adult education classes that specialize in teaching people with busy professional schedules.

Still, if you're going to need to speak a foreign language in a more than cursory fashion, the best way to learn is just to dive in. "One of the best things I did was just walking around Paris listening to people speak. Sometimes I would go places and force myself to ask for directions, rather than use a map," Klein says. "I probably learned more in those times than I did in all my foreign language classes combined."

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