So you’re planning on living overseas — do you really need to learn the language of your adopted country?
I have a simple, two-word answer for you: it depends.
Don’t learn the language:
- If you plan to live, work and play among other expats
- If you’re not interested in immersing yourself in the local culture
- If you plan to hire someone to take care of your administrative tasks
However, if you want to explore your new country on your own, handle your own bill paying, banking, and other business, and interact with local people, learning even a little of the language is a good idea.
With that said, how do you choose among all the available options? There are several well known and highly rated programs, lots of websites, there are private language lessons and group classes, Skype classes, and on and on.
Best Option: Language Classes in the Country
Ideally, you’ll have the time and the budget to hook up with some total immersion language classes once you arrive in the country. There are several big benefits:
- Attending a class means you’ll set aside the time and devote your attention to your language learning, increasing the likelihood you’ll actually follow through with it.
- You’ll learn the language as the locals speak it. If you’re living in Panama, for example, as we plan to, you can learn Spanish as the Panamanian people speak it, with local idioms.
- You’ll learn from interacting with your fellow students, and get to practice in a “safe” environment
- Participating in a class with others is more enjoyable than sitting home alone
If You Want to Learn Before You Go
If you want to start your language program before you go, there are lots of choices of online or computer-based programs. If you’re in the US, check your local community college. Often they’ll offer conversational language classes. (That’s how I got started with Spanish.)
I’ve also worked with each of the programs below. They approach language learning differently, and each has its strengths.
Online and Computer Language Programs
Interested in finding an online program or buying a computer-based program you can work at in your spare time? There are several good ones. They each offer lots of vocabulary building and grammar, but their approaches differ. If you know your own learning style, it’s easier to evaluate them to figure out which will work best for you.
There’s an excellent website called LiveMocha which offers interactive language instruction in a whole slew of languages, starting with Abkhazian and ending in Zuni. The basic program is free, or you can access extras for reasonable fees. You can even put together a program for group lessons.
Transparent.com produces several different programs. They offer a small “starter” program that’s designed solely to drill vocabulary, called Before You Know It, or BYKI for short. The basic version is free online. Or you can pay a modest amount to get a more robust version. (They offer a mobile version as well.)
The next step up would be Everywhere Audio, a 5 CD set (or you can download the MP3s). This program helps you build your vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.
Or there’s the Transparent Connect program, which combines self-paced computer study with live instruction.
Premium Edition combines the BYKI vocabulary-building system with practice using the language in realistic settings.
Or, choose the Complete Edition, which includes all of the Premium Edition, BYKI Deluxe and Everywhere Audio.
They’re offering 20% off on purchases before January 31. Save 20% off of orders of $125 or more. Use TWNTYOFF at checkout. Expires 1/31/2012
Pimsleur also offers several levels of programs. If you buy the Quick and Simple program, they’ll give you a credit toward Pimsleur I, which is the first substantive program. If you’re going to choose Pimsleur, that’s where I suggest you start.
Pimsleur I, II, III and IV offer 30 units of instruction in each module.
I’ve done well putting Pimsleur on my iPod and listening to it in the car.
Rosetta Stone may be the best known of the major language software programs. They’ve gotten kudos from CNN, the New York Times, PC Magazine, and lots and lots of customers. They offer instruction in 29 languages, including Latin American Spanish and Spanish from Spain.
Fluent in Three Months? Really?
Last but not least, take a look at Fluent in Three Months. This is a website that doesn’t teach specific languages, but teaches you how to learn a language.
Author Benny Lewis calls himself “The Irish Polyglot.” He grew up in Ireland speaking only English, but for the past nine years he’s been traveling the world. He’s taken his natural curiosity and linguistic ability and put it to use teaching others how to “hack” language learning. Definitely worth a look.
(His blog is pretty interesting, too.)
Even if you don’t feel the need to become completely fluent in the language of your new country, knowing some common words and phrases can ease your transition. Or you can immerse yourself in the language, with the confidence that soon you’ll be able to transact business and carry on a conversation with a local friend.