Learning a language 1 on 1

People who want to master a new tongue often opt for the personal attention of a tutor.

Say you're a native speaker of English who has always dreamed of learning enough Italian to exchange pleasantries with a Tuscan innkeeper. Or maybe you're a busy executive with new clients in Osaka and a real need to learn Japanese.

Do you (A) seek out an evening language class full of other beginners; (B) buy a carton full of audio tapes; or (C) move to Florence or Tokyo for a year?

How about (D): hire a native speaker as your personal trainer?

That last option is the choice for a growing number of linguistically ambitious adults. Whether the interest is personal or professional, more individuals are deciding that the undiluted attention of a native speaker is the way to get beyond grammar basics and into fluent discourse.

"It's a trend that's definitely been increasing in the last five years or so," says Harriet Barnett, consultant to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in Yonkers, N.Y.

Much of the current boom in language coaches is being fueled by corporate spending. At Berlitz International Inc. in Princeton, N.J., one-on-one instruction for corporate employees represents 30 percent of total business so far this year, compared with 24 percent in 1995.

But more parents are also buying private lessons for school-age children. And then there are the adult learners who choose to study simply because they have fallen in love with a particular language and culture.

Many of those seeking language coaches are traveling couples. "Americans are traveling more and getting more sophisticated," Ms. Barnett says. "They've really come to recognize that their travel experience is better if they learn some of the language."

Beth Meyers and Tom Strenk fit the profile perfectly. After taking several trips to Mexico and becoming smitten with the country and the culture, they decided that learning Spanish was a priority for them.

Neither had a background in Spanish. Between them, they had studied bits of French, German, and Italian, but neither had ever achieved fluency in a language.

Their first thought was to sign up for evening classes at a local university. But after four or five semesters, they were frustrated. "You're in there with 25 people for an hour and a half," says Mr. Strenk. "Your chance to speak or get some kind of response from the teacher is pretty small."

End-of-day blues

The end of a busy workday also proved a difficult time to absorb a new language. And it was easy to lose ground during breaks between terms.

So Strenk and Meyers decided on a new tactic. They found a Honduran student who was teaching Spanish as she worked toward a graduate degree in philosophy, and they asked her if she'd be willing to come to their office at lunchtime once a week to give them private lessons.

Today, four years later, Maria Victoria Talavera still meets with Strenk and Meyers every Thursday at noon, even though the two have far surpassed their original goal of basic fluency. They've now moved on to reading Spanish novels and writing compositions, with Meyers taking the lead in spoken expression and Strenk excelling in his ability to write good Spanish prose.

Both say that private lessons boosted them way beyond the level they had originally longed for and that the $60 they pay Ms. Talavera for each hour-and-a-half session is well worth it.

In addition, the three have developed a friendship that goes beyond Spanish grammar and the meals that Strenk prepares for the three of them each week. "They're a lot of fun to be with," Talavera says of her students as the three work their way through plates of pasta and pages of Spanish prose in a quiet corner of the company lunchroom. "There's joy here."

A 13-year bond

But for David Perlmutter and Edith Wassermann, four years seems a relatively short relationship. Mr. Perlmutter and Ms. Wassermann have been working together on Perlmutter's French language skills for 13 years.

For Perlmutter (who still refers to his teacher as "Madame Wassermann" and always uses the polite "vous" form in their conversations), learning French was a dream he cherished but never had time to pursue during his career as the owner of a company that made packaging tape. However, "the day after I retired, I called Berlitz," he says. The following day he met Wassermann and began private lessons three times a week, starting as an absolute beginner.

Working through a company like Berlitz is, of course, a more expensive option than striking an independent deal with a graduate student like Talavera. Berlitz offers various packages of private lessons, and prices can range from $999 for 18 hours stretched over four weeks, to $4,990 for a total-immersion program.

Today Perlmutter and Wassermann meet twice a week, as Perlmutter continues to hone his skills. He still does homework assignments, writes compositions, and devours French literature, including novels by Camus, Proust, and Zola.

Perlmutter travels to France for a month each year, and now describes himself as fully conversational in French - an accomplishment he considers significant, as he does not believe he is especially gifted with languages. Wassermann, however, insists he is too modest, and pays him the ultimate compliment: She says he is now capable of "living and functioning like a Frenchman."

"This is the only way to learn," Perlmutter says of private lessons. He once tried group lessons in Italian, but was disappointed. "This way, you achieve total concentration. Your mind cannot drift."

Not everyone agrees that private lessons are the way to go. "I don't recommend it except for really experienced language learners," says Galal Walker, professor of Chinese at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Remembering the essentials

Too often, he cautions, people paying for private lessons are apt to tell the tutor what they want to learn instead of surrendering their preconceptions to be properly taught the essentials of a new language and a different culture.

"Especially if the person is an executive who is used to giving orders and telling people what to do," says Professor Walker, "there are dangers to this method."

Others insist that some of those dangers can be eased by working with multiple teachers. Mayumi Nishida has worked as a senior language instructor at the Japan Society in New York for 14 years, and says she has seen private language students make remarkable progress in relatively short periods of time.

The deluxe, team approach

More than once, Ms. Nishida has worked with a team of teachers to prepare an American journalist for work in Tokyo. Her most recent student - a journalist working for a major US daily newspaper - began with no knowledge of Japanese and departed for Tokyo with basic fluency in speaking and reading within a year.

She studied Japanese for three hours a day, five days a week, and was required to work with different teachers at different times. "It's better to have more than one teacher because all teachers have their own methods and these reflect different strengths," Nishida says.

But of course a team-teaching approach doesn't offer the same social benefits as a private instructor.

In the case of Wassermann and Perlmutter, 13 years has afforded time for a genuine bond to form, and Perlmutter says he believes that has been an important factor in his success.

"She knows more about my social life than I do," he jokes, because they often speak of their outside activities while practicing conversation. "She's not only a wonderful teacher, but she's become a very good friend. I really enjoy the time I spend with her."

His only regret, Perlmutter says, is that "I wish I had started this when I was much younger."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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