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GIZMOS: Here's how to learn to parler français online

April 4, 2005

Several years ago, a colleague and I were in Montreal on both business and pleasure. I defy anyone to visit Montreal for business alone. It ranks with American cities such as Boston and San Francisco for charm and variety. Only one thing bothered me-I didn't speak French. In fact, I don't fluently speak anything except English, the high school German not having stuck very well. There's my command of Geekspeak, which many consider to be as baffling as ancient Egyptian, but at least it has English verbs, if not nouns.

Montreal, as you may know, is in Quebec, and Quebec has such a high percentage of French speakers that they've forced the rest of the vast Canadian nation to learn some scanty French, too. There is palpable tension in Montreal between the Francophones and the Anglophones over the language issue, so, although we quickly picked up a few French phrases, we never used them for fear of angering the Francophones with our clearly unsatisfactory pronunciation.

It was only on our way to the airport to fly out that we broached the subject with Gille, our limo driver. To our surprise, he seemed delighted that we would try out our fragile French. He told us that, far from being offended, Francophones love it when Americans speak even indecipherable French. It shows that we're trying, and that we respect their culture and language. A sales audiotape I particularly liked once advised that "intent counts for more than technique," and I've found it to be largely true, personally and professionally. Others respond well to us if we will but try to speak in their tongues. As we move toward a truly planetary bazaar, English isn't always as reliable as it might be.

That said, how do you pick up even the basic conversational phrases in a foreign language when you're already rationing sleep hours? You're often sitting in front of a computer monitor anyway, so why not make use of it?

There are lots of places online to get started with foreign languages. The venerable old British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC, or "Beeb") has its own online language school at www.bbc.co.uk/languages/. It has the typical Italian, French, Spanish and German, but it also features Portuguese, Greek, Japanese and Chinese. And considering that it's a Beeb site, it's not unexpected that it would have Irish, Gaelic and Welsh, too. All are entirely online and all are free.

In fact, the Web is packed with free language courses, but as with anything else in the world's most colossal warehouse, the quality may vary drastically. It would be nice if first impressions of sites gave you a dependable measurement of how good the site's information is, but it's hard to judge a site's quality by how much eye candy it has.

Word2Word (www.word2word.com), for example, has a long list of language courses that others have created, but its design is spartan. Some courses that Word2Word lists merely give a few symbols in Arabic, while others have full-blown video and audio. Word2Word itself says caveat emptor.

Although some people may find it possible to learn a language online, many people won't be able to do it. It's not so much an indictment of online learning as the reality of learning styles. Some people just don't do well without teachers or other students.

Berlitz (www.berlitz.com), which has been teaching languages since just after the Civil War, tries to serve both audiences by having online classes that are both "synchronous" and "asynchronous." Asynchronous classes are completely self-paced. Synchronous classes have an instructor present during lessons. The self-paced courses run $275, and you can stretch the course out for a year. The instructor-based courses are $799 for 10 lessons, and $1,299 for 20 lessons. And if you just can't do it by computer, Berlitz still offers live courses. If all you want is just a cultural brush-up on how to act overseas, Berlitz can provide that online, too.

If you're not connected to the Net, you can still manage with CD versions of coursework. Those can be purchased at any large bookstore, such as Amazon (www.amazon.com), Barnes and Noble (www.barnesandnoble.com) or Borders (www.borders.com). Auralog (www.auralog.com) has CD software that is supposed to include voice recognition, so your computer can correct your pronunciation. Their products go for around $200 on Amazon.



Altom is a systems interaction designer for Indiana University, based at IUPUI. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at tim@elementassoc.com.
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