— Like most Americans, Cynthia Giambalvo Waage of Del Mar, Calif., did not speak a foreign language. Her Italian-born grandparents spoke only English at home. “I really had no interest in learning Italian at all,” she said.
That changed when her husband suggested they take classes at the Italian Cultural Center of San Diego. “This will probably last a month” she recalled thinking.
Soon after, on a trip to Italy, a travel companion left a backpack with passports and other valuables on a train. With rudimentary Italian, Waage explained the situation to an officer, who located the bag at a nearby station, untouched. “So I was a hero,” Waage said. “It was great motivation to learn Italian.”
That was 10 years ago. Today, the 68-year-old Waage is fluent in Italian after honing her skills during four language-learning vacations at Il Sasso, an Italian Language School in Montepulciano, Italy.
“It just opened up this whole new world for me,” she said.
Not just for students
College-age students have traditionally studied abroad, but in recent years, a growing number of 30-somethings, middle-aged and older Americans are learning a language as part of their vacations.
“It’s just phenomenal how it’s taken off” said Joanna Hubbs, senior editor of Transitionsabroad.com, an online information portal for overseas travel and cultural immersion.
Jeff Minthorn, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Verge, a print and online educational and experiential travel magazine, said language learning is part of a larger trend: vacations which allow travelers to explore the culture of the country in a deep way, based on “personal growth and learning about the world by actually experiencing it.” Students learn the language by mingling with local residents on the streets and during after-class activities and excursions.
“You can’t replicate that type of learning. It’s 24 hours,” said John Slocum, co-founder of AmeriSpan Study Abroad, a company that offers language travel programs through partner schools in more than 15 languages in about 50 countries. “Even when students are horseback riding or surfing, they are learning words for waves and the tide, they just don’t realize it.”
Many organizations have created specialized programs.
Dajana Guja, 26, of Manhattan traveled to the small beach town of Montanita, Ecuador, in April for “Spanish and Surfing,” one of AmeriSpan’s “Language and Fun” programs.
“When I go on a vacation, I want to learn the language,” she said. But as a single person traveling alone, she thought a structured program would be safe and a good way to connect with people. “It was definitely the case,” said Guja, who met people from all over the world.
Each morning, there were two hours of grammar and a break that included yoga. After lunch, she had two hours of Spanish conversation, followed by surfing. In the evenings, students gathered informally in a communal kitchen to make dinner, watch a movie or go out. “The whole day was organized. It was great.” The program was also less expensive than classes at home, she said.
A family affair
Some language programs are geared for families, which are ideal for multi-tasking oriented family members who have a hard time relaxing and provide “something to do” for the family member who shuns laid-back beach vacations.
Often three generations will take language-learning trips together, Slocum said.
In a typical family language vacation to Spain, for example, one parent could combine Spanish learning and flamenco dancing. The older children could join a teen program to learn Spanish and soccer, tennis or horseback riding, while the other parent takes a professional development class.
With globalization, more Americans are either traveling to foreign countries or working with people from other cultures, either at their home offices or virtually.
Classes geared to particular professions, like “Arabic for Executives,” or “French for Law,” have become more common, experts say. In “Medical Spanish” classes, health professionals learn specialized vocabulary, may shadow a physician or visit rural clinics. A business-focused language program may include a banking internship. “How great is that for your resume?” Slocum said.
The language of business
“It used to be that everyone wanted to learn English” said Dennis J. Garritan, managing director of Palmer Hill Capital, a private equity firm. “But in today’s world, you must speak the languages of companies you are doing business with. If you don’t, the business you do will be extremely limited, and your competition will be eating your lunch.”
Garritan recounted how he recently closed a venture capital acquisition lead by a French bank, with an Asian Bank and an Arab hedge fund as potential investors. Garritan, who speaks French, spoke to the board of directors of the French bank himself, not with translators. “None of my competitors could do it.” He also taught himself basic phrases in both Mandarin and Arabic, before negotiations. He believes that is how he clinched the deal. Afterward, over coffee, he said the Arab and Asian partners told him that “the fact that I made an effort meant a lot. ‘You showed respect that other firms didn’t,’ ” Garritan recalled the investors saying.
“Nothing establishes trust in a relationship better than if you speak to someone in his or her language, even if you do a God-awful job.”
Brenda Fender, director of global initiatives for Worldwide ERC, a not-for-profit association concerned with work force mobility, said learning a language in the country where it is spoken is the best way to acquire cultural sensitivity and awareness, knowledge of customs, the ability to read body language and speak using idioms. Those types of communication skills are increasingly “a driving force” in the global workplace, she said.
What to look for
Laura Ellington, founding director of Intercultura Language & Cultural Center, a Spanish language school in Costa Rica with campuses in the colonial city of Heredia and beachfront Sámara, said prospective students should ask about teachers’ educational background, level of experience, and make sure that they are native speakers.
“We have a high percentage of professors with master's degrees in teaching Spanish as a second language, and we do ongoing professional development workshops,” she said.
She recommends home stays for cultural and linguistic immersion. “They are just a wonderful way to meet locals and feel like part of the community, and of course, your Spanish improves so much more quickly,” Ellington said. Home stays also tend to be the most economical option, she said, often including breakfast, dinner, laundry and a private room.
Having an owner or director on-site is also important, said AmeriSpan's Slocum. Like any business, “hands-on often means better service.”
“I would stay away from big cities” said Pierre Lincourt, director of the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi’s School for French language and Quebec culture. Smaller cities, like Chicoutimi, about two hours north of Quebec City, often have limited tourism, so fewer people speak English.
“Paris may have more sex appeal than Quebec, but people come here because they can have a total immersion experience — 99 percent of the people speak nothing but French. That’s the key. You’ll live in French,” Lincourt said.
“When students learn another language and another culture, they have to learn about themselves, too. They leave with a better idea of the world.”