Speaking in Tongues

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Why labor over a phrase book when you can chat with a real person, or groove to new vocab on your iPod?

Before going to Colombia on vacation, Lisa Tomlinson of New York City wanted to brush up on her Spanish. She tried listening to cassettes in the car, but found it too passive.

Tomlinson signed up for three sessions with FluencyNow, a new company that uses online video streaming to give students real-time interaction with a native speaker. With a headset and a high-speed Internet connection, Tomlinson received one-on-one attention from Rocio, a Paraguayan now living in Vancouver. "The conversations really forced me to speak Spanish, and I got an immediate evaluation of my pronunciation," Tomlinson says.

FluencyNow offers classes in 17 languages, including less-obvious ones like Ukrainian and Nepali. Students can customize lessons for real-life travel situations--ordering a coffee in Paris, figuring out a bus schedule in Shanghai, and so on. The instructors have webcams, so students can see them, but webcams are optional for students. (Tomlinson wishes she had purchased one.)

Appropriately for the iPod era, many language companies are focusing their efforts on audio. ISpeak sells "audio phrase books" that include a CD. After importing the CD to your iPod, you can scroll down to choose which topic you want to study. Another outfit, Earworms, calls itself a Musical Brain Trainer because it uses groove-heavy music as a backdrop while teaching words and phrases. There are 10 languages, sold as 10-track albums. And Living Language, which has been producing self-study courses for 61 years, began selling audio-based online sessions in May. The languages on offer are Spanish, French, German, and Italian.

One of the most interesting companies out there is Praxis, which started ChinesePod in 2005. It provides a free daily podcast with a 10-minute lesson about specific situations, such as dealing with health issues or visiting a museum. The company sells subscriptions from $9 per month, with which you get access to the ever-expanding archive. Pay more and you get more, including mobile access and study and vocab guides. ChinesePod also has a new sister outfit, SpanishSense.

The granddaddy of language schools, Berlitz, offered its first live online lessons back in 2002, but those early efforts were focused mainly at business travelers and serious students--i.e., they were expensive, and less than ideal for someone spending just a few days in Prague or Buenos Aires.

In August, the company launched Ticket to... French, a program for leisure travelers. Up to eight students participate in 90-minute, PC-only classes that meet once a week for five weeks. Students can hear the instructor and each other. Using a virtual pointer and pictures, the classes cover situations such as ordering food and asking for directions. Berlitz plans on adding more languages in December.

Just be careful when you promise your teacher an apple; he might think an iPhone is coming his way.

A few questions for Fatima Mooney, French instructor for FluencyNow...

What do your students generally want help with?

Pronunciation. They want to know the right way to speak French. So we have conversations in various scenarios: what to say at the airport, how to order a croissant at a bakery.

Which words would one use to sound très cool in French--words that are too current to be in a guidebook?

Use voilà all the time, like "there you have it," at the end of sentences. And c'est canon, used for an article of clothing or a person, means "it's really gorgeous."

Do you care if people show up for class in pajamas?

They need to have some clothes on, that's for sure. But pajamas are no problem.

50-minute class, $30; fluencynow.com

Phrase book with CD, $13; mhprofessional.com

Rapid downloads, $30; earwormslearning.com

Living Language
10-session programs, $55; livinglanguage.com

Basic subscription, $9; chinesepod.com

Basic subscription, $9; spanishsense.com

Five-session Ticket to... course, $175; berlitz.us

Special offer for Budget Travel readers!
Use coupon code cpn9497JC on FluencyNow.com. This coupon code is good for $5 off a session and it can be entered when purchasing. Valid through the end of September.

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