Phyllis Korkki, “Foreign Language Courses, Brushing Up or Immersion,” NYTimes August 25, 2010:
THEY may be preparing for a vacation in Europe, trying to communicate with colleagues abroad or immigrant clients at home or unlocking the skills, learned in college, that have retreated to an inaccessible part of the brain. For those aiming to learn a foreign language, continuing education courses can lead people toward fluency — or at least help them get by.
These days, online programs and CDs like Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur are grabbing the interest of people attracted by their convenience and relatively low cost. But more schools are offering their own online-only language courses as part of extension programs.
At the University of California, Los Angeles, traditional, three-month language classes cost $480, and online classes cost $550. The online courses include video lectures, readings, exercises and assignments, which the instructors can correct and return to the student via e-mail. Students can practice with one another via chatrooms, and instructors and students can also talk on the phone to work on pronunciation, said Krista K. Loretto, program manager for U.C.L.A. Extension.
The biggest weakness of the online courses is the conversational element, Ms. Loretto said, although online students may soon be able to have real-time conversations thanks to technological advances.
The school also started offering combination online and classroom classes, which are especially helpful for those who have trouble making time for a class or live a long way from U.C.L.A., Ms. Loretto said.
Rosetta Stone, too, has gotten in on the classroom act. It does not consider itself a competitor, but rather a supplement to traditional language classes, said Cathy Quenzer, the company’s education director. It provides online courses for college instructors who want to augment their classroom lessons, she said. Students can learn through the program’s image-based format at their own pace at home, “and then come together to share and practice in the classroom,” she said.
There is no substitute for the traditional language class, with its emphasis on conversation and human interaction, said Florence Leclerc-Dickler, chairwoman of the foreign language department at the New School in New York and an assistant French professor.
Online-only courses are “good for people who are extremely self-disciplined,” Ms. Leclerc-Dickler said, comparing them to having a treadmill at home, whereas attending a class is like going to a gym.
The New School offers continuing education courses in 17 languages, with placement exams available for those not sure how far their rusty college skills will take them. French is by far the most popular language, which may reflect its cultural appeal as well as France’s popularity as a travel destination, Ms. Leclerc-Dickler said.
Spanish is second in popularity, with Arabic, German, Italian and Portuguese coming next in roughly similar numbers, she said. While the Tibetan course is offered less frequently, the one to be offered this fall is full, she said, as was the class in Nepali last spring.
Many classes meet once a week for an hour and 50 minutes and last 13 weeks, at a cost of $590. But Ms. Leclerc-Dickler recognizes that it can be hard for busy professionals to commit to a set time every week. That is why she also organizes weekend language immersion courses. These start on Friday evening and run through Sunday for a total of 14 hours, at a cost of $350.
Ellen Golub, a mortgage broker in Manhattan, took the weekend French class last spring a few weeks before her vacation in Paris. She called it “a crash course where you learn the basics.”
Though she did not come near to mastering French, she said the class, with its heavy emphasis on conversation, helped her feel more comfortable doing things like ordering food and navigating the Métro in Paris.
Professionals often take foreign language classes for personal reasons and enjoyment, Ms. Leclerc-Dickler said. But the needs of a global economy are also causing more people to learn languages for work-related purposes, Ms. Loretto said.
Being able to make a presentation in a foreign language, whether in person or through a teleconference, can give an English-speaking employee a serious edge, she said. Foreign languages are also very useful for workers who interact with immigrants, she said.
Ms. Loretto said Spanish had long been the most popular language at U.C.L.A. Extension, but she said that demand for Mandarin had been growing every year, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being neck and neck with Spanish in popularity.”
Extension offerings often reflect the needs of the surrounding community. Los Angeles has a large Korean population, and court officials have found Korean classes valuable in helping them to communicate with those who pass through the court system, Ms. Loretto said.
Valentina Zaitseva, who teaches at the University of Washington, has had among her students medical professionals who treat Seattle’s large Russian community.
In addition to traditional classes, she teaches a summer course that packs a year’s worth of Russian language study into two intensive months. Now she is teaching a summer interdisciplinary class in Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, in partnership with Sochi State University.
Although many of her summer intensive students take her class to obtain credits toward a degree, some are professionals who may want to develop and maintain business contacts in Russia, she says — forming a contrast to others who mainly want to read authors likeDostoyevsky in the original Russian.