Language learning: Languages at the double

English is the global language, yet it pays to speak local languages, especially when it comes to business. How should this be organised for learners in a hurry?

As a learning and development professional, you may be asked to organise a course of learning for a colleague who must get up to speed in a foreign language in a short time. With, say, only two or three months to improve, how should the learning be approached?

What can realistically be achieved in this limited period and the type of methodology used depends on a number of criteria, according to Cathy Wellings, culture and communications manager at language and cultural awareness consultancy Communicaid.

What language is being learnt, how difficult it is in relation to the individual’s native tongue, and whether they have any experience of learning a language before will have a bearing on the level they can hope to achieve. “If you are English, learning French will be far easier than Chinese, for example. But for the Japanese, learning Chinese is much easier than English,” says Wellings.


She says trainers will decide the best type of training for a particular individual. For instance, someone who has a mathematical mind may want to see the grammar in front of them to grasp how a language is structured. While others may prefer going straight into speaking the language through conversation.

Clearly, how much of a language someone picks up depends on the time they can dedicate to learning. “If within a two to three-month period, we can arrange 240 hours contact time, we can usually get an individual up to a point where they have basic functional language good enough to get the gist of reports, manage social situations and to write brief e-mails,” says Wellings.

But this depends on the language being learned. For example, for an English speaker to become fluent in Cantonese, Wellings calculates they require 3,000 hours contact time, coupled with the same amount of time of self-study. As a rough guide to price, one hour with a tutor costs around £45, while a week’s intensive course will be charged at about £1,800.

Learning of this intensity can be draining, so to maintain motivation a common approach is to teach a language using real-life situations rather than a textbook. These may include role plays, reading newspapers, practising phone calls, and watching news bulletins.


At corporate language training provider Cactus Language, head of language training Chris Moore says he would approach the task by looking at what outcomes an individual wants to achieve. He said: “If someone wants to be able to give presentations, chair a meeting or meet and greet, then the learning will be focused on these situations.”

Moore says a three-tier approach is best for people wanting to pick up basic language quickly. This combines some rapid one-to-one learning with a tutor with self-study using CDs and other e-learning media such as podcasts. Finally, to cement the learning, Moore recommends a full week’s immersion in the destination country, where each day the delegate is given a full-day’s tuition plus social situations in the evening.

Some language training providers have partnerships with language schools overseas, where clients can be taught locally.

BSL Interlenguas’ course director Ana Maronas says her trainers specialise in a one-week full immersion course – between eight and 12 hours a day at their classroom in central London. As well as role plays, intensive drilling, and reading and comprehension, she says part of the training involves taking the individual out of their comfort zone. This may involve asking them to give a brief presentation on such abstract subjects as the landing gear of a 747 airplane, or to play a guessing game where they must explain what a glass is.

Case study: Communicaid

Last year, Communicaid devised a three-month language learning course for a senior private banker at international financial services company Credit Suisse. He needed to develop his Italian to build effective working relationships with important clients visiting the UK.

With only three months before an Italian client’s next scheduled visit, and given that the banker was a busy man who had never formally studied languages before, the instructors faced several challenges. “It was important to take a very structured approach and to maintain the delegate’s motivation and interest,” said culture and communications manager, Cathy Wellings.

The solution was a flexible blend of intensive, six-hour-a-day sessions: semi-intensive half-day sessions and sessions of one or two hours, to fit around the delegate’s schedule.

The sessions also focused on equipping the delegate with the precise vocabulary he is expected to be using with his client, and were delivered alternately by two trainers.

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