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Finding the Right Foreign Language Course

When a small business owner begins working overseas, learning a foreign language can boost the chances of success in the new country. But learning a new language can be daunting. 

While there's generally no silver bullet language course, there are ways to speed up the language-acquisition process.

"The ideal way to learn a foreign language is to start learning the basics, the grammar and practicing," says Robert M. De Keyser, professor of second language acquisition at the University of Maryland. But when opportunities in international business are at stake and time is of the essence, there are ways to hasten learning. 

If an international business owner knows he or she needs to engage in contract negotiations, for example, try to have the instruction tailored to pertinent phrases and grammar.

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Tailored Courses

Business owners with limited budgets but urgent needs should make sure the language course "puts less emphasis on the abstract principles of grammar and works more with specific phrases," De Keyser says.

If an international business owner knows he or she needs to engage in contract negotiations, for example, try to have the instruction tailored to pertinent phrases and grammar, De Keyser says. Or conduct "practice imaginary business negotiations, or discuss prices and qualities of a product" in the foreign language, he says.

Instructor Options

Along with the structure of learning a foreign language, it's important to know whether to hire a formal language teacher, a tutor or to simply go the DIY-route with a book or a language software program.

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"The ideal is of course the teacher," so long as they are of good quality, De Keyser says. However, Andrew D. Cohen, a professor emeritus in second language studies at the University of Minnesota, points out that some classes, such as those at universities, can be a crapshoot. "A lot of a language teacher's class time, unfortunately, is often spent unproductively dealing with students who haven't done their work," he says. 

Cohen recommends finding a native speaker who is also "knowledgeable in those areas in which you need to perform." However, make sure there is structure to the tutoring session and that the tutor isn't just "someone who is willing to engage in somewhat clumsy, halting conversations with the learner," he says. Small business owners can use their business relationships and contacts to find a native-speaking tutor.

If a business owner working overseas wants to hire a teacher who is a native speaker, he or she can use a trusted online foreign exchange service to initiate bank-to-bank money transfers for international payments.

Or there's always the tandem-learning route, where two native speakers pair up and split their time teaching and learning each other's foreign languages. Some universities, such as the University of Minnesota, offer tandem programs that match language learners from around the globe. Cohen said online language programs such as Livemocha, which pairs native speakers over the Internet, have assisted millions of learners in finding such partners.

Packaged Language-learning

Packaged language-learning products are also an option, but their effectiveness will vary. "Of course you will learn something with a package like this," De Keyser says, "but how much you learn depends on your aptitude and your motivation."

Traditionally packaged language courses lack live conversation, De Keyser adds.  However, he acknowledges, many companies are now integrating that component by offering access to native speakers over the phone or the Internet.

If all else fails there are always electronic translation devices, and now even smartphone apps, like TransZilla, which offer text and voice translation for numerous languages, but accuracy is often problematic. But caveat emptor: "New things are developed all the time, but many are just gimmicks," De Keyser says.

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