A reality check on language training & what to look for in a language school
With NAFTA in place for some time now and the ever growing Hispanic population in the US, there is a growing demand from individuals and businesses for Spanish language training. There has also been a corresponding rise in the number of language training providers.
Upon reviewing the advertising of some language schools it would appear that they offer a fast, easy and especially ‘painless’ solution: no study required! In this article, I want to shed some light on the language acquisition process so you’ll have more realistic expectations of what to expect if you are serious about learning a foreign language. At the same time, I will offer a few criteria to help you select your language school.
In Latin America, the language training business is relatively young and it can be hard to know which school is best for you. Also, there is no governing body that controls the quality of instruction – if the school does not live up to its promise – you’re out of luck. When your time is money that’s a hard pill to swallow.
I hope this article will help you avoid such pitfalls and make your overseas language training a truly successful and rewarding experience.
Unfortunately, as noted earlier, it seems that many people are still falling for language learning gimmicks of the ‘How to speak French in a Week’ variety. People have begun to realize the importance of speaking a foreign language but often want to acquire the skills quickly, cheaply and with little effort.
Why are some people averse to studying a foreign language? It is partly because most of them know very little about foreign languages apart from their bad experience at school with the old ‘grammar-translation’ method, which most of them suffered. Any offer of an easy solution is, therefore, eagerly grasped. Ironically, when costly gimmicks fail to deliver the promised fluency, people tend to blame their own ‘inability’ rather than blame the people who touted it to them.
Americans often assume that they are just ‘no good at languages’. In general, they do not have the high level of foreign language attainment of most continental Europeans. The reasons for this, however, are historical, not biological. Until recently, Americans did not have the need to speak a foreign language in their country. Now, they are part of a single North American Market in which 115 million citizens speak a language other than English as their mother tongue.
Where innate ability is concerned, North Americans have a number of advantages over, for instance, the Dutch or Swiss, who are generally known for their strong language skills. English, while classified as a Germanic language, is overlaid with words of Latin origin so that English speakers already have some familiarity with 30-40 percent of the words used in Spanish. Thus, Americans are well-suited to foreign language learning
Languages need commitment
Like any other professional skill worth having, language ability will require your time, motivation, commitment and, to some extent, your money. As in every other aspect of life, you get what you pay for. In fact, language services for business training, translation and interpreting are remarkably inexpensive when you compare them to other professional services such as management training or consulting. You can compare the figures for yourself. This makes it even more surprising that the peddlers of gimmicks manage to sell their wares.
Who would ever fall for a line like “You can learn to design aircraft engines in just 20 hours in the comfort of your own home!” I use this absurd example deliberately to emphasize that in-depth acquisition of a foreign language will take months or years rather than the hours or weeks which the language touts would have us believe. If it was really that easy then why is it that over 80 percent of senior managers in the US still speak no foreign language? Why do professional linguists have to go through years of study to earn their degrees, including spending time abroad? Why do Asian, European and Latin American students spend months at language schools in America to learn English?
Forget the ‘instant fix’
Given that Americans do in fact have the ability and now also the motivation to speak a foreign language, they simply have to treat the procedure as seriously as they would treat learning any other intricate skill like engineering, accounting or law.
There is no ‘instant fix’. Amazing courses, methods, learning materials or equipment which promise rapid results with little or no commitment from the learner will almost certainly fail to deliver the goods. If you expect to learn to speak a foreign language by reading a book, listening to a tape and imitating what you hear, you will likely be disappointed. Language skills are unlikely to be acquired without extensive interaction with a fluent speaker (parent or teacher,) as any serious language provider or language teacher will tell you.
You cannot have a “real” dialogue with a book, cassette or even in a language laboratory. They can only provide you with a prearranged sequence of words and phrases to which you can imitate or respond. That is why language laboratories, although thought to be the long awaited panacea back in the 1960s when introduced to countless educational establishments, have now been reappraised as just one of a number of options open to language teachers or students. Under ideal conditions, with a motivated learner who has language awareness and aptitude, language labs can be very helpful. Even self-study books and cassettes can be a useful supplement if used in conjunction with a qualified trainer. However, none of these options is a substitute for the genuine conversational exchange between two or more people.
Experts and students agree that one of the most effective (and probably most enjoyable) ways to learn a language is to go to the country in which it is spoken. The complete immersion both inside and outside of the classroom, and the opportunity to immediately practice one’s acquired skills in real-life situations speed up the learning process and maintain the student’s motivation throughout the learning process.
In-country training provides students with a “real life” language lab waiting to be exploited. This way is a lot more fun and is certainly less stressful than a ‘Super Immersion’ of 9 hours of classes a day, half of which is spent sitting in a booth with headphones pressed against your ears.
Developments in the exploitation of interactive, multimedia information technology for language learning may provide a close alternative to the real thing (a language trainer who can interact with the learner.) Until we achieve true artificial intelligence, which enables people to converse with machines in a language which has not been preprogrammed, a flesh-and-blood teacher will always be required.
Costa Rica is a very appealing country in which to study Spanish. Easily accessible from US and European gateway cities, it is very visitor-friendly destination. Its outgoing people, high living standards, rich culture and natural beauty make it an ideal destination to concentrate on language study.
Now that we have established an element of realism, what should you look for in a language program? This is a quality checklist which an individual language learner or a company training manager can apply to language schools:
Maybe this article has been a disappointment: there is no quick fix. However, there is a bright side. For one thing, we hope this article has shown you that language learning can be a successful experience as long as you set realistic goals, are motivated and you choose the right school. You know which one…..!