Learning a Language 1 on 1 ; People Who Want to Master a New Tongue Often Opt for the Personal Attention of a Tutor

Article excerpt

Say you're a native speaker of English who has always dreamed of learning enough Italian to exchange pleasantries with a Tuscan innkeeper. Or maybe you're a busy executive with new clients in Osaka and a real need to learn Japanese.

Do you (A) seek out an evening language class full of other beginners; (B) buy a carton full of audio tapes; or (C) move to Florence or Tokyo for a year?

How about (D): hire a native speaker as your personal trainer?

That last option is the choice for a growing number of linguistically ambitious adults. Whether the interest is personal or professional, more individuals are deciding that the undiluted attention of a native speaker is the way to get beyond grammar basics and into fluent discourse.

"It's a trend that's definitely been increasing in the last five years or so," says Harriet Barnett, consultant to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in Yonkers, N.Y.

Much of the current boom in language coaches is being fueled by corporate spending. At Berlitz International Inc. in Princeton, N.J., one-on-one instruction for corporate employees represents 30 percent of total business so far this year, compared with 24 percent in 1995.

But more parents are also buying private lessons for school-age children. And then there are the adult learners who choose to study simply because they have fallen in love with a particular language and culture.

Many of those seeking language coaches are traveling couples. "Americans are traveling more and getting more sophisticated," Ms. Barnett says. "They've really come to recognize that their travel experience is better if they learn some of the language."

Beth Meyers and Tom Strenk fit the profile perfectly. After taking several trips to Mexico and becoming smitten with the country and the culture, they decided that learning Spanish was a priority for them.

Neither had a background in Spanish. Between them, they had studied bits of French, German, and Italian, but neither had ever achieved fluency in a language.

Their first thought was to sign up for evening classes at a local university. But after four or five semesters, they were frustrated. "You're in there with 25 people for an hour and a half," says Mr. Strenk. "Your chance to speak or get some kind of response from the teacher is pretty small."

End-of-day blues

The end of a busy workday also proved a difficult time to absorb a new language. And it was easy to lose ground during breaks between terms.

So Strenk and Meyers decided on a new tactic. They found a Honduran student who was teaching Spanish as she worked toward a graduate degree in philosophy, and they asked her if she'd be willing to come to their office at lunchtime once a week to give them private lessons.

Today, four years later, Maria Victoria Talavera still meets with Strenk and Meyers every Thursday at noon, even though the two have far surpassed their original goal of basic fluency. They've now moved on to reading Spanish novels and writing compositions, with Meyers taking the lead in spoken expression and Strenk excelling in his ability to write good Spanish prose.

Both say that private lessons boosted them way beyond the level they had originally longed for and that the $60 they pay Ms. Talavera for each hour-and-a-half session is well worth it.

In addition, the three have developed a friendship that goes beyond Spanish grammar and the meals that Strenk prepares for the three of them each week. "They're a lot of fun to be with," Talavera says of her students as the three work their way through plates of pasta and pages of Spanish prose in a quiet corner of the company lunchroom. "There's joy here."

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