Dive right in to a new language

<em>Illustration: michaelmucci.com</em>
Illustration: michaelmucci.com

Learning to speak like a local when overseas doesn't have to mean sitting in a classroom for hours on end. Here's how to pick up a new lingo, 2012-style.

I once tried to learn Spanish by listening to a CD on my way home from work each day, but as the voice droned on with translations of greetings and directions, my mind would inevitably wander to something more interesting and I would arrive home with the realisation that I hadn't heard much after "Hola".

Without the benefit of interaction or fun, my "learning" ultimately resulted in being able to order a beer (a useful skill, it must be said) and not much else.

Today, the options for learning languages are much more diverse and interesting, with websites and other technology providing interactive alternatives to CDs, evening classes and traditional schools. Best of all, most online options are cheap or even free, so there goes another excuse.

To choose a method of learning a language, you need to weigh up your personality type, level of commitment, budget, access to technology and time frame.

If you just want to learn some basics such as checking into a hotel or ordering food, the BBC has excellent free online lessons at bbc.co.uk/languages/.

You can "walk through" various scenarios, listening to correct pronunciations as you look at the words, and then practise by rearranging a series of phrases into a conversation and matching up the commonly used words with their English meanings.

You can also test yourself in scenarios such as trying to order a particular restaurant item shown on the screen.

Another good website is busuu.com, which has interactive online lessons, mobile applications you can download and access to a community of about 19 million users. A community can be a great addition to taking lessons, as you can find people to practise with or to motivate you along the way.

The Busuu site gives you basic access free and then you pay to upgrade for more content, which you can test out on a free trial.

The site caters for all levels of language, from learning to say hello to advanced conversations, and you can have live video chats with native speakers.

A sliding progress scale shows how much of the course you have completed and you can take exams.

Another site combining lessons with a community of other learners and language enthusiasts is livemocha.com, which says it has 14 million users.

The largely free site begins by asking questions such as how urgently you need to learn the language and whether you prefer to learn by conversation or study.

It then takes you to exercises you can carry out in your own time, with clocks showing how long to allow.

You can find people to have live chats with, or form a network of "friends" to communicate with. If you want to take it further, join live online "classrooms" led by instructors, or arrange private tutoring scheduled at times to suit you.

For those who just want a few key phrases or don't have much time to spare, another way of picking up language basics is to download a mobile phone application.

There are many free apps that provide basics such as asking for directions and making polite conversation, or you can buy a more detailed app that gives you the equivalent of a phrase book. You can even look up suitable dating phrases.

For those who prefer more traditional learning, there are evening classes and TAFE courses where you can start from scratch or update your skills.

Some private "schools" offer a more immersive style of learning, where you can get into the spirit of your holiday long before you leave. For example, Passport to Italy in Melbourne is designed to offer a complete introduction to the Italian language and culture, including music, film and cuisine.

Another good example is Eco Queenslander Holiday Home and B&B in south-east Queensland, which runs weekend French language immersion courses where guests speak, eat and cook French.

The owner and teacher, Cecile Espigole, says the weekends are designed for those who have already learnt some French and want to put their skills into practice.

Doing it in style

The ultimate way to learn a language, if you can afford it, is at an overseas language school. Find them via the internet or tourist bureaus.

Known as "immersion" learning, the courses tend to involve morning classroom-style sessions followed by afternoon sightseeing and talking to locals.

Some schools are family-friendly and many include other activities such as cooking lessons to break up the language classes.

You can find options in Europe from about $500 a week, including accommodation and meals.

This story Dive right in to a new language first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.