“The ability to communicate fundamentally can be acquired fairly quickly with almost any language,” says Marc Greenberg, who directs the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Kansas. “Literacy – to write, to speak in all circumstances, to understand all types of communication – takes a parcel longer.”
So why bother? Because not everyone speaks English. Knowing the difference between “Ja” and “Nein” can help you get around, and people are generally more receptive when you try to speak their language.
Besides immersion in the playground, the best way to learn a language was in a classroom. My parents used the Berlitz method when we moved to Europe. Today, there are all kinds of options that use technology to give you a linguistic, and perhaps even cultural, advantage.
Recent years have seen a proliferation of language learning software. These programs — many of which have popular mobile apps — use techniques like gamification, crowdsourcing, and adaptive algorithms to help beginners learn the basics of the language.
For example, Memrise, a user-generated language-learning platform that uses flashcards as memory aids, can help you master the basics. Memrise offers instruction in 25 languages and its basic level is free, with some advanced features such as progress statistics available for $4.99 per month.
Duolingo, another program with free and premium tiers, offers lessons in 37 languages. It’s one of my 16-year-old son’s favorite language-learning tools, probably because it treats the process like a video game, collecting points for doing well on assessments. Mango Languages, another popular program, includes notes on cultural background and language. Many of its best features are only available to subscribers, who pay $19.99 per month.
Rosetta Stone is perhaps the best known language program and one of the most expensive. You can purchase his courses – which focus on developing speaking fluency – via online subscription or on CD.
There is also Babbel. With over one million active and paying subscribers, it is one of the largest language programs. It costs $6.95 to $12.95 per month, depending on your level of usage. According to the company, 73% of its users could have a short, simple conversation in a new language within five hours of using the app.
There are so many language apps out there, all claiming to be the best, that there are even sites to help you sort it out. You can find detailed reports on these programs on Compare Language Apps, an independent testing site run by Roumen Vesselinov, a professor at Queens College in New York.
Vesselinov told me he was skeptical of some claims about apps, especially claims that you can learn a language quickly. “Language app users must study, on average, 20 to 30 hours over a two-month period to cover the requirements” for the first semester of college Spanish, he says.
I’ve had access to most of these apps over the years, but found them to be too complicated or time-consuming to help me learn a language before international travel. Perhaps my experience of picking up a language early in life and then trying to pick up another in a classroom (three years of French, which didn’t really hold up) also contributed to my skepticism.
I’m not alone. Dane Kolbaba, owner of a pest control business in Roselle, Illinois, also has reservations about the programs, both in the classroom and online. He spent two years preparing for a move to Venezuela, which included intensive language lessons.
“When I arrived in Venezuela, I had a rude awakening,” he says. “I had no idea what people were saying to me and no idea how to respond. The accent was just too different for me from my American teachers. It took me about six months to really understand everything. what I was told – and only after speaking Spanish 24 hours a day.”
Martha Merritt, Dean of International Education at the University of Richmond, uses Duolingo to expand her vocabulary and refine a language she already knows. But learning Russian took him five years in a classroom and a year in Moscow.
“That’s not always a realistic expectation for language learning,” she says.
The language experts I spoke with say you shouldn’t let the promises of a course or app fool you into thinking you’ll learn a language easily before your next international trip. Greenberg, a professor at the University of Kansas, says having already learned at least a second language helps a lot, “so language learning isn’t mysterious.” And experts agree that there is no substitute for hands-on experience to practice and speak a new language.
“Think of learning a foreign language like learning to drive or playing an instrument,” says Maureen Linden, a retired French and Spanish teacher from Miami. “Be satisfied with the basics for a long time and move slowly.”
What if you don’t have time? You can always cut corners and let the app do the talking. A real-time translation program like Google Translate can quickly and with reasonable accuracy translate simple English words and phrases into another language – and translate into English what someone says to you. Be sure to download the language so you don’t depend on cell service.
Michele Frolla, a Londoner who writes a travel and language blog called Intrepid Guide, says she recently turned to the Google Translate app while visiting Ostrava in the Czech Republic.
“I didn’t understand the station staff and needed to take a train to the airport,” she says. “It went like clockwork.”
Read past Navigator columns here