Language lessons: Online or in person, choose what suits you

You don't have to sign up for formal classes to boost your language skills, says Virginia Matthews

Thursday 30 September 2010 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The memories of learning a language at school may still be painful for some, but, for adults looking to boost their CV and career prospects with the mastery of a second tongue, going back to the classroom is only one of the routes available. Whether the quest is for business French, conversational German, workable Mandarin or a decent smattering of Spanish, the array of online or face-to-face tuition, distance learning, night school classes or book/CD/DVD resources is bewildering, says Linda Parker, director of the Association for Language Learning.

"There's a huge range of ways to brush up on a language, or start from scratch, and sometimes the best advice is to start with a tape and progress to something more formal as you gain confidence," she says. "While book and CD-based courses can cost anything from £50 to several hundred pounds, it's worth looking at the websites of organisations such as the Open University or the BBC Languages service to see what help and resources can be yours for free before you part with your money."

Parker believes the main decision is whether to go it alone or opt for the reassurance of a teacher. Before you make that choice, it's important to understand the sort of student you are and the goals you want to achieve. While learners with bags of motivation may be able to master Polish or Urdu while they commute or even jog, Parker thinks most of us will need the input of a teacher at some stage if we are to make further progress.

"Thousands of people will buy shiny new language products this autumn, and will learn basic vocabulary and phrases before they get disheartened. If you are looking for a leg-up in your career and need to make progress for work reasons, though, there will come a time when you will need help with trickier bits of pronunciation. For many people, that will mean paying for private, one-to-one tuition or enrolling in a weekly evening class as a beginner, an intermediate or an advanced learner," she says.

If many language experts take the view that collaborative learning tends to build language skills more quickly than sitting alone in front of a computer or TV set, learning alongside other adults in a secondary school classroom isn't the only option available.

Nick Byrne, director of the Language Centre at the London School of Economics (LSE), says local universities are a still-untapped source for many adult learners. "Adult education centres do a great job at boosting language learning for a reasonable amount of money, but for top-level teaching and facilities I would recommend attending one of the growing number of London and provincial universities throwing open their doors to the wider community.

"While learning in the evening will always be an option, there will also be classes throughout the day as well as at lunchtimes, and there will also be one-to-one, private coaching, offering you maximum flexibility in terms of when and how you learn," he says.

While a 20-week course at the LSE will typically cost between £200 and £400, Byrne says the benefits in terms of varied classmates, as well as top-level teaching skills, are significant.

"Firstly, we are talking about native speakers at the top of their game delivering degree-level language education with the help of the most up-to-date materials and resources. Just as importantly, there is the mix of learners to consider. While some of the class may be other adults, looking to learn a language for leisure reasons or for work, others will be young, full-time or part-time students studying for degrees, making for a stimulating mix."

In common with many universities, LSE offers a range of modern foreign language (MFL) certificate courses for people with serious career goals in mind. With a curriculum that typically includes a range of externally marked projects and an exam, Byrne believes a university certificate "can give the really serious learner a significant advantage when it comes to applying for senior-level jobs". Like Parker, Byrne believes that a combination of language-learning techniques is usually the best route to effective study, and advises going to a teacher at some stage. "Some of the independent resources out there are very good and will help you get a feel for a language, but, in my view, nothing can replace the opportunity to try out your pronunciation with someone who knows exactly how the language should sound."

Cactus, one of the world's leading language training companies, helps more than 15,000 people each year learn more than 30 languages in 60 countries. Its range of learning options includes evening classes, distance learning, full immersion courses, business and corporate language training for firms such as Coca-Cola and Microsoft, cultural awareness training, English courses, school trips abroad and professional teacher training including teaching English as a foreign language.

Chris Moore, head of Cactus language training, says there is no substitute for good teaching in getting to grips with an unaccustomed foreign language."Self-study and online training courses can only grow, given the internet, but whether you are footing the bill for a language course or your employer is bearing the cost we find regular, targeted feedback from a fully qualified teacher remains the key for the majority of people. Whether your firm is relocating you to the Far East or you are hoping to career-change to a field where a second European language is a prerequisite, we can offer the tailored, flexible approach that is vital to the entire business community."

'I chose an elementary course to start'’

Former make-up artist Katie Reynolds, who operates a beauty boutique in London (, and plans to expand her business into Paris, took a Cactus class to help her French.

"I've tried a variety of learning methods over the years to ensure my skills are improving and I'm not getting too rusty.

I chose an elementary course to start, as I had some French skills, and progressed to their lower and upper intermediate levels.

I found the classes fun and informal, with plenty of opportunity to practise speaking.

Being taught in small groups, each student received plenty of individual help and attention from the teacher, and we were encouraged to make mistakes – all of which is important to help overcome any inhibitions about speaking a language.

One of my favourite parts of learning as an adult is being able to speak French less formally. I've been encouraged to use colloquialisms and slang phrases.

I'm planning a holiday to Paris and am hoping to find the right site for my new shop."

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