Saturday, July 29, 2006

Foreign Language (May 2006)

Yes, you can get by almost anywhere in the world with just English. But learning to speak a foreign language, even if you never get beyond basic pleasantries, can make a visit to another country so much more meaningful. And becoming fluent in a foreign language, or two, is not only a useful skill: it’s also a window onto other worlds. You don’t even have to go abroad to hear many languages, as the Modern Language Association’s map of languages spoken in U.S. proves. Of course, immersion is the best way to develop fluency, but if you’re not ready to move someplace where English isn’t spoken, the next best choice is to listen to native speakers as much as possible, and that’s where the Internet comes in. With a high-speed connection you have access to audio, video and animated lessons on almost any language you can think of, for both children and adults. What’s more, even if you never leave home, the Internet can bring foreign countries to you, through foreign-language news and cultural sites. So grab your passport, I mean your mouse, and go!

Americans are particularly bad when it comes to learning other languages. Only 9 percent of us can speak a second language fluently, compared to half of Europeans, according to The National Virtual Translation Center. And most langauge instruction in the U.S. is confined to Spanish, French and one or two other European languages. The NVTC was formed in 2003 when the government realized that mastery of foreign languages is useful not only in trade and foreign relations but in national security concerns as well. NVTC’s Languages of the World website contains information about hundreds of languages, including their origins and families, writing systems, with links on each one.

Other places to look for foreign language websites include iLoveLanguages, a catalog of more than 2400 links that include online lessons, translating dictionaries, native literature, translation services, software, and language schools. The University of Richmond’s "Global Village" is for anyone interested in communicating with, visiting, or learning about other peoples and cultures in a dozen different languages. Then there’s Polish teacher Magdalena Pospieszna's Language Links, whose wide selection of sites include Esperanto and Latin.

Not surprisingly, given Britain’s proximity to Europe, the BBC’s website is a wonderful resource for interactive foreign language instruction for English speakers. We’ve used their video and audio files and animations for kids for learning French at home, but they also offer Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Gaelic, Spanish, German and Italian instruction for all levels, and “holiday phrases” for vacationers in 37 languages. The BBC World Service news broadcast is also available in many European languages. Britain’s Channel 4 also has a site where you can play animated games at Chez Mimi (French) and Hennings Haus (German).

Some foreign language instruction books and textbooks have interactive websites where you can listen to pronouciation or test yourself with online flashcards that are useful even without the book. McDougal Littell’s ClassZone includes maps, an online workbook, webquests with links that help you complete a task such as planning a vacation abroad, and self-checking quizzes for French, Spanish and German. And the educational publisher Usborne has online pronunciation guides and links to interesting websites for those languages as well as Italian, Russian and Japanese.

The World Wide Web is also helping to preserve languages that are in danger of extinction, including many Native American tongues. For instance, as part of a project about people of the Arctic we found excellent sites with audio pronounciation guides, traditional stories and other features on languages spoken by Inuit and Yupik tribes. Other lesser-known languages are also well-represented. For another project on the Himalayas, I came across complete video lessons on beginning to intermediate Tibetan.

Along with lessons, there are many other ways you can use the Internet to practice and improve foreign language skills. Here are some suggestions by’s French Language website:

  • Incorporate the language into your routine every day by making a word-of-the-day site your homepage.
  • Read newspapers online from the area you’re studying. (Google News offers versions from several different countries; go to the bottom of the page.)
  • Visit sites that stream or archive foreign language radio and television broadcasts or webcasts. (Some channels have kids’ sections with games and cartoon clips.)
  • Listen to music in the language you’re studying on artists’ websites or sample CDs on sites like (In the week before Christmas we learned a whole slew of carols en francais.)
  • Search for foreign-language movies you can rent or borrow from your library (slapstick comedies work well in any language).

So let the Internet broaden your horizons by introducing you to new and different languages. Bonne chance!

Family Online Picks:

Modern Language Association map (


iLoveLanguages (

Global Village (

Magdalena Pospieszna's Language Links (

BBC Languages (

Chez Mimi and Hennings Haus (

McDougal Littell (

Usborne (