If you've ever spent any time in an airport's international terminal, then you've probably guessed that an abundance of languages exist. But just how many? According to the Linguistic Society of America, the Bible has been translated into 2,200 languages. But many, many more languages are out there: at least 6,909, according to the non-profit organization Ethnologue. Can you say "Tower of Babble"?
Now let's assume you don't want to go through life speaking just one language (and sorry, like, Valley Girl speak doesn't count, ya know). The good news is that options abound for you to learn another tongue.
But how does one translate words such as "cheap," "effective" and "comprehensive" into the most universal dialect of all: savings made simple? Listen up -- or, to quote your high school French teacher, "ecoutez-moi" -- and we'll reveal all in today's Savings Experiment.
Introduction: You don't need a translator to say "times have changed."
When I first started learning French in the late 1970s, you didn't have many options for learning a language: teachers, tutors, textbooks and tapes pretty much summed it up. Fast forward to 2010, where you can learn a language via the Internet, either via podcast or through websites that team you with native speakers. New teaching methods have emerged, and you can take classes in some cases through your local Y or an international consulate.
That makes the business of comparing language instruction tricky, as you need to know ahead of time which method will best fit into your lifestyle. Let's take a look at some of the most popular, innovative and widespread ways to learn a new language.
Perhaps you've seen those distinctive, yellow Rosetta Stone kiosks at your local mall. This program, on CD-ROM and online, works for people motivated to learn a language and can work without the benefit of an interactive class instructor. It uses a "dynamic immersion" method, which surpasses rote memorization by helping people connect to new languages through context and tying together words in related concepts.
Each of the 31 languages Rosetta Stone offers is broken down into at least three levels; some (French and Spain Spanish, for example) have five. And each level takes 40 hours to complete. Level 1 alone costs $229; levels 1 and 2 together, $409; levels 1-3, $539 and levels 1-5, $699. And when we checked, Rosetta Stone was offering 10% off on those prices, plus free shipping from its web store.
So, if you order Level 1 French, your per-hour cost is about $5.73.
* Levels 1 & 2, $5.11 per hour
* Levels 1-3, $4.49 per hour
* Levels 1-5, $3.50 per hour
The online learning component, TOTALe, costs $999 for a year of access. It tales 120-150 hours to complete, and has an element of online immersion that allows you to speak with others who know the language you are trying to learn. This can also work both ways: If you're looking to learn Italian, you can team up with an Italian looking to learn English through TOTALe. The hourly cost: between $6.66 to $8.32
No student discounts or discount cards apply for Rosetta Stone. But some libraries will have Rosetta Stone network CDs that public libraries can install on their in-house networks. Sorry, you can't take it out.
Head of the classes
The figures for class options vary widely, and to our trained eyes reflect just how little some people shop around before signing up. Classes on the more expensive end of instruction can be really, really pricey, without any obvious benefit over the less expensive classes.
The YMCA of Greater New York, for example, offers language courses in French, Spanish, Mandarin and other options for $200 for 24 hours of instruction That's $8.33 an hour. And Y members save 20%, so they pay $160, or $6.67 an hour.
Compare that to Chicago, where Multilingual Chicago charges $18 an hour for fundamental, fundamental-intensive and conversation classes. You can also get semi-private tutoring for $32 an hour, or private tutoring for $50 an hour. No doubt the instruction's fine, but that's one of the higher-priced options we found in our research.
If you're looking for some guidance here, consider a call to the nearest big-city consulate. Consulates in various cities offer leads to free language classes, but in many cases you'll have to do some detective work. There's no standardized way these classes are set up, and as a rule the consulate does not run the classes, but serves as a resource to find them.
The Internet offers some of the cheapest options for learning a language. Free classes are offered by the likes of the BBC and Livemocha.com.
Here's how Live Mocha works: You learn the language by total immersion, and practice it using the site's chat feature. Live Mocha connects you with people who already speak the language, so you get a more complete learning experience. Live Mocha has more than 5 million members and you can practice structured conversations with a native speaker, submit writing and audio samples for a native speaker to edit and correct. How about that? As the French say, Chic alors!, which I believe translates to "How cool is that?"
This represents a great boon for people who are tech savvy and not intimidated by the prospect of interacting with foreigners on line. The ability to have your language corrected and brushed up by native speakers makes this a rich learning environment.
Babbel.com offers unlimited access to its language-learning website for $11.95. A three-month membership goes for $6.65 a month. The per-hour rate depends on how much time you put in, but assuming 40 hours a month, that's either 2 cents an hour over one year (unlimited) or 17 cents an hour (monthly).
Babbel.com has more than 700,000 registered users who speak seven basic learning languages -- Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese, Swedish and English - -in more than 40 variations, from more than 200 countries. The Babbel Mobile app is available for iPad, iPhone and iTouch.
iTunes and podcasts
iTunes offers a great, free resource for language lovers: some three dozen languages, including Arabic, Bulgarian and Bible Greek, can be learned for free. They also offer "Sexy Spanish" and "Extreme Chinese for Kids." Translation: You, too, can be "iLingual." OK, so you're on your own learning, but hey: "free" translates well no matter the vernacular.
The verdict: OK, so what did we learn?
Obviously you're going to pay nary a red cent by going with the numerous free language options, including iTunes, BBC and Livemocha. The savings, then, becomes a matter of time. While I don't doubt the quality of iTunes or BBC, as a bilingual guy (Je parle Francais) who speaks smatterings of two other languages, I can tell you that a crucial element in learning any tongue involves being able to converse with others who know the ropes. You could mispronounce the word for "banana" in Japanese for months -- if you're new to the language, who'd point it out to you?
That's why I'd go with Livemocha as the best free option. You can learn the language you choose by a virtual total immersion, just as you would in a native setting. Close seconds: The Rosetta Stone program, if you can find it in for free at your library, or a free class that comes with a high recommendation from a local consulate.
Among the paid options, it's a tougher call -- and it depends on how you best learn. Some people would rather learn a language in private, and Rosetta Stone's video and online programs have earned many accolades. Rosetta Stone has won awards in 2009 and 2010 for Best Educational Software Award (BESSIE) in the Best Multi-Level Foreign Language Website category.
Even if you thrive in a class setting, it's hard to justify paying for class instruction that costs around $20 an hour when much thriftier options exist. But the Y classes offered in New York and elsewhere break up language learning into once-a-week classes that will fit most schedules; just remember to practice and study in between weekly meetings.
Also: Don't forget some basic principles when making your choices. Kids learn languages fast in almost any setting -- much faster than adults. Repetition and practice, especially with patient and supportive native speakers, will always help. And we'd also advise checking out a free option at little or no risk before making a big financial commitment to classes, or five volumes of any program.
Take it from me: I once craved to learn Spanish, and got my hands on a pricey cassette-tape program. I cracked it open once, and a dozen years later, I have yet to do so again. Alas, I have leaned just enough to sadly declare: "Yo no soy inteligente."