by Sasha Alyson
A second language is not necessary, but helps make for a better trip. Rather than a month of language immersion, here are some offerings where you can study at home.
In the half-century since World War II, English has become the world’s second language. Walk into almost any major city in the world, and you can check into a hotel room, or order dinner, in English.
So do you need a second language to travel? No. Not if you want to spend your days abroad only in big cities, ordering dinner and checking into hotels. But to meet and fully interact with other people and cultures, you need some knowledge of their language.
For those with the time, a month of immersion school remains the best road to that goal. For the rest of us, there are packages that offer instruction at home. Here are some popular offering.* * *
If you like the Internet, you’ll love the language courses from Syracuse Learning Systems (800-797-5264). These are the most interactive of the systems I looked at. You can play word games on your home computer; install a microphone and watch the Speech Meter light up as your accent improves; then tap into the Web for more.
Some of us learn by listening; others need interaction; yet others remember words best if we associate them with pictures. SLS lets you pick the styles that work for you; that’s a big benefit.
On the other hand, for busy guppies with limited time, games aren’t the most time-efficient way to learn a language. And some of that time will be spent just figuring out which of the myriad SLS programs to purchase. In Spanish alone, the company offers five packages, with varying prices and content.
Still, it was my favorite of the batch. Before buying multimedia packages, check the box carefully to be sure your computer meets ALL the hardware requirements.* * *
Prize for “best at what it does” goes to Champs-Elysees, for its monthly tapes of news stories, features, and music.
With their focus on the culture and current events of a particular country, these tapes are downright interesting — more than one could say for any other language cassettes. They’ll improve your vocabulary and comprehension. But they’re not intended to help you speak better, nor are they for beginners, who will just get frustrated. (800-824-0829)* * *
Berlitz is synonymous with language instruction. I like the Berlitz package I purchased two years ago. Virtually every word on the twelve cassettes was French. Each evening I listened to dialogues and scenarios, repeated them, and responded to questions, all in French. Berlitz’s “Think and Talk French” title was apt, and if Parisians still laugh when I open my mouth, that’s not Berlitz’s fault.
I was disappointed, then, to open Berlitz’s newest version of “Think and Talk” (my sample was German) and to hear an enormous amount of English on the cassette. Listeners are expected to translate back and forth, German to English, a jarring and unnatural process.
Worse, the narrator provides far too much cultural information that doesn’t belong on a language tape. We learn (in English) about German sausages long before we learn (in German) to ask Where is the bathroom? Since you should listen to each tape five or six times, you’ll soon get tired of German sausage — and desperate for that bathroom.
The new Berlitz is still a satisfactory choice for commuters looking to put their driving time to use, and for those put off by SLC’s multi-media approach. But it’s a shame that Berlitz undertook a change merely for the sake of change.* * *
Change for the sake of change is not a problem at Barron’s. Two years ago I bought their expensive French cassettes. The box, with trendy colors, looked modern in the store. Once I got home and the shrink-wrap came off, the tapes and text appeared unchanged since World War II. The book takes a stodgy, rote approach to language. Barron’s also markets a cheaper but equally disappointing “TravelWise” packet of a single cassette tape and book ($16.95), notable primarily for the amount of time the narrator spends telling you, in English, how to relax. I didn’t merely relax; I fell asleep.* * *
Gay travelers will need to supplement these mainstream tapes with something extra. I enjoyed “Hot! International”: An English phrase at the top of each page is translated into six European languages. Don’t be misled by the fact that pronunciations appear with each phrase, however; the book isn’t for novices.
Granted, there’s some logical sequence to the phrases: What’s your astrological sign? is translated at the beginning; But I’ll try it appears mid-book; then I forgive you; and finally, We could live together in your country. But you won’t quickly find the phrase you need, when you need it, by thumbing through the book at random. I can think of three potential uses for “Hot! International”:
- If you already have mastery of a language, use it to expand your vocabulary beyond what’s on the Berlitz tape. Considerably beyond.
- Bring it along on your first date and thumb through it with your new friend. This requires some sense of humor on everyone’s part, but should help you quickly break the ice.
- Truly adventurous types, of course, can merely memorize the translations of “But I’ll try it”, and see what happens.