Foreign Affairs

Jean Broderick, right, and fellow students go out for Mexican food after Spanish class. Julio C. Moreno, center, and Neil Brierly consider their menus as Broderick talks with the waiter.
Jean Broderick, right, and fellow students go out for Mexican food after Spanish class. Julio C. Moreno, center, and Neil Brierly consider their menus as Broderick talks with the waiter. (Scott Robinson)
By Michelle Hainer
Sunday, November 5, 2006

The first time that Jean Broderick was offered the chance to learn a foreign language, her response was a big "No, thanks." It was Philadelphia in the 1960s, and Broderick's curriculum required her to suffer through a year of eighth-grade Latin, followed by three years of high school French. For a self-described "lazy student," learning the languages' many rules seemed laborious -- and beside the point. "I knew Latin was a dead language, so why learn it? And I wished French were dead, too," she recalls. "When I got to college and saw there was no language requirement . . . I thought, 'Boy, am I lucky.'"

It wasn't until Broderick was a few decades into adulthood that she began to change her mind. Her curiosity was piqued by another Romance language: Spanish. Working as a hospital nurse in the early '90s, she often heard colleagues using it to chat among themselves. Then a few years later, when Broderick dusted off her education degree to teach a U.S. citizenship class, many of her students were Hispanic and spoke little English.

"I really wanted to be able to communicate," she says. Eventually, Broderick found herself back in the classroom. For the past four semesters, she has been attending classes at Howard Community College twice a week -- and loving it. So much so that last January, she spent three weeks in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in a six-hour-a-day, five-days-a-week immersion program. "I felt totally liberated," she says of the trip. "I felt like a kid again, only with 56 years of life experience behind me."

Broderick is among what local language educators say is a growing number of adults who, now well past the age when conjugating verbs could make or break one's grade-point average, want to learn a second tongue. For native English speakers, Spanish remains the most popular choice. But less common languages are experiencing an upsurge, too. At the International Language Institute, a private school in Washington, enrollment in Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic and Farsi classes has doubled since last year, says Francisco Todd, the foreign language programs coordinator. Berlitz International reports that between 2000 and 2005, the number of students enrolled in Arabic classes at its Washington location rose 95 percent.

"We thought it was because our customers needed to learn Arabic for their jobs," says John Acevedo, Berlitz's district director for the Southeast. "But 20 to 30 percent of them just had an interest in the Arabic culture and wanted to learn the language."

Whether adults can learn that second language as well as children is a debate that has raged among linguists for decades. In a 1959 book, neurosurgeons Wilder Penfield and Lamar Roberts introduced the idea of a "critical period" -- lasting from birth through puberty -- in which one could learn a language with ease. After that time, the loss of plasticity in the brain would make it near-impossible to achieve the level of fluency of someone who had been hearing a language since infancy. Whether this critical-period hypothesis applies to second language acquisition is a subject linguists continue to debate.

But a 2001 paper by Frederick Jackson and Marsha Kaplan, of the Foreign Service Institute, found that adults trying to become bilingual have one marked advantage: They've already "learned how to learn." While children are often better at mimicking accents, adults are far more adept at using their knowledge of a native language to figure out the rules of a new one. "Adults can make use of short explanations," says Jackson, which makes it easier for them to grasp and extrapolate grammar rules, as well as to expand their vocabularies. "A motivated adult with reasonably good language-learning skills in a good instructional program will develop a set of core grammatical structures and a range of useful vocabulary faster and more firmly than children will."

Of course, as with anything else, everyone learns language differently. Fortunately, in the Washington area, there are many options for eager knowledge-seekers. Local culture societies such as the Alliance Francaise or Goethe-Institut offer language courses as well as community events. County-run adult education programs offer classes on evenings and weekends.

For those itching to return to academia, community colleges and private institutions are open to all levels of learners.

Each offers its own benefits and drawbacks, so before seeking out a class, ask yourself exactly why you want to learn the language. Maybe you just got transferred to China and need to learn Mandarin yesterday -- and at a level proficient enough to rent a house or take in a business meeting. Perhaps you're planning a trip to Rome and think it'd be a kick to order your osso bucco in Italiano. The amount of time and the level of intensity needed to achieve such disparate goals is markedly different.

Let's begin with the first example. You've probably heard of the total immersion approach to language acquisition. That's where you drop everything and run off to Brazil for a month or two, spending your days noshing on croquetos and caipirinhas while surrounded by Portuguese 24 hours a day. "If you have the time and the opportunity, immersion is the way to go, because it really speeds up your learning capabilities," says District resident Janice Curreri, 37, who, as part of her graduate program, traveled to Iran for six weeks in 1998 in a successful quest to learn Farsi. Deborah Kennedy, a program associate at the District-based Center for Applied Linguistics, a nonprofit focused on language learning, concurs. "To really understand the language, you really need to understand the culture and vice versa," she says. "There's nothing comparable to living in the culture." Once you return to the States, however, you'll need to continue using the language as much as possible -- or risk losing it. Look for events at local embassies or cultural societies, or log on to for groups that meet regularly to converse in your new language.

Though total immersion is clearly beneficial -- and can be a lot of fun -- it isn't the only way to go. Experts say it is possible to get similar results in a classroom, especially one in which the teacher uses only the target language to communicate with students. Your best bet is an "intensive" program, which linguists define as no less than 25 hours a week of instruction. That's the route former Capitol One employee Jeff Tennenbaum, 35, took earlier this year when he decided to learn Mandarin Chinese -- which the Foreign Service Institute considers "exceptionally difficult" for native English speakers to learn -- to move to Beijing to further his business opportunities. Tennenbaum wanted to relocate before the year was out, so from January through May, he spent 71/2 hours a day, five days a week, speaking, reading and writing Mandarin one-on-one with instructors at Berlitz International.

"I had headaches at the end of the day, but it really allowed me to progress more quickly. And practicing the writing really furthered my development," he says. So much so that when Tennenbaum was accepted to the renowned nine-week immersion program at Vermont's Middlebury College this past summer, he was able to place out of a level that usually requires a full year of previous study. In October, he moved to Beijing.

But what if your goals are less lofty: limited to, say, holiday chatter with your Bulgarian mother-in-law or banter with soccer buddies? You might find that, for a less-rigorous course of study, the most affordable and flexible option is to sign up for an adult education course in your community. These often use textbooks and teach grammar, but, especially at lower levels, tend to focus on conversation. "It's generally a relaxed atmosphere where people can learn in a group and have fun while they're doing it," says Marty Abbott, director of education for the Alexandria-based American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Plus, many programs, such as the one in Fairfax County, offer situation-specific courses, including Italian for Travelers and the more advanced Conversation and Review for would-be Spanish speakers. Abbott recommends looking for a class of no more than 15 people, where the emphasis is on speaking and the instructor introduces as much cultural context as possible, such as using an authentic train schedule when teaching a lesson on getting around.

One warning: Keep your expectations realistic. Because most adult ed classes meet only once or twice a week for a couple of hours, you're not going to get the same results as someone in a more intensive program. Peter Silversmith, 61, of McLean, has been taking Thursday evening German classes at Fairfax County's adult education program for the past 12 years. He has only recently worked his way past intermediate level, but the pace suits him just fine. "It's more of a hobby for me," says Silversmith, a plastic surgeon who wanted to learn the language because of his German ancestry. On a recent trip to Yosemite National Park, he was delighted to be able to converse with a German woman whom he and his wife befriended on their tour bus.

If you want to spend more time learning to read and write (especially if you're studying a tongue that doesn't use the Roman alphabet), a course at a university or community college may be what you're looking for. "Universities do best at explaining the language, how the grammar works and how the vocabulary is used," says James P. Lantolf, director of Pennsylvania State University's Center for Language Acquisition. But make sure not to scrimp on the conversational aspects. At university language departments, especially large ones, the amount of English used in the classroom is at the discretion of the teacher, even though the school may say its classes are conducted in the target language. If you're unsatisfied with your teacher's method, don't be afraid to speak up or switch to a different class.

In either case, one thing you shouldn't focus on too hard is trying to sound like a native, which as research suggests, gets much harder to achieve as we get older. While it can be achieved, says Kennedy, it might not be worth the trouble. "You have to ask yourself, how important is it?" she says. "The whole point is to be able to communicate your ideas so that a native speaker can understand you."

"It's very important to me to pronounce the words correctly, but my chief concern is to be able to understand in both directions," Broderick agrees. On a recent vacation in Acapulco, she noticed the incoming tide lapping at an inflatable toy alligator that was lying at the water's edge. "I grabbed him by the tail to pull him higher on the beach when his owners in the water started yelling at me. I think they thought I was going to take him," she says. "I motioned to the approaching water and said, 'Pero, él no puede nadar!' [But he can't swim!] They all laughed and relaxed."

Michelle Hainer is a freelance writer and editor in New York.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company