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Prelude to Cultural Immersion

Learning a Foreign Language at Home and Abroad

This summer my family and I will follow a familiar path: we’ll spend a week in Antigua, Guatemala, staying with a family and taking an immersion Spanish course at a language school. More on that in a later issue, but what do you do if that kind of program is not in your immediate future? What’s the best way to learn a language on your own, at a less intense pace?

There is no “best way” of course, no matter what the companies’ marketing claims may say. We all process information differently and respond better to some cues than others. Even in my own family, there’s not much crossover. My little girl learns best by singing songs and acting out plays at school. My wife needs a classroom setting if she’s not actually in a foreign country being forced to speak. For me, the constant drilling of language tapes on a long car trip has done wonders. Some people have a knack for learning a language quickly, while others struggle to learn and retain anything. So experiment and see what method is best for you.

After sampling just about everything out there for Latin American Spanish, here’s my round up of effective options. The classes and commercial products mentioned here are available in other major languages as well. The courses listed below are generally just a half level or one level: beginner, intermediate, or advanced. The costs range from expensive (language school courses) to free (many web resources).

Community College or Language School Course—$50 to $600 per course

Some people need the discipline of a classroom and assigned homework to study on a regular basis. In most towns and cities, there are adult language classes offered at libraries, schools, and community colleges. Sometimes they are free if taught by a volunteer, but usually there’s a fee. Quality can vary wildly, with the most common complaint being that it’s too lecture-oriented: “too much listening, not enough practicing.” (There’s a reason you forgot most of what you learned in high school.) On the plus side, this is the best method for grammar instruction and writing practice. Try to find out how the class is run before signing up.

Rosetta Stone Language Software $195 to $245 per course

Used by government agencies and global corporations, this system is a major leap forward in language instruction and it works. This is by far the best system for visual people. On one track it uses pictures and sound together to teach progressively harder lessons without translation. There are structured speaking, listening, and writing exercises as well, with visual contextual cues, so this is as close as you can get to actually living somewhere and using the language regularly. You simply “learn by doing.” The impressive software grades your answers, tells you how you’re progressing, and remembers where you left off. If your study time is limited, Rosetta Stone will make the most of every minute.

Pimsleur Language System $230 to $300 per course

Used by most of the government agencies that aren’t using Rosetta Stone, the advertising screams, “Learn like a spy!” These courses are auditory only—on cassette or CD—so they’re great for learning while you’re driving. They work very well because they stress drilling of key vocabulary in typical conversations and the progressively harder lessons slowly build on the ones before. You are constantly speaking and listening, so they help you with what really matters when you’re traveling—communication. Most good-sized libraries have these in stock, so you can try them out and see if Pimsleur is a good fit for your learning style.

Language Books—Free to $100

If you have access to a library, you likely have stacks of language learning books at your fingertips, free for the asking. These range from surprisingly useful kids’ vocabulary books to gimmicky but effective titles like, Spanish for Gringos. If you don’t find what you want there, troll through stores and online to find good matches. Titles such as Spanish in 10 Minutes per Day tend to inspire great scorn or great praise from reviewers, so take your time browsing. Also remember to pick up a good pocket Spanish dictionary; a phrase book will get you by as a traveler, but you need a dictionary if you want to move past rehearsed small talk and menu ordering to real conversations.

Music, TV, and Movies—Free to $20

These should be used as a supplement rather than as a real learning method, but for those who are past the beginner level, media in a foreign language can provide an effective boost. Watching or listening to entertainment in another language can reinforce vocabulary, help with pronunciation, and introduce idioms. If you have cable TV, you should have at least one station in Spanish available.

Again, the library is a useful resource when it comes to music or movies in another language. With DVDs, turn any movie into a foreign language lesson by switching on the subtitle feature. Most sizable U.S. cities have at least one local Hispanic station in town (check the AM dial). There are a few to pick from on satellite radio, with music stations joined by ESPN and the BBC in Spanish.

Word-a-Day Desk Calendars

Several companies make desk calendars that present a different phrase each day, usually in the foreign language and English. Since you’re staring at it all day, this can be an easy way to learn and retain vocabulary or a key phrase. The editor’s choices may not be very culturally helpful though: one day of my current Berlitz one has “¿Hay un Starbucks cerca?” (Is there a Starbucks nearby?)

There are also toolbars you can download, text messaging services, and worda- day website offerings if you want to apply this concept to your desktop or mobile device.

Post-its and a Pen—$1 to $3

At my daughter’s elementary school, cards in Spanish are everywhere you look: on the door (puerta), sink (lavabo), chair (silla), and clock (reloj). You can do the same thing in your home or office with some Post-it notes, a dictionary, and a pen.

Web Resources—Free

For nearly any language, you can find websites dedicated to learning the language. is an excellent choice for this language, with verb drill quizzes, a “word a day,” and oral exercises. There’s an unlimited amount of material on the Internet, from written news and articles to current news by streaming audio from CNN ( Stuck on a word? Try a site such as

Trade lessons with a friend A language learned can quickly fade if you don’t practice it. Some people counter this problem by making friends with a foreigner in their hometowns, swapping English lessons for lessons in the native speaker’s language. Or, you might prefer a more informal arrangement of conversing in both languages. Some students meet regularly for lunch or coffee, pledging only to speak in the foreign language. Look around and you’ll probably see other opportunities to use the foreign language skills you’ve learned in ethnic restaurants, stores that cater to immigrants, or in conversations with workers you encounter in your daily life.

None of this will be quite as effective as an immersion course in a foreign country or living abroad, mainly because very few people are going to dedicate their entire day to using any of these methods for days or weeks on end. When you’re trying to hold down a job, complete your formal schooling, or take care of a household, however, a combination of these on-your-own-time language-learning techniques can help you get ready for your travels.

Tim Leffel is author of several books, including A Better Life for Half the Price: How to prosper on less money in the cheapest places to live. See more on his Cheapest Destinations Blog.

Cheapest Destinations travel blog
A Better Life for Half the Price

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Language Study Abroad: Articles, Programs, and Resources

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