Leave English at Home When Taking a Language Adults Immerse Themselves in Classes, Spurred by Travel and Job Prospects

Article excerpt

Ever since Marion Middlebrooks visited Germany 19 years ago, toting a traveler's phrase book, she has harbored a dream.

"I want to return to Germany speaking the language," she says. "I'd like to have a very good command of it."

Now, to prepare for a trip to Germany next year, Ms. Middlebrooks has enrolled in a beginning German course at the Goethe Institute in Boston. Twice a week, she hurries from work to join at least half a dozen other students for a 90-minute class. Dinner must wait as they practice simple conversations, learn words and grammar forms, complete workbook exercises, and even sing German songs, all under the energetic instruction of Irmgard Hicks. Middlebrooks and her classmates are joining burgeoning ranks of adults eager to learn a new language. In adult education classes, community colleges, cultural institutes, and commercial schools, they are broadening their horizons. They are also challenging stereotypes that portray Americans as monolingual and proud of it. Lee Riethmiller, president of Intercontinental Foreign Language Program at Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., predicts that in five years, the number of Americans learning languages will triple. "We have the Internet, airplanes, personal relationships - all these things that make us more interactive." Students in Ms. Hicks's class form a microcosm of language students across the country. Some, like Middlebrooks, have come for personal reasons - a desire to travel, trace their ancestry, or visit relatives abroad. Others, like Tina Luddy, whose boyfriend lives in Germany, study a language because of romantic relationships. Still others come for professional advancement. Andrea Ladoulis, a nurse doing clinical research, says, "Most of the biggest pharmaceutical firms are German. This might be helpful for job prospects." At Berlitz, 56 percent of students in the United States enroll for job-related reasons. "Younger professionals are looking at language now more as a skill - as something to list on their resume under their computer skills," explains Carmen Bayer, New England district director. Students are also much more sophisticated than they were 10 years ago, she adds. "Before, people just wanted to speak to get by. Now they really want to be able to communicate." Spanish ranks as the most popular foreign language taught in the US today. At Berlitz, 35 percent of students choose Spanish. French students have dropped from 21 percent to 14 percent in the past decade, and German students from 9 percent to 7 percent. Says Ms. Bayer, "Mandarin {Chinese} and Portuguese are the languages we expect to see more." Adults studying today benefit from "tremendous advances" in instruction over the past 10 to 20 years, says Ed Scebold, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in Yonkers, N.Y. He sees a move away from grammar analysis to a much more communicative approach, emphasizing real-life use. …