Quick ways to gain a foreign tongue

These shortcuts can prepare you for your next trip abroad, provided you practise what you hear.


(Photo Illustration: Thomas van Ryzewyk/Getty)

It was an interest in vampires, long a part of Slavic culture, that fed Bobbi Duncan’s desire to study Russian. This summer, a year after starting to learn the language, the 21-year-old linguistics student at the University of Texas spent five weeks in Russia and, to her delight, found she could communicate with locals, even if she lacked an extensive vocabulary. “One of the things I learned how to do really well is talk around something,” she says, “so even if I don’t have the words for exactly what I want, I can still express myself pretty well.”

The course Duncan took adopted a novel language-teaching approach conceived by the school’s Arabic program four years ago. Traditionally, language teachers spend much of instruction time running through grammar rules and vocabulary. Students in Duncan’s class had to learn that on their own time, however, and classes were used to practise their knowledge. “What we’re doing in class is activate new materials through group work, through presentations, through games, through activities,” says Mahmoud Al-Batal, director of the flagship Arabic program at the university. “It enables students to immerse themselves more in the language, and it makes them take ownership of learning.”

In this global economy, professionals are frequently required to travel abroad, or find themselves assigned to a foreign office or project. Knowing the local language is an asset that can open up career opportunities and new lines of business. But workers rarely have years to perfect a language; they need to pick as much as possible, usually within months. And programs like UT’s are designed to address that.

Carla Hudson Kam, a linguistics professor at the University of British Columbia, says the approach to language learning should depend on how you plan to use the skill. For someone looking to pick up common phrases in a short period, a computer program or an audiobook will suffice.

This method, however, won’t prepare you for holding a conversation. “For adult language learning, the most successful learners do both some immersion and actual study in a classroom,” says Kam. “Either one of those is not going to be as effective as both of them together.” Ideally, you should communicate with different speakers of the language, and if you’re expecting to travel to a particular region, listen to someone speaking in that accent to get accustomed to it, she says.

Some languages are easier to learn than others, depending on how close they are to your native language and the complexity of their grammar and pronunciation, says Robert DeKeyser, a second-language-acquisition professor at the University of Maryland. For native English speakers, learning Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Japanese is the hardest, while Dutch and French tend to be easier.

As the Texas program highlights, it’s interaction that makes all the difference. “If you just memorize a long list of words, it doesn’t stick in your brain,” says Orlando Kelm, associate director of business language education at UT’s Center for International Business Education and Research. “But if there’s some experience you have that becomes real, then suddenly you remember the word for the rest of your life.” He recommends using Livemocha, a social network that connects users with native speakers around the world, or podcasts to supplement work done in the classroom. It’s also much easier to retain words that you really need to use, Kelm adds. And, as basic as it sounds, a good night’s sleep helps your brain consolidate what you’ve learned.

To be successful, people shouldn’t shy away from testing their language skills with others. “You have to be willing to open your mouth and say whatever comes out, and hope you’re going to get the bread you need or the cheese you want to eat,” says Kelm. “If you’re waiting to say it perfectly, you’re going to have a lot harder time.” He suggests memorizing phrases rather than individual words, because literal translation can get in the way.

But even with shortcuts, learning a language takes time. To reach the level where you can converse about routine tasks for a relatively easy language like Spanish can take about 500 hours, while learning Chinese would require closer to 1,000 hours. With such lengthy time frames, some suggest that learning the foreign business culture—proper formalities and customs—may be more practical than studying the language. “If you understand the cultural things that go on in international business, those cultural issues will apply whether you’re in Paris or Shanghai or in Berlin,” Kelm says. “And in a lot of ways, the cultural aspects are more important than foreign language skills because they’re more transferable.”