- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2003

Learning a foreign language can introduce people to new cultures or re-connect them with their heritage. It takes time, though, and true proficiency takes a great deal oftime and time is a luxury many Americans can't afford.
What's the solution to the hastily arranged business trip to Tokyo, the instant job reassignment in Moscow or the momentous meeting with a fiancee's relatives in Rome? So long as a person dedicates himself to it and has no illusions about instant fluency, a language can be learned fast.
Classes like those held by the Graduate School, USDA a division of the United States Department of Agriculture and other local organizations let students begin.
Klaus Luthardt, the USDA school's program manager, says his group offers both five- and 10-week language courses. The sessions are the equivalent of a first-year college course, Mr. Luthardt says.
Students in the 10-week course meet once a week for three hours; those in the five-week program meet three times a week stretched over four hours.
The reasons students take the courses are as varied as the languages offered.
"Most of the folks are young professionals," Mr. Luthardt says. "Usually, someone is going overseas for a visit or will stay there for work." A few are "people who simply love to learn languages," he says.
Spanish is the most requested language, followed by French, Chinese and German, he says.
The school also began teaching Hindi about three years ago, as some students wanted to take advantage of economic changes in India either to travel there or to broaden their international client base.

A crucial element in learning a language quickly is speaking it as much as possible, he says.
"If you're going to do a very, very short course, just 'survival French' for when you hit the airport," he says, "what you go for are certain expressions to ask for specific pieces of information, like getting a taxi."
The challenge, he says, is phrasing those questions just right.
"You have to elicit a simple answer," he says, something within the realm of your language training.
Mr. Luthardt says students looking to learn a language quickly can go online for help. The Internet offers many foreign-language sites and magazines to be studied, and it can put people in touch with others studying the language. He recommends that new students socialize to practice their budding language skills.
Better still, find someone who speaks the language well to give you a hand.
"Get somebody who can listen to you, and encourage them to correct you," he advises. "One of the worst things I've seen is trying to teach somebody who learned the language incorrectly."
He recalls meeting Americans in Germany who had learned improper German language skills stateside. "Nobody told them how it's really done," he says. "Your German neighbors are going to be nice and polite. They won't correct you."
Another teaching aid is to start thinking in the new language.
"If you speak three words of French, think in those three words, don't translate," he says. Thinking in the language is a good way to repeat and reinforce the material.
David Martin, director of the International Language Institute's foreign-language program, headquartered in the District, says his group offers classes that meet up to five times a week for various languages. The classes draw everyone from financiers to scientists.
Occasionally, instructors lead field trips to local cultural spots to hammer home the lessons, such as a stop at a Spanish grocery store or radio station. Mostly, the lessons are lecture-based.

Mr. Martin agrees that the best way to learn a language is to immerse oneself in it. The problem, he says, is that very few of us have the time for such techniques.
Another note of realism is sounded by Alina Israeli, associate professor of Russian at American University and chairwoman of its Department of Language and Foreign Studies.
A crash course can teach someone a few routine phrases, but to get to fully know a language is a lengthy process, Ms. Israeli says.
Before the State Department posts diplomats to various countries, it puts them through six months of intensive language training, she says.
"Hardly anything you can do short of that [can] achieve any kind of functionality," Ms. Israeli says.
"Look around at the immigrant community for comparison," she says. "See how much hardship they have. Some of them have been here 20 years without mastering the language."
Someone who decides to tackle a new language, says Stephen Thompson, author of "15,000 Spanish Verbs," should turn to the media for help.
"Watching Spanish TV is a very good way to get a feel for the sound and the cadence and speed [of Spanish]," says Mr. Thompson, who lives in the District. "Reading a newspaper in Spanish is very good. It gives you the actual native speaker's vocabulary."
When a student arrives in a foreign country, Mr. Thompson says, he or she should be armed with some handy reference guides, from basic dictionaries to books covering verb-conjugation basic grammar.

For Yukiko Hino, associate director of the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C., it took a little help from friends to master English.
Ms. Hino remembers stepping on U.S. soil for the first time in 1995.
She had studied English for six years while a high school student in Japan but had never had the chance to speak it at any length.
"When I got here, my friends forced me to speak English all the time," Ms. Hino says. That helped her process all those lessons.
She remains grateful for knowing the basic grammatical structures of English, even though the lessons didn't help her right away. "Without knowing the grammar and the crucial rules of the language, you probably won't be able to be functional in the language quickly," she says.
The best a visitor to a foreign land who hasn't studied the language can hope for is to pick up a few greetings and phrases, says Ms. Hino, whose society offers 10-week Japanese language courses for a variety of proficiency levels.
"Some people just call and say, 'I have to go to Japan this summer, and I want to learn the language as much as I can before I leave.' They have a very high motivation," she says.

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