Knowing even a few words of the appropriate foreign language can be handy on a trip abroad -- like being able to recognize the "Exit" sign in Chinese, Russian or Arabic when you're ready to leave the airport. And the more words you know, the quicker you will begin to feel like a native -- one of the special pleasures of travel.

Many individuals -- those with unpleasant memories of conjugating irregular verbs in high school and college -- may find the prospect of learning a foreign language daunting. But language-instruction methods have improved, and classes now emphasize practical conversation over rote memorization.

A number of Washington-area schools have developed streamlined courses especially for business and vacation travelers, among them Montgomery College, which is inaugurating what it calls one-day "survival" sessions. They are aimed at providing basic language ability for such typical tourist activities as checking into a hotel, ordering meals and shopping for gifts.

For the self-motivated, home-study options include foreign-language records, tapes and computer programs as well as innovative workbooks such as the Bilingual Books series, designed so you can dip into them whenever you have a spare moment at home, work or on the Metro.

Among organized classes, the top-of-the-line is certainly a series of private lessons -- only you and the instructor and the language. Berlitz Language Centers, for example, offer a two-week, all-day (including lunch) "total immersion" course for $3,500 per person in almost any language desired.

Group lessons, which are much cheaper -- from as low as $45 for Montgomery College's one-day sessions to several hundred dollars for a complete course -- are available from most college continuing-education departments, certain international cultural associations and at least a dozen commercial language schools, including Berlitz.

There is a wide variety of languages offered, including Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Russian. And interested students have a choice of other options, depending on how much time they have and how proficient they want to become: There are daytime, evening or Saturday classes at convenient locations, and sessions that range from a full semester to one day.

The list of the many foreign-language classes and self-study programs available in Washington is virtually endless. But this is a sampling of the kinds of classes offered and the price you may expect to pay. You should check prices and programs at other colleges and at commercial schools (listed in the Yellow Pages under "Language Schools") that are most convenient for you.

A holiday note: Travelers on your Christmas list might appreciate getting the gift of a self-study program or a paid-up series of private or group lessons.

*Montgomery College: It is something of an experimental program, but Montgomery College officials think their one-day "survival" classes will prove valuable to business and vacation travelers.

The sessions are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday at the college's Bethesda Center, 7815 Woodmont Ave., a block from the subway. The cost is $45 per person for Montgomery County residents and slightly more for out-of-county and out-of-state registrants. Students are invited to join their instructor afterwards for dinner at an appropriate ethnic restaurant (dinner is extra).

The initial schedule is as follows: French, Jan. 18; Chinese, Jan. 25; Italian, Feb. 22; Japanese, March 15; French, March 22; Chinese, April 19; Russian, May 3; and German, May 10. There will be repeats if the classes prove popular.

The college's continuing-education department also offers semester-long, noncredit courses in Spanish and French, from basic to advanced. There are both daytime and evening sessions, usually meeting twice a week for two hours, at several locations in the county. The price is about $100, depending on the course, and new classes begin in mid-January.

Information: (301) 656-6777.

*Berlitz: Prospective students at Berlitz, probably the most familiar name in commercial language schools, are requested to visit the office for a preliminary interview to determine their language ability, needs and the amount of time they have to devote to lessons.

Business travelers, facing an impending contract negotiation, might consider it worthwhile to sign up for the $3,500 two-week intensive course. At its conclusion, they should be able to converse comfortably, says director John Bennett.

Vacationers who plan ahead should have time for group lessons, which Berlitz spreads over a five-week period. Classes in French, Spanish, Italian, German and Japanese are offered two nights a week, 6 to 8:30 p.m., for five weeks. The introductory course is $345 per person; a follow-up course -- also five weeks -- is $270. These classes, limited to six persons, are held in Berlitz's downtown, Chevy Chase and Tysons Corner offices.

The focus is on conversation, and instructors start right off conducting class in the foreign language.

Information: (202) 331-1160.

*Alliance Franc,aise de Washington: The language is French, of course, at this nonprofit cultural-exchange organization. Several options are offered.

The organization's version of "total immersion" is 24 hours of private lessons -- three hours a day for eight days -- for $550. Private lessons also are available at your office for $15 to $25 an hour, depending in part on the location of the office.

A 10-week group course, limited to 12 participants, is offered several times a year at beginning, intermediate, advanced and very advanced levels. Classes are twice a week for two hours, either during the day or in the evening, at the organization's office, 2142 Wyoming Ave. NW. The price is $170 per person, and the next sessions begin March 3.

After the introductory course, says director Marguerite LaFollette, "You will be able to ask the time, directions, prices -- the little basic things."

Information: (202) 234-7911.

*Brazilian-American Cultural Center: This, too, is a nonprofit cultural-exchange organization, which offers four-month courses in Portuguese at its office, 4103 Connecticut Ave. NW.

Beginning classes are held two nights a week from 6 to 7:30 p.m.; the advanced classes are 7:30 to 9 p.m. The price for either is $140 per person, and the next session will be held from February through May.

An alternative is a seven-week "intensive" course held during the summer. Classes are two nights a week from 6 to 9 p.m. for the same $140 price.

Instruction includes conversation, grammar and writing.

Information: (202) 362-8334.

*Linguex: A new commercial language school, Linguex advertises "video laser discs" as a handy classroom tool. As explained by director Jean-Marc Alberola, the video devices are used to provide active images in the classroom. For example: The instructor may first display a plane; then a plane in flight; then approaching clouds -- while the class discusses the scenes in the foreign language.

Linguex offers private lessons at its office, 1255 23rd St. NW, at $22 for a 45-minute session. A course for a business traveler might range from 60 to 135 hours.

Five-week group lessons for tourists -- in Russian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and German -- cost $155 per person. The sessions, twice weekly for an hour and a half, are limited to five persons.

Information: (202) 296-1112.

*Georgetown University School for Summer and Continuing Education: Language classes for beginners are held Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon over a 10-week period three times a year (spring, summer and fall). There is a limit of 12 participants, and the cost is about $125 per person. The spring term runs from Feb. 1 to April 12.

Instruction is in Arabic, Chinese, French, Hebrew, ancient and modern Greek, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

Two special five-week classes -- "Italian for Travelers" and "Arabic for Travelers" are held one night a week for two hours. Each session is devoted to a typical tourist situation, such as sightseeing and shopping. The price is $60 per person.

For more information: (202) 625-3003. Ask for a continuing education catalogue.

*Self-study courses: One of the newest and least expensive ways to attempt to learn a foreign language is the series of language workbooks published by Bilingual Books of Seattle.

Available in eight foreign languages -- French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Norwegian and Russian -- they promise a tourist's vocabulary in "only 10 minutes a day." The books sell for $12.95 at a number of Washington-area bookstores, especially those specializing in travel guides.

These colorfully illustrated books look not unlike workbooks from elementary school. Each comes with 150 sticky labels (in the foreign language) to paste on objects about the house to help you practice a basic vocabulary.

The 23 lessons, concentrating on tourist situations, feature phonetic pronunciations of everyday phrases. Combien (French for "How much?") becomes "kohm-bee-yen." Students will find themselves filling in blanks, drawing connecting lines and working simple crossword puzzles.

Not surprisingly, the computer software industry has produced a variety of foreign-language programs, including foreign-language "Scrabble" for vocabulary practice.

Among the special programs for travelers is "Spanish for Travelers," distributed by Gessler Educational Software of New York, a leading educational aids firm. Learning drills flash on the screen, while audio cassette tapes provide pronunciation practice. The price for disc, four audio cassettes and a workbook is $59.95, available in software stores or from Gessler. A catalogue can be obtained by writing Gessler, 900 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10003.

Other home-study options are records and tapes, available in bookstores and shops specializing in language materials. The latter are listed under "Language Training Aids" in the Yellow Pages. While record sets can still be found, tapes are more widely available.

Tape programs range widely in price and include both basic courses -- Berlitz's "French for Travellers" (and other languages), $14.95 for one 60-minute cassette -- to more-detailed lessons -- Barron's "Mastering French (German, Italian, Spanish)," $69.95 for 12 cassettes, or its "Japanese for Today," $99.95 for eight cassettes and a book.

If you can't study before you go, at least tote along a phrase book and use it. Phrase books are available in many languages -- including Thai, Finnish, Hungarian, Arabic and Nepalese -- for less than $5.

By consulting the book's phonetic pronunciation guide, you can walk up to the ticket booth in -- for example -- the Rome railway station and ask in Italian for two tickets to Venice. If the agent understands, you'll feel the pleasurable flush of triumph. It gets easier every time you try.

When choosing a foreign-language instructional program, consider the following:

*Unless you are well-disciplined, you are more likely to complete a class than a self-study regimen.

*Group discussions can be good practice for conversation abroad.Don't sign up for more instruction than you need. Fluency at a cost of hundreds or thousands of dollars is not necessary unless you plan to live abroad for months or you return frequently on business.

*Learning a little bit of one romance language -- Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French -- helps in all the romance-language countries because of the similarity in grammar and vocabulary.

*And this advice from the Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Washington: Read any language-school contract completely before you sign it. Make sure it describes any recourse for a refund if you are dissatisfied with the instruction. The bureau's Complaint Service, (202) 393-8000, can provide information on a specific school's complaint record, if any.