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Look Before You Leap Into a Language
You May Have to Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Article (beginning) by reporter Brandon Mitchener on intensive and full-immersion foreign language training. The article appeared in the Wall Street Journal Europe Edition, Friday-Saturday, June 27-28, 1997.

LESSON ONE: Look at language classes like any other investment. After shopping around for a two-week crash course, David Ecklund, a 47-year-old American sales executive living in Brussels, thought he was lucky to get into a group course that a local school was running for another U.S. multinational. It was cheaper than places out of town and so, says Mr. Ecklund, "I figured I’d stay in Brussels."

He got what he paid for. Instead of building the little he had learned of the language at high school, Mr. Ecklund got an intensive exercise in frustration. "In a classroom environment with seven to 10 people," he says, "you learn at the pace of the slowest student." Even worse, he was so put off by the experience he gave up entirely on learning the language for three years.

MONEY MATTERS

Whether you pay for language classes yourself, like Mr. Ecklund, or your company pays for them, there’s nothing more frustrating than wasting time and money on language lessons - especially in a class that’s supposed to be "intensive." But even one-on-one instruction can be a waste if you choose the wrong school. And with prices for intensive and full-immersion classes ranging from $20 to $100 an hour - not to mention the possibility of losing income from having to take time off from work or using vacation time - it pays to choose carefully. (Intensive refers to morning classes with afternoons off, while full-immersion programs pretty much involve round-the-clock attention.)

First off, decide what kind of return you want on your time and money and choose a school - or combination of schools - that maximizes the potential reward while minimizing the chance of wasting time and money. Many language schools don’t offer refunds. The most important criteria for a successful intensive or full-immersion experience are small class sizes and professional teachers as well as preparation, follow-up and realistic expectations on the part of the student.

(…)

On his second try, Mr. Ecklund found just what he was looking for: a full-immersion program at DIALOGUE, that both helped him with his pronunciation and grammar and adapted itself to his interests - including vocabulary geared to his logistics business. Mr. Ecklund is commercial director of Caterpillar Logistics Services Inc., a unit of Caterpillar Inc.

The key to Mr. Ecklund’s satisfaction, in his view, was the one-on-one philosophy of the school, DIALOGUE, which offers indi-vidualized courses ranging from 20 hours of instruction a week to a more extensive 40 hours a week.

Mr. Ecklund is convinced that the school, which is run out of the home of the teachers and includes full board and round-the-clock attention, is a bargain. "If you go to group classes, you might save money, but you’ll probably spend the same amount over time because it’ll take you much longer," he says.

In fact, people who have taken a full-immersion plunge say group classes should be limited to five students, especially if you’re beyond the absolute-beginner level. The more numerous or more advanced the students, the more likely the ability level will vary wildly.

Small Is Beautiful

A reason to opt for one-on-one instruction, or at least go to a school that offers one-on-one lessons, is the opportunity to work on specialized vocabulary and cultural issues that wouldn't be part of a traditional curriculum.

Of course, schools like DIALOGUE have their price. (…) But considering the degree of individual attention they provide, students who attend them have a better shot at satisfaction.

 
 
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