Budget study abroad. Low prices,
academic quality. Open to all.
Earn college credit. Easy to register.
Quick confirmation. Flexibility.
Can pay balance at arrival, or in advance.
Go with CSA - Center For Study Abroad.
Low cost programs since 1990. See website.
Two Student Travelers discuss the merits of English-free classrooms, an education in the streets, and the passion that fosters fluency.
MATT Gross: Why did you learn Spanish, of all languages?
MATT Goulding: I could cover the most ground with it. Itís super practical in the U.S. and very available in high school. I have a very ďtraditionalĒ educational background: high school, college, study abroad, live abroad, work abroad... pretty much in that order.
Gross: Did there come a point in learning Spanish when you realized you could actually express yourself? Was that a surprise?
Goulding: Yeah, it was an epiphany like no other I had before maybe besides losing my virginity, but strangely similar.
Gross: Do tell!
Goulding: Spain, my high school senior year with a 25 crew of classmates, 22 of whom refused to speak anything but English. The other three of us charged everywhere, flaunting shamelessly our broken language skills. But after 10 days, I had really started to put it together: at bars, restaurants, with old people in the park and young chicas in the dark alleys. My first Spanish dream followed not too far after and I was forever addicted.
Gross: Do you consider yourself fluent now? And do people ever mistake you for a native speaker?
Goulding: By the time I was taking culinary courses in Spain, I think I was there. Only in the past year or so have I been mistaken occasionally as a native, usually for an Argentine or Spaniard. This usually happens after a few short conversations; after an extensive, in-depth, soul-searching convo, flaws are usually exposed and accents are more detectable.
Gross: It sounds like you were the one who really drove yourself to learn the language do you think thatís a replicable experience for other people?
Goulding: Only if there is passion behind the drive. It canít just be for practicalityís sake. Thatís where travel comes into play: lay some groundwork, get an understanding of the framework, and then get out there and practice in places where you have no other choice.
Gross: It sounds so easy...
Goulding: Itís never that easy, but it is indeed doable. Once you get to a certain point, you have to feed the addiction, and this of course fosters fluency. My girlfriend is at that point right now; her mom is Mexican, she has learned in school, now she is ready to get out and use it and shape it. I have never seen someone so happy to speak another language. She lights up like a pinball machine every time she gets the chance.
Gross: Wow, Iím impressed and jealous. The only time Iíve felt that way was in Cambodia last winter. I took a few weeks of class with a nice but not particularly good teacher, but somehow it was enough to get me comfortable chatting with people, making little jokes, and just taking a relaxed approach to the language.
Goulding: Thatís when the floodgates open.
Gross: Iím a million years from fluency in Khmer, but I enjoy speaking it. The sounds are fun to make, the grammar is easy, and people light up when you not only try but succeed in speaking their language.
Goulding: Was it intimidating at first a language so far removed from our own?
Gross: Not really intimidating at all! Iím not one of those people who picks up a complete language in a month or two, but I am good at one thing: making funny sounds with my mouth.
Gross: Back when I lived in Vietnam, Iíd ride my bicycle around town talking to myself, just trying to get certain sounds right: the ďngĒ that starts so many words, or some of the unusual diphthongs. People think youíre weird, but it works.
Gross: Have you considered embarking on another language? And would you need to go back to school for that?
Goulding: I really want to. If so, I would plan an extended trip somewhere (Italy, China, Vietnam) and spend the first month in an intensive learning environment, then follow up with at least a few more months traveling or living.
Gross: So organized!
Goulding: Merely a facade you should see my car. But it would take that to really have a grasp of a language, especially one not romantically based. As much as we promise ourselves: ďIím not going to speak a word of English for the next month,Ē nobody is really that disciplined. We will always go for what is most comfortable with us that is why using a language is so crucial in the development of fluency.
Gross: But it feels like thatís getting harder, especially as people in other countries are trying to learn English. In a little town in Burma, I couldnít find a restaurant to eat in, and, of course, I didnít speak a word of Burmese. But I noticed that a lot of the pharmacies had Chinese characters on their signs. So I asked a shopkeeper in Mandarin, ďWhere can I eat?Ē and she gave me directions! But then my companion and I got lost and when we returned to the pharmacy, the shopkeeper spoke in English much better English than my Chinese. So there I was, all happy that Iíd communicated in Chinese in Burma and it was pointless: We couldíve spoken English from the beginning.
Goulding: Thatís super telling. Go to the cuts of Patagonian Argentina and try to speak Spanish and youíre likely to find some young, ambitious Argentine who refuses to speak Spanish. This has happened so many times: a ten-minute conversation where I speak in Spanish and he speaks in English, neither of us willing to budge in our proud display of acquired language. Super strange and frustrating, but in a weird way, weíre both getting what we want out of it.
Goulding: Would your advice for someone to learn a language as distinct as Khmer be any different than what I would suggest to those learning Spanish?
Gross: Well, the problem with learning Khmer and Vietnamese and Chinese and other languages less popular than French and Spanish is that your chances of getting a crap teacher are quite high. Iíve had several.
Goulding: What qualified them as crap teachers?
Gross: The thing they all had in common was that they never paid attention to our pronunciation. I took a Chinese class in New York, and the teacher, who was from mainland China, simply had us repeat things in unison. She never asked us questions individually, so she never heard our individual way of speaking. In Cambodia, the teacher well, he paid some attention to our pronunciation, but his main methodology was to give us a sentence in English and have us translate it into Khmer, which is useful in its way, but it doesnít get us accustomed to hearing the language.
Goulding: The Chinese teacher in NY brings up a good point: Is there an ideal teacher-student ration for learning a language? What is too many students?
Gross: More than 12, and there isnít enough time for students to speak aloud.
Goulding: And accents and stresses are everything in a language like Khmer or Spanish. Missing the correct syllable of stress changes the entire meaning of a sentence.
Gross: And itís not just that a teacher has to know the proper pronunciation they have to know what kind of error youíre making, and how you can fix it.
Goulding: For that reason, do you think it is better, or even necessary, to have native teachers? Or do fluent teachers who have English as their first language have certain insights to the challenges we face learning something like Khmer?
Gross: I think they definitely have certain insights but theyíre maybe as likely to be bad teachers as anyone else.
Goulding: From my experience, I found it very difficult to learn from native English speakers, mainly because their accents are so familiar to our ears but not truly emblematic of the way a certain language is spoken. When I first traveled to Spain, I thought: Have I really been learning this language?
Goulding: Can a good teacher use English for points of clarity, or should it be all foreign language, all the time?
Gross: I would accept a teacher writing something in English on a blackboard, but not speaking. Maybe I should clear something up here. Before I went to Vietnam, I took a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course. The goal, according to current TEFL thinking, is to speak nothing but English, and to get the students speaking nothing but English, whether itís to you or, whenever possible, to each other. If thatís possible in English, I donít see why it wouldnít be possible in Chinese or Spanish or Wolof. Of course, that takes training, which costs money that Third World schools donít have.
Goulding: So, a good rule of thumb for student: If the teacher is using English with any regularity, look elsewhere for instruction.
Gross: And make sure you can get a refund if the first few classes donít live up to your expectations. The other thing to ask yourself is: How much do I really expect to get out of this class?
Goulding: If you start from scratch, a reasonable expectation might be to learn enough to travel and convey the essentials. If you start with a rudimentary understanding of the language, the goal should be to be able to hold conversations with natives in that language. For me, the main goal is to have the students speaking all the time, to the teacher, to the students, and to the class as a whole. Without that, all the grammatical work, reading, and writing you do have no focus, no outlet, and will mean very little when put in a position where using the language is your only option.
Goulding: Generally speaking, can you arrive in a country, hit the streets and expect to soak up the language eventually?
Gross: Yes if you have the focus and the desire to learn. But if you have that focus and desire, then youíll probably want a classroom aspect, too, to get the ďofficialĒ version.
Goulding: What about someone not interested in being in a classroom for four hours a day: Can you spend your days in the markets and out on the streets, and suppliment it with a bit of self-directed study maybe looking at a few books and a dictionary and expect to learn the language?
Gross: Iím sure you can. I actually used to think that was easily attainable. Then I took those three weeks of Khmer classes. I learned so much that it enabled me to then go out on the streets and start learning the language on my own. And that was with a bad teacher! Imagine if Iíd had a great teacher... Iíd be fluent by now.
Goulding: The benefit to the self-guided approach is that your exposure to the language isnít being directed by one personís teachings but rather by a whole cityís worth of native speakers. But it takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline. In general, I think that picking up a language on the streets with no formal classroom experience is pretty unrealistic. Like you said, guidance, focus, framework: all of these come in the classroom, even in classrooms run by lame teachers.
Gross: I generally agree: Classrooms simplify many of the challenges by providing structure and making you do the work. Regardless, classroom or streets, a person whoís inspired by a language and the people who speak it will find a way to learn it.
Photo by Geo D. Oliver/Photohype.com