Parlez-vous francais? Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Lei parla italiano?
There are plenty of good reasons, both personal and professional, for being able to reply “Oui,” “Ja,” or “Si.” And if it’s been years since you last tried conjugating a verb, there’s good news. Learning vocabulary and grammar will always be necessary, but when your goal is to be understood in another language, rather than ace a high school exam, the process can be a lot more fun.
Advances in both the scientific understanding of how we learn and technology, mean you can find a methodology that suits your learning style and your wallet. Many options are online. While this has made language lessons more accessible then ever, it can be difficult to assess their quality when you don’t know the language in the first place. As always, it’s caveat emptor when you shop online.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that you won’t learn how to listen, speak, read and write in an unfamiliar idiom overnight — and you may never master all four language components. Some people are naturally gifted and others have a tin ear, but for most there is a direct correlation between the hours and dollars invested and the outcome. It’s important, therefore, to be clear from the outset about your budget and how proficient you want or need to become. It’s one thing to chat with relatives from the old country, quite another to be the keynote speaker at a scientific symposium in anything other than your first language.
One surefire way to become fluent is to take up residence where your only option is to speak the local language. This option is probably best suited to those with the luxury of time. For others, attending a language school that offers one-week and longer immersion programs is a more realistic option. Available in many desirable destinations, such programs combine classroom instruction with opportunities to experience the local culture. Some also offer classes in popular pastimes, from art history to cooking to wine appreciation. At the web portal myitalianguagesschools.com, for instance, you can filter your search for links to schools throughout Italy by supplementary courses offered, as well as by region and nearby features like mountains or the sea.
Overall cost can be issue. Even when tuition fees are affordable, you still need to factor in travel, food and accommodation, and extras like cultural events. The IMAC Spanish Language Programs in Guadalajara, Mexican, for example, offers group lessons for $230 USD per week, which works out to less than $10 per hour of classroom instruction. But a round-trip flight to Mexico adds hundreds more and a city as beautiful and storied as Guadalajara simply begs to be explored.
You can find excellent classroom instruction at home in Canada as well. Many educational institutions offer non-credit courses suitable for those who work. Classes usually run one or two hours a week and may combine formal lessons taught by a qualified instructor with time to practice with your classmates. To see what your local high school or community college offers, look under Continuing Education (or sometimes Adult Learning) on its website. Vancouver Community College, for one, teaches classes in eight different languages, including Arabic, Korean and Mandarin. The Toronto District School Board offers classes in 13 languages, from beginner to advanced levels, at high schools throughout its coverage area. Nine weeks of two-hour classes cost $131.
For those who want to learn on their own schedule, technology has opened up a virtual universe of options. The once-novel approach of listening to a tape or CD in your car has been replaced by sophisticated, interactive software that lets you learn at your own pace just about anywhere, anytime. You can access them on your computer or download an app to your Android or iOS mobile device.
Two of the biggest names in this realm are Rosetta Stone, with millions of users worldwide, and Babbel, a fast-growing contender making the most of the mobile zeitgest. Both are worth checking out and offer a free demo or lesson before you sign up. Rosetta Stone bills up-front, an MSRP of $499 which you can often find on sale and which never expires, while Babbel charges a monthly fee of $12.95 US or less if you sign up for a longer period.
There are scores of other self-directed language learning programs online, a surprising number of them are free. Of course, sometimes you get exactly what you pay for.
The Goethe Institute is unusual in that it provides German lessons in all of the above methods. As well as classes at its institutes in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, it offers a range of online courses, including private lessons with a tutor, and immersion programs in Germany and Austria, some for individuals in specific occupations. This can be one of the more expensive options for learning a language; a standard course in Toronto costs $584, for instance, while a four-week course in Germany for medical professionals is 2,900 Euros. But the Goethe Institute is the cultural institute of the Federal Republic of Germany, so you can be absolutely certain you are learning proper German. And if you need proof of your proficiency, you can earn certification or a diploma through the Institute.
Learning a language is truly one of those “use it or lose it” undertakings. Fortunately, there are plenty of free options that allow you to practice in between lessons. Listen to Radio Canada or to podcasts from around the world or watch foreign-language cable television shows. Check out grammar books from your local library or try out online dictionaries. Find a native speaker of the language you’re learning and take turns teaching one another. You can do this face-to-face or with someone on the other side of the world via Skype. You can find an international language partner on a website such as italki.com where, in addition to its for-pay offerings, a free forum lists those interested informal conversations. Or you can practice your writing by becoming the modern equivalent of penpals. Whatever works best for you, keep at it.