Leave English At Home When Taking a Language

Adults immerse themselves in classes, spurred by travel and job prospects

Ever since Marion Middlebrooks visited Germany 19 years ago, toting a traveler's phrase book, she has harbored a dream.

"I want to return to Germany speaking the language," she says. "I'd like to have a very good command of it."

Now, to prepare for a trip to Germany next year, Ms. Middlebrooks has enrolled in a beginning German course at the Goethe Institute in Boston. Twice a week, she hurries from work to join at least half a dozen other students for a 90-minute class. Dinner must wait as they practice simple conversations, learn words and grammar forms, complete workbook exercises, and even sing German songs, all under the energetic instruction of Irmgard Hicks.

Middlebrooks and her classmates are joining burgeoning ranks of adults eager to learn a new language. In adult education classes, community colleges, cultural institutes, and commercial schools, they are broadening their horizons. They are also challenging stereotypes that portray Americans as monolingual and proud of it.

Lee Riethmiller, president of Intercontinental Foreign Language Program at Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., predicts that in five years, the number of Americans learning languages will triple. "We have the Internet, airplanes, personal relationships - all these things that make us more interactive."

Students in Ms. Hicks's class form a microcosm of language students across the country. Some, like Middlebrooks, have come for personal reasons - a desire to travel, trace their ancestry, or visit relatives abroad. Others, like Tina Luddy, whose boyfriend lives in Germany, study a language because of romantic relationships. Still others come for professional advancement. Andrea Ladoulis, a nurse doing clinical research, says, "Most of the biggest pharmaceutical firms are German. This might be helpful for job prospects."

At Berlitz, 56 percent of students in the United States enroll for job-related reasons. "Younger professionals are looking at language now more as a skill - as something to list on their resume under their computer skills," explains Carmen Bayer, New England district director. Students are also much more sophisticated than they were 10 years ago, she adds. "Before, people just wanted to speak to get by. Now they really want to be able to communicate."

Spanish ranks as the most popular foreign language taught in the US today. At Berlitz, 35 percent of students choose Spanish. French students have dropped from 21 percent to 14 percent in the past decade, and German students from 9 percent to 7 percent. Says Ms. Bayer, "Mandarin [Chinese] and Portuguese are the languages we expect to see more."

Adults studying today benefit from "tremendous advances" in instruction over the past 10 to 20 years, says Ed Scebold, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in Yonkers, N.Y. He sees a move away from grammar analysis to a much more communicative approach, emphasizing real-life use. "It's language and culture - the whole experience of being French or Chinese," he says.

This approach is also direct. "You walk into the classroom and the only language you speak is the language you're learning," says Bayer.

To avoid English, Hicks often pantomimes. She lights a match to teach the word for fire, das Feuer. She relaxes in a chair as a way of defining comfortable - bequem. And she glides a construction-paper fish through the air to illustrate schwimmen, to swim.

Still, no one pretends that learning a language is easy. "Most Americans don't realize how much effort it takes to really acquire a language," says Hicks. "They get impatient very quickly."

Charles Heinle, former director of Pimsleur International, a language-tape publisher in Concord, Mass., agrees. "They think they can learn a few key sentences and memorize them, and by some magic technique they'll be able to do something. That's not the case."

The US Foreign Service Institute, Mr. Heinle notes, finds that a learner of average ability "will require about 240 hours to get to the first level of an 'easy' language." Bernie Feria, Berlitz's director of curriculum, puts the figure lower - between 100 and 120 hours to reach a reasonable working proficiency.

Prices can range from about $100 for a short adult-education class to thousands of dollars for private instruction at a commercial school.

Teachers and students emphasize the importance of consistent study. "You have to keep on top of it, even if you're just looking at pictures in a book to find things you know," says Middlebrooks.

The most important skill, Mr. Feria says, is being able to see a pattern to pick up the regularities of language. Students need to "accept the new language on its own terms and not constantly be comparing it to [their own]."

Heinle offers another tip. "You have to learn to live with ambiguity while you're learning a language," he says, adding that people who have the most problems are those who look up everything in a dictionary. "How did you learn your native tongue? Did your mother put you in the crib with a book? There is one way to learn a language - through the ears, not the eyes."

Tips For Learning a Language

* Be realistic about how much you can learn in a few weeks. Learning a language requires a commitment of time and effort. If you can't attend class regularly, and you can never do homework, progress will be slow.

* Find a teacher who has formal training in language instruction.

* Watch videos and foreign films to get your ear tuned to the language.

* Establish an exchange with someone who speaks the language. Rebecca Kline, executive director of the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, offers an idea: "You can come to dinner at my house two nights a week in exchange for conversing in your language."

* Spend as much time as you can in the country where your chosen language is spoken.

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