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Where to learn a language:
Finding the right language course

Define your expectations

When you're searching for a language course, the first question you need to ask yourself is: Why am I learning the language? Do you hope to use the language only when you go on vacation? In that case, you won't need to write much in the language, but you'll need to be able to understand spoken language and to communicate orally. Do you plan to learn the language as a requirement for graduate school or to use the language for research purposes? This typically requires a good reading knowledge of a given language. Do you plan to do business with natives of the target language? You will need a focused range of vocabulary, and will need to be able to understand and communicate orally, and to be able to compose formal business letters and written communications.

Of course, you may wish to learn a language for a range of reasons. If you're interested in a fully enriching language experience and in truly learning about the life and culture of other peoples, then you'll want to find a course that gives you the opportunity to jump in full-force and to develop a complete range of skills.

Identify your learning style

Once you've identified what kind of language skills you'd like to develop, you need to consider what type of learner you are. Do you tend to be self-motivated and learn material well independently? Or do you need the structure of a formal course with frequent homework assignments to keep you on task? Do you prefer daily contact with an instructor who guides you through the material or are you comfortable working through material yourself with the instructor as a resource for answering occasional questions? Do you tend to absorb material well by hearing it or listening to it or do you need to see the material in written form before you can grasp it?

It's important to keep in mind that just because you are weaker in one skill area does not mean that you should ignore developing it. If you seem to have difficulties with listening comprehension, for example, the only way you can improve that ability is to practice it. The key is identifying your strengths and using them to buttress your weaknesses while working on improving in the areas where you need it most.

Explore your options

Knowing what you want from a course and identifying your learning style will help you narrow your focus in searching for a language course best suited to your own unique situation. Here are some places to start looking for the language course that's right for you.

1. Self-paced online courses:

If you've identified yourself as the type of learner who learns well independently but who appreciates learning support from time to time, the Internet has a lot to offer. Many language learning sites have been established by good folks who, like us, strongly believe in the value and importance of learning languages. A variety of sites are maintained by individuals or groups who want to share their own language and culture with others. If cost is an important factor in your selection of courses, the good news about online language instruction is that much of it is free.

The cost-free online language courses typically offer self-paced lessons, audio and interactive content, and oftentimes automated assignments and self-tests. Many such sites also have native-speaker tutors and they typically host discussion boards where the online community of learners can gather and share ideas and information, ask each other questions, and support each other's learning.

Good one-stop shops for multiple languages:
• The BBC - Online courses in Chinese, French, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. Plus essential phrases in 36 languages.
• Unilang - Maintains a comprehensive list of sites offering language courses

A few individual language sites:
• German or Spanish - For a fee you get not only interactive online lessons but also the assistance of a personal tutor at LernPlus.
Greek - Series of 8 courses, including one on Ancient Greek, through Kypros in collaboration with the CyBC
Japanese - 16 basic Japanese lessons
Persian - Lessons from Beginner to Advanced in reading, writing, listening, and speaking

When venturing online to look for free courses, remember that anyone can set up a website and post content. Scan the site for signs that you're receiving accurate, quality instruction (credentials of site owner, professional endorsements, number of satisfied users, etc.).

2. Self-paced offline courses:

A number of computerized CD-ROM modules, CD / audio cassette language courses, and teach-yourself language books, often with accompanying CDs or cassettes, are on the market. We recommend this type of self-instruction only as a supplement to other instruction or as a last resort. Why? Language is above all a vehicle for communication. Without the opportunity to interact with others you will not be able to practice your ability to communicate in meaningful ways. Additionally, without access to a language instructor who can provide you with feedback and who can guide and monitor your language progress, you learning productivity is likely to suffer. Even if you plan to learn a language only for reading knowledge, you will find it useful to have access to a language expert or a community of tutors and learners at various levels who can at least answer your questions.

Finding published language learning materials is simple. Browse materials at your local bookstore and get a feel for the methods used behind each set of materials. Is the instructional method heavily grammar-based? Does it focus primarily on tourist-related themes? Does it give ample opportunity to hear and practice the language? Are there opportunities for interactivity?

Some simple programs for language learning are available for free or at a very small cost. Check out our list of free software for foreign language learners, which includes a variety of software programs for over 20 different languages. If you're looking for something more robust, Rosetta Stone, Transparent Language, Pimsleur and Unforgettable Languages are companies that offer audio CDs and computerized, interactive learning environments on CD-ROM for a range of languages.

•  Rosetta Stone - Highly acclaimed language software program providing instruction in 28 different languages. Used by such agencies as NASA, the US State Department, many Fortune 500 companies, and over 10,000 schools.
•  Transparent Language - Offers a variety of products for over 100 different languages. Programs include listening, speaking, and reading opportunities, vocabulary and grammar practice, videos, flash card modules, native speaker audio instruction, add-on content modules, and more.
•  Pimsleur - These audio-only courses, available for 38 different languages, are designed to help people develop speaking skills quickly. Used by the FBI, CIA, and many businesses.

In addition, Amazon has a myriad of language learning software and language books available and ECTACO sells a number of electronic language-learning aids, such as hand-held voice translators and computerized dictionaries and language tutors.

3. Instructor-led, live courses:

If you need the structure of a formal course, whether online or in-person, the course will in all likelihood carry course fees. Depending on your situation, course fees can range from minimal to hundreds of dollars. Check offerings at local colleges or universities or community education or continuing education programs. If you are in an area without a college or university nearby, note that some universities offer distance courses delivered via various modes from satellite TV to Internet to correspondence courses. The continuing education division or extension service of your state university is a good place to begin searching for these types of language courses.

4. Intensive and immersion courses:

Immersion courses are often the most rapid, most satisfying venue for learning a language. These intensive courses give learners the opportunity to fully engage themselves in the world of the language, whether they take place in your own country or whether they are taught abroad in a country where the language is spoken. Immersion courses are widely varied in cost, target audience, the number of hours of instruction, extracurricular opportunities, and more. Be sure to inform yourself about any program in which you're interested and make sure it's in sync with your learning goals. - The site allows criteria-based searches and comparison of language courses worldwide - Offers a searchable online directory of language schools for students looking to learn or study a foreign language abroad.
Language Schools and Language Courses - lists immersion and on-site courses for several languages, organized by language and country
The Education Portal - Lists dozens of international language schools with brief descriptions and links to their sites

Intensive and/or immersion courses are also an integrated part of most study abroad programs. When you choose to study in a country where the foreign language is different than your native language you'll have the opportunity to participate in such rapid-paced language instruction. One of the greatest benefits of participating in such courses in the countries where the language is spoken is that you can leave the classroom and immediately apply what you're learning in an authentic setting. Read more at our Study abroad pages.

While immersion courses tend to be the most rewarding and satisfying kind of course you can join, they also tend by far to be most costly type of course. Still, you may be able to substantially reduce your costs by finding financial assistance for your participation. Visit our Grants and scholarships page for financial aid tips and resources.

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