There is little debate about the benefits of knowing a second or foreign language, even beyond the advantages of being a more global citizen. The research is clear in terms of cognitive development, higher levels of academic achievement, a greater chance of completion of higher education degrees, and employment opportunities. Historically, Europeans, with their closely-bordered lands, have managed to become masters of several languages. People from Finland are taught Swedish and Finnish as a matter of course. Then, early in school, they begin to learn English or another language as well. Folks in northern Italy are often proficient in German, a nearby neighbor, while those from the regions west of Venice become fluent in French.
However, in the U. S., few school districts are set up teach any international language to a respectable facility, leaving most Americans out of the bilingual loop. For those adventurous souls who want to dip their toes in other cultures, share a bon jour with a Paris shopkeeper or offer efaristo in gratitude for a delicious Athenian supper, there are a variety of language-learning options including community college classrooms, university coursework, CDs, MeetUp and other networking groups, YouTube clips, and even online courses, with or without personalized instruction. All have their advantages and an ability to deliver some level of competence. The essential missing elements in all those situations are real people to talk to and a genuine cultural experience.
With a little planning, you can take that desire to become proficient in French, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, or Arabic, to a higher plane by choosing and attending a country-based language center. You can expect to pay far less for a program abroad than for its counterpart in the United States, and yet, reap impressive and transferable benefits. You gain actual experience of a country, its culture, and the language, making your vacation or work-leave a double-duty event. Even with the cost of airfare, an overseas language experience won’t make much of a dent in your wallet and the results are truly life altering. As with any journey, packing is the last item on your checklist. Several other issues must be considered first.
Step 1: Choose the Language If you have studied French, or German, or Spanish in junior or high school, you can reactivate the language by returning to its study. Strangely, our brains don’t completely forget those ritualistic lessons of the classroom. The data is stored and can be retrieved to aid in further learning. Some people are attracted to a language because it partners a personal interest, yoga and Hindi for example, or Japanese and flower arranging. Naturally, the greater your involvement, the higher the motivation to learn.
Step 2: Choose the Place Close your eyes, spin the globe, and drop your finger on any location; you will probably be able to find a language program. From Zahgreb to Santiago, language centers have the welcome mat out for people from all over the world. I had an extended break between one teaching assignment and another, and decided to attend an Arabic course in Morocco. Several cities offer such courses, but I chose Rabat. Since I’d be attending in late July and August, weather was one consideration. Rabat has an ocean breeze and is often 20 degrees cooler than Marrakesh or Fes, which also offer highly recommended programs. One effective search method is by using “learn + the language”, and the location.
A Belgian policeman on why he wants to learn Moroccan Arabic – “We have a lot of Moroccans in Belgium, and I want to be able to speak with them in their own language.”
Step 3: Choose the Program – It’s your money. Look for what you really want. Large or small center? Set program or flexible? Individual instruction or small group? Housing provided or make your own arrangements? Meals available at extra cost or inclusive? Restaurants nearby? Transportation available from the airport or train station? The website for the program should detail all of these issues. Read them through them carefully. If the program caters to English-speaking students, they should have someone in the office who can answer specific questions if you call, email, or Skype. Check to see if the website lists recommendations or testimonials. They may even give the email addresses of former students willing to be contacted by prospective attendees. Pictures of the center and its facilities can be deceptive, but they help to orient the school in time and space.
My recent experience may offer insights. To refresh my Moroccan Arabic, I chose Qalam wa Lawh in Rabat, Morocco. Qalam has three levels of coursework in both derija (the Moroccan dialect of Arabic) and Modern Standard Arabic. Two, four, and six hour programs are available, along with a free, optional half-hour of tutoring for each student every weekday. A full kitchen at the center serves a continental breakfast, mint tea at break-time, and a selection of Moroccan dishes for lunch. The villa housing the center sits in a lushly blooming garden that becomes a classroom when weather permits. In the weeks I attended, the gentle breezes invited almost everyone out-of-doors while the house cats played beneath the various tables that served as classrooms.
Look for a center that does not require payment ahead of time, or, at least, only asks for a deposit. This saves the hassle of discovering that you’ve booked yourself a lemon without recourse to cancellation. Please note that some extremely good programs do ask for payment ahead, but I prefer paying on arrival.
- An intensive instruction process, with much of the instruction done in the target language. Unlike classrooms in US junior, high schools, or colleges, the best language experience comes when students are taught in the language they are learning. Find a center that offers this option.
- A syllabus clearly outlining the goals of instruction over specific periods: one, two, three, or more weeks of instruction. 3. Excursions to the local, or distant, attractions. These may be included or for an additional cost. Students at Qalam took a trip to the Sahara which included a night on the desert, a traditional meal, and camel rides. 4. Basic proficiency for life essentials after one week. This would include the ability to ask “Where is …?”, “How much?”, and to express needs, “Take me to ….”, “I want …”.
A student from the University of Maryland studying Modern Standard Arabic – “Learning a language abroad completely changes your perspective of other countries and international events. It also gives you an unbiased view of the culture.”
A young French woman, wearing hajab (a headcovering used among Muslim women) – “My family is of Moroccan ancestry, but I was born in France, so I don’t speak Arabic. I want to learn the language of my heritage.”
Remember that the language is as much of a journey as the plane flight. You cannot learn a new language if you never let go of the old one. Think of it as swimming. Immerse yourself in the country where you are studying, take every opportunity to talk to local residents, try new foods with discretion, and be willing to make mistakes. Aladdin had his “Open Sesame”. Yours can start with a “Sign me up!.”