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Speak and ye shall find more pleasure on the trip

Learn a foreign tongue via CD or a group class and it'll be smoother sailing when you arrive.

January 22, 2006|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

THE ability to understand and speak a foreign language exponentially improves the travel experience, so linguistic preparation is as important as planning and packing.

Learning a language can be relatively painless, even fun, for people with an aptitude, especially if they studied the language when they were young.

"Prior knowledge does seem to help activate the brain," said Renee Jourdenais, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Language & Educational Linguistics at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

It's not clear why children seem so much more adept at picking up languages. "Many argue they still have access to their first language learning system, which is pretty efficient," Jourdenais said. "So when children are learning a second, it may be a lot like learning their first. It's thought that adults don't have access to this same system anymore and therefore need to rely on other learning skills."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 25, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Foreign language study -- An article in Sunday's Travel section ("Speak and ye shall find more pleasure on the trip") reported that Rosetta Stone, a computer-based foreign language learning system, has its headquarters in Minneapolis. It is in Harrisonburg, Va.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 29, 2006 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Foreign language study: An article in the Jan. 22 Travel section ("Speak and ye shall find more pleasure on the trip") reported that Rosetta Stone, a computer-based foreign language learning system, has its headquarters in Minneapolis. It is in Harrisonburg, Va.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 28, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Language instruction -- An article in the Jan. 22 Travel section about learning a foreign language said that the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey teaches Czech. Instruction in that language has been discontinued.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 05, 2006 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Language instruction -- An article on learning a foreign language ("Speak and Ye Shall Find More Pleasure on the Trip") in the Jan. 22 Travel section incorrectly reported that the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey teaches Czech. Instruction in that language has been discontinued.

Of course, some languages are simply more difficult than others for native English-speakers to learn, because their writing and sounds differ so widely, Jourdenais said.

At the Monterey-based Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, dedicated to getting State and Defense department diplomatic personnel up to speed before a foreign posting, basic French and Spanish courses designed to give students a modest level of proficiency last 25 weeks. Czech and Russian programs run for 47 weeks; beginner Mandarin Chinese and Arabic courses take 63 weeks.

Classroom study, in a group or one on one, tends to be expensive. For travelers embarking on relatively brief trips, their needs often can be adequately addressed by the survival dictionaries in most guidebooks that can teach them how to say "Hello" and "Goodbye," "Where is?" and "How much?" in the time it takes to fly from L.A. to Berlin.

Travelers who have more elaborate goals should seek methods suited to their motivations, said Joan Rubin, coauthor of "How to Be a More Successful Language Learner."

"Learning to work in a language is a very demanding task," Rubin said. "For an English-speaker, it will take 700 hours to learn to work in Spanish and double that in Korean, Japanese, Chinese or Arabic."

In other words, how you prepare for a trip depends on what you want to get out of it.

"If you have the time and money, a week or two of total immersion is the ideal solution," said John Bennett of Berlitz International (www.berlitz.us). The Princeton, N.J.-based company pioneered the total immersion method of foreign language study, which means that only the language being studied is spoken in class. A week of intensive private study costs $2,500, but after such a program, travelers should be able to ask for directions, talk on the phone and follow basic conversations, Bennett said.

For the traveler who plans to visit a foreign country for business or pleasure several times, 10-week programs of semiprivate study, two times a week, should be sufficient to navigate without a dictionary, Bennett said. The price starts at $700.

Taking classes is like having a personal trainer, while do-it-yourself approaches, such as tapes, CDs and online learning programs, require discipline. Berlitz offers these self-teaching options, but others are available.

Among those is Paris-based Assimil (www.assimil.com), which has tapes and CDs in 69 languages and dialects, from Breton to Vietnamese. Assimil was founded in 1929 to teach English to French-speakers and has become one of Europe's more highly regarded foreign language study programs.

Assimil taps the intuitive language-acquiring ability of children to get people thinking in a foreign language. Prices for beginner-level packages, including a book and several CDs, are about $50 to $100.

Computers have given travelers other potent language acquisition options, among them CD-ROM and online subscription programs such as those offered by Rosetta Stone (www.rosettastone.com), which is based in Minneapolis. This company devised a program that teaches students to link computer images and sounds to words and phrases, forgoing grammar drills and memorization. The level-one French CD-ROM costs $195; access to it on the Internet costs $49.95 a month.

Rick Steves, who travels widely to research his "Europe Through the Back Door" guidebook series, favors hiring a translator/guide through local tourist bureaus, especially on short visits to places where English isn't spoken. Guides can take you wandering, give meaning to your sightseeing and help you get as much out of a trip as possible, Steves said.

For people with a deeper interest in a place and its language, studying abroad may be the most attractive option, sometimes even the whole reason for a trip. Jan Capper, director of the International Assn. of Language Centers in Cambridge, England, which monitors and represents 90 schools in 21 countries, thinks the benefits of studying abroad include faster language acquisition and exposure to a host country's culture.

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