Speak and ye shall find more pleasure on the trip

Experts say 10 weeks of semiprivate study, twice a week, can help you mingle with the locals.
(Richard Derk / LAT)
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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.”

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 ( 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 (, 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 (, 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.


The IALC website, , links prospective students to the schools’ own Internet sites, where the programs are described, prices are given and lodging options are outlined.

Those who want more individualized assistance finding a program can use language study booking agencies, such as Barcelona-based . The agencies keep their own lists of schools and handle applications, accommodations and payments.

Experts like Capper say that native English-speakers most commonly want to study French, Spanish or Italian abroad. Here are three popular schools for these languages in countries where they are spoken. All three are handled by agencies, are part of the IALC or are recommended by former students:

E.L.F.E., 23 Rue Ballu, 75009 Paris; 011-33-1-48-78-73-00, , is in a 19th century mansion near the Place de Clichy in the French capital. It offers French language instruction at all levels, including beginner courses starting the first Monday of every month, and it costs about $850 for 30 hours of instruction per week.

Universidad Internacional, San Jerónimo 304, Colonia San Jerónimo, Cuernavaca, Morales, Mexico 62179; (800) 574-1583, , is a respected, state-accredited university in central Mexico. It has program for foreign students that includes up to 38 hours a week of Spanish language and cultural study for $235.

The University for Foreigners, 4 Piazza Fortebraccio, 06123 Perugia, Italy; 011-39-075-5746-1, , is considered among the best places to study Italian in Italy, says Francesca Valente, director of the Italian Government Culture Office in L.A. The institution in Umbria offers three- and six-month courses as well as intensive one-month programs in July, August and September for about $400.