Sam Naser

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Anyone who’s ever set out to learn a foreign language, or brush up on one they’ve attempted to learn in the past, knows how frustrating the process can be. It’s a perpetual battle to remember those simple rules of syntax and conjugation, the fumbling for the right word, phrase or idiom. And right when the tongue is supposed to vibrate against the roof of the mouth for that rolling R, it ends up rolling on itself instead.

The fact is, learning a new language is far from easy. And it’s not just due to the difficulties of mastering the pronunciation and intonation of foreign words. In fact, one of the biggest barriers could boil down to the simple issue of motivation. That’s because like a new diet, the novelty of a new language tends to wear off quickly, and figuring out how to stay interested is often a challenge.

It pays off

The benefit of a knowing a second language is now, more than ever, essential for the American worker. That’s because the global marketplace is continuing to become more, well, global. In fact, a 2008 study reported that at least one in five U.S. jobs are tied directly to international trade. The study also projected that the majority of future growth for U.S. industries of all sizes will be in overseas markets. That is, overseas markets where business is often done not just around the business table, but also in social situations and side conversations. And if you don’t have the skills to participate in those conversations, you’re going to get left out.

So, it’s not hard to imagine why telling a potential employer you’d be able to do business with their foreign clients in their own language would make you stand out. And more than ever, working in the public field in Arizona necessitates Spanish-language abilities, says Yolima Otálora, founder of Interlingua, a language academy whose clients largely include city of Phoenix employees. “If you work in the public field, you need to be able to interact with the population,” says Yolima, “and a very high percentage of the population in Arizona is Latino.”

Nevertheless, there remains more than a tinge of complacency toward learning foreign languages in the United States. The truth is, we as a culture have never been particularly interested in learning other languages. That’s because English is still recognized as the primary language of international business. The U.S. market has been so powerful for so long that Americans have assumed the rest of the world will take the trouble to understand it – and them. But as business starts to move into other people’s worlds, there’s no doubt we’ll soon have to reciprocate by learning foreign languages and cultures.

Delivery methods

Learning a new language takes time and, almost certainly, money. Whether it’s classes, textbooks or tutoring, it all adds up quickly. And over the weeks, months or years it may take to acquire proficiency, you may be surprised at just how much is spent along the way. Fortunately, a few methods can circumvent that.

One of the most popular ways to learn a language these days is via computer-based language software, like Rosetta Stone. You may recognize the software as those yellow boxes sold at shopping mall and airport kiosks. In fact, it may be the biggest name in modern language learning.

Rosetta Stone is a CD-based software that teaches language through a “dynamic immersion method” the company purports is akin to the way first languages are learned. Instruction is done through a combination of images, text and sound, with difficulty levels increasing as you progress, immersing you in a foreign language with high-tech software. Its product packages also come with a microphone headset that evaluates your pronunciation. Unsurprisingly then, it isn’t cheap. An elementary Spanish course goes for $229, and a full, five-level Spanish course costs $699.

But while Rosetta Stone may be the most familiar form of computer-based language learning, it’s far from the only one. With the proliferation of broadband access, companies are now beginning to meld social networking and the Internet to deliver a plethora of web-based language products. They range from free to fee-based, to some combination of both, but almost all of them allow members to interact in real time with pen pals from other countries.

Take for example, www.livemocha.com. Since its debut in September 2007, the Livemocha website has allowed millions of participants to embark upon hundreds of hours of free beginner or intermediate lessons in over 30 languages, like Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Italian, German and Portuguese. Better yet, members can chat online in real time by typing, popping on a headset or turning on their webcam and tutoring one of their five million users across 200 countries in their native language, or receiving tutoring in one they want to learn.

So, in an attempt to polish my high-school Spanish, I set up a Livemocha account. Having done so, I did my best to pen a short practice essay in Spanish and selected a native Spanish-speaking tutor from a roster of hundreds. The teenaged Spanish tutor I ended up with would later inform me that my conjugation was “way off.” Not to mention my spelling “needs work.” In return for the feedback on my practice essay, I gave my tutor some advice on some of his English homework.  A short-lived language experience, for sure, but the value of having hundreds of human contacts within my electronic reach willing to swap language lessons is hard to underestimate.

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