Learning a language

Andrew Leckey

October 15, 1991|By Andrew Leckey | Andrew Leckey,Tribune Media

If you can't understand 'em, join 'em. Learning the language of another country is never easy, but more and more Americans are willing to pay hard-earned cash to give it a try.

The breaking down of political walls around the world is accelerating the movement. Tourists are anxious to have a rudimentary knowledge of the spoken word in a country, while those sent as emissaries of government or business require a firm grasp of it.

"I travel to various Spanish-speaking countries each year and got tired of not knowing what people were saying to me," said Claudia Heldring, a Chicago banker who took the Berlitz Spanish course for a year in a group of three students. "I chose Berlitz because the class wasn't as big as the university course I considered and didn't cost as much."

There are many ways to learn a language, and many price tags. Proficiency will vary with the courses chosen and your attention to the job at hand.

For example, one of the less costly ways to get started would be buying audio cassettes and an accompanying text from a firm such as Multilingua Inc. of New York for about $125.

Be realistic in your expectations. "Buyer beware when you consider language course claims of spectacular proficiency, for there are really very few shortcuts," said Catherine Baumann, workshop director for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in Yonkers, N.Y.

There are computer software programs, with audio cassettes included to aid in pronunciation. They range from $30 to $80 and are made by firms such as Artworx, MicroTac and Gessler Publishing.

"Computer-aided language instruction won't replace classroom teaching, but does enhance it significantly," said Martin Rice, chairman of the HyperGlot Software Company in Knoxville, Tenn., which provides $60 computer language manuals with both digitized sound and the ability to record your own voice for Macintosh computers in Spanish, German, French and Russian.

"There are computer programs that have tapes and printed material with them so you can teach yourself, or you can use them as supplemental materials for classroom courses."

If you're really ambitious, you can go overseas to soak up the culture and language. The Council on International Education Exchange in New York offers a cooperative Russian language program at Leningrad State University, beginning at $3,000 for the summer course.

"The best way to learn a language is to be forced to live within the society, or backing off from that, anything that approximates that in the classroom is good as well," said John Sprott, deputy director of the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. State Department, which trains diplomats.

"As more people travel to Russia and Eastern Europe, we expect the demand to learn the language of those countries to increase."

There are also courses such as those offered by 100-year-old Berlitz International and other firms, now made more affordable than in the past through group study.

"We're famous for the direct method, which means no translation is used and all instruction occurs in the target language," said Patricia Sze, director of marketing for Berlitz in New York. "For example, a twice-a-week, five-week group course would cost $245, while our two-week 'total immersion' program for which we're best known costs $5,000."

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