Online language courses can transform any trip

Online tutorials and lessons are making it easier than ever to pick up languages

With a washout summer leading quickly into autumnal evenings, it's natural to pine for sunnier climes. If you've already decided to abandon the "staycation" in favour of somewhere warmer in 2013, then why not use the coming months to acquire some new language skills to make the most of your holiday?

There are a whole host of resources available to help you and your family learn a new language, from evening classes and private tuition to self-teach books, DVDs and apps. The only limit is your budget (happily, many resources are free), and your time.

But if you picture yourself sharing football chat in Barcelona or debating the latest eurozone crisis over un café in Paris, think again.

"You need to be realistic about what you can achieve in the next ten months," says Helen Myers, assistant head of specialist language college The Ashcombe School in Surrey. "To be fluent in that time frame would be a tall order. But to have some key phrases that you're comfortable using and to make yourself understood is perfectly doable. It will make all the difference to your experience."

This is echoed again and again by language experts, who say even a smattering of language can transform your experience of a country. "Even if you make mistakes, the reaction you get from people is so positive," says Kristina Hedges, language teaching adviser for CILT Cymru, the national centre for languages in Wales. "Their attitude definitely changes. They will really appreciate that you have made the effort."

Classes can be a great way to get started but do require a certain commitment in terms of time and money. Contact your local FE college or university – older learners can also contact their local University of The Third Age (U3A) – to find out details of courses in your area. There's also the option of a private tutor to master the basics in the privacy of your own home – check out the classified ads for details of tutors in your area. Prices can range from £15 to £30 per hour, depending on where you live.

Many people find they can master the basics by themselves using do-it-yourself materials – and the quality of DIY resources has never been better as advances in technology have opened up distance learning and bite-sized mobile modules.

For structured online learning, try learndirect (learndirect.co.uk), where language courses are priced at £29.99. Access to the course lasts for 12 months and you can work through the different exercises and quizzes as often as you like in that time to practise and test your knowledge.

The Learn a Language with Michel Thomas iTunes app is highly rated for learning-on-the-go. It promises to teach you the basics of French, Spanish, Italian or German in just eight hours, with a one-hour app costing £2.99.

YouTube is another great resource, with a fantastic range of video tutorials, songs and vocabulary games – although it can take some time to filter out what works for you, and what doesn't. Teenagers may respond well to lyricstraining.com, a site where you play the video of a popular artist and fill in the blanks in the karaoke-style lyrics.

The accessibility of foreign television stations in our digital world is a real boon to the language enthusiast. "The value of just listening to the language, even if you're not picking up a lot of it, is tremendous," says Myers, a big fan of French soap opera Plus Belle La Vie on France 3 (france3.fr). TV5MONDE (tv5.org) is also worth checking out, with its varied programming – something for all ages and tastes – and useful language modules (premiere classe).

The BBC is another excellent free resource (bbc.co.uk/languages), hosting video tutorials for beginners in French, Spanish, Italian, German, Greek, Portuguese and Chinese. It also features a "quick-fix" section that provides essential phrases in 40 languages, from Albanian to Urdu, that you can print out and keep or even download in audio form.

The BBC website also has an extensive range of materials for children so you can get the whole family onboard. The BBC Learning Zone, for example, which provides resources for teachers, includes useful clips to get children inspired, from singing nursery rhymes in French to cookery clips in Italian. And every parent's friend, CBeebies, has its own pre-school friendly programme, The Lingo Show, which introduces kids to French, Spanish and Mandarin through play and song.

"If you're doing this as a family project, think about what you want to get out of your holiday," advises Therese Comfort, a languages expert at the CfBT Education Trust. "You want your children to be able to meet and interact with other children in an informal way and to get by in shops and cafés. Practise some key phrases and greetings so that they are really confident and can be clearly understood. That's a real boost for them."

Indeed confidence is the trick for anyone trying to master a new language, whatever the age. "Children often have an advantage because they are less inhibited," says Comfort.

She adds that it's better to know a few key phrases well, and have the confidence to use them, than an extensive vocabulary that you don't use for fear of making mistakes. "If you are learning new vocabulary, like talking about different foods at meal times, it's best to try to put it into context, like how to ask someone to pass the salt, or ask for more bread," she suggests.

And, experts agree, little and often is the key – perhaps ten minutes a day rather than an hour once a week. Indeed, it's surprising how little you need to know to really notice a difference on your next trip abroad.

"There are some phrases that are invaluable and you can use again and again," advises language enthusiast Louise Darlington, who speaks Spanish, Portuguese and Greek. "Phrases like 'I would like', 'I need' and 'where is' along with 'please', 'thank you' and a good dictionary to fill in the blanks will cover many eventualities."

Darlington, who has a degree in Spanish and has lived in Spain and Greece, says speaking the language, even a little, makes all the difference to your experience of the country. "You feel much more confident and keen to explore the country independently," she says, adding not to be offended if the locals reply to your efforts in English. "They are just as keen to practise their English on you as you are to practise on them."

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