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Originally published Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 7:00 PM

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Finding the right language-learning program for travelers

Choosing the right program for learning the language, or at least a few phrases, of the place you're visiting.

The New York Times

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One of the pleasures of travel is being able to speak the language of the place you're visiting — or at least say "hello" and "where's the bathroom?"

Whether your trip is short or long, there's no excuse for not broadening your vocabulary. But how? With so many methods — CDs, videos, apps, podcasts — picking one can feel more overwhelming than learning a language.

The systems below have been used by tourists, college students and FBI agents. Some cost hundreds of dollars. Others are free. In trying to find the best, websites that were difficult to navigate or had distracting ads were ruled out, as were in-person classes because their cost and availability varies.



Users will find instruction for 40 languages, including French, Spanish, Greek, Chinese, German, Italian and Portuguese. Click on a language and then "holiday phrases" to see an array of vocabulary categories — Food and Drink, Shopping, Getting Around — that can be downloaded as audio files. For those who have at least 12 weeks before a trip, there is an easy-to-use beginners' course.

Bottom line: A lively, breezy introduction to a language, though some of the videos are not available in all areas.

Coffee Break Spanish and Coffee Break French search on iTunes will turn up many delightful (and free) language lessons, including these spirited podcasts from Radio Lingua Network, which promise "language learning with your latte." Each 15- to 20-minute podcast encourages participation (listeners are asked to pinch their noses to achieve the perfect French "non").

Bottom Line: The hosts are Scottish, so while you're learning French or Spanish, you also may feel as if you've been transported to Scotland. But you'll enjoy smart, energetic, well-produced lessons.

French in Action (type "French in Action" in the search box):

This 1980s instructional-television series produced by Yale University and WGBH Boston with Wellesley College is a kooky romp through Paris and environs in which an American man and a fetching French blonde exchange basic phrases. Performed in French without subtitles, it is supposed to prevent students from translating words in their heads, so that they will learn the language in context.

Bottom line: Chances are you'll have to watch this more than once to build your vocabulary, but you'll be entertained.

Living Language (click on "free downloads")

While this company primarily sells language products (about $20 to $180), it also offers freebies like pocket-phrase guides.

Bottom line: Living Language is not a free site, but the guides are a nice perk for those who can only afford to dip a toe.

Livemocha This networking site allows members to find language partners worldwide and offers basic instruction in grammar, vocabulary and conversation (users need a microphone). Unlimited access is $9.95 for one month; $99.95 for a year.

Bottom line: It helps facilitate learning by talking — a big plus.

Deeper pockets

Pimsleur Approach This audio-only program, based on the language-retention theories of the linguist Paul Pimsleur, has been used by the FBI. The company claims that students who use the CDs for 30 minutes a day will begin speaking the language in just 10 days — no textbooks required. The idea is that adults learn language the same way children do: by hearing it in everyday situations.

The program begins with a 30-day trial of Quick & Simple, eight lessons for $9.95. Then, every 60 days, users receive in the mail a higher-level course with 30 lessons, which they can keep (for $256) or return within 30 days at no cost plus shipping. The entire system can end up costing upward of $750, depending on the language.

Bottom line: This approach can be as expensive as a plane ticket, but if you want to learn fast, naturally and on the go, it just might be a match.

Rosetta Stone It is available in 30 languages ($159 to $499) and has been used by government agencies. The emphasis is on "dynamic immersion" — connecting words with images to glean meaning. (Those who buy Version 4 can reinforce lessons with mobile apps.)

Bottom line: Rosetta Stone is much more intensive than a vacation primer. But if you want to keep learning long after your trip, it's a better investment than souvenirs.

Transparent Language "Our methodology was originally developed in some of our work for the Department of Defense," said Chuck McGonagle, the senior vice president of Transparent Language. "It was all focused on building your vocabulary." The company's primary product, Transparent Language Online ($149.95 for six-month access; $199.95 for a year), does just that. Users begin with the Essentials Course: lessons organized around everyday situations like greetings, shopping, checking into a hotel. For those short on time, there are express courses.

Bottom line: This is one of the most affordable big-name systems, and it enables users to practice anywhere they have Internet access.

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