DennisBeaverMarch 17, 2012 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver


It is virtually impossible to go online or open almost any magazine and not be constantly told about how some language program makes it easy to learn a foreign language “like a child learns a language, effortlessly, without memorization, studying vocabulary or grammar” – if you simply buy their expensive materials.

Now, if you are about to plunk down hundreds of dollars for one of these courses, today ‘s story will be of special interest and may help you avoid not only the expense, but the embarrassment experienced by Manuel, a Hanford reader who asked for our help.

According to experts in both the science of learning and, specifically, foreign language acquisition, many of the most highly advertised programs do not deliver anything close to what is often claimed by their persuasive, engaging and yet frequently misleading ads. Learning to speak a foreign language takes motivation, a deep commitment and a great deal of time – often years – depending upon how different the language is from others which you know.

“You are not going to acquire fluency in 10 days or 10 weeks, no matter what the ads claim,” former Canadian foreign service diplomat Steve Kaufmann told us. The founder of LingQ, an online language learning community, Kaufmann is fluent in 10 languages and is highly critical of programs such as Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur and others with a significant Web presence.

“I wish I had known that before spending close to $700 on one of these programs,” Manuel told us. His story is a touching example of unrealistic expectations fueled by misleading claims – combined with contractual traps – that‘s out there for the unwary.

Desperately wanted to learn Portuguese

“I‘m sure you‘ve seen those interesting ads picturing a young man who appears very unsure of himself, standing out in a farmer‘s field, holding a bright yellow Rosetta Stone Italian language course, with the caption, ‘Hard Working Farm Boy knew he would have just one chance to impress an Italian Supermodel.’”

“Well, Mr. Beaver, I am a 30-year-old hardworking farm boy in California‘s Central Valley, and the language I desperately needed to learn was Portuguese. Maria was the woman I wanted to impress. She is an elementary school teacher in the small Portuguese village where our families came from almost 100 years ago.

“We‘re about the same age, both of us felt pressure to get married to somebody, so a matchmaker suggested that she visit her relatives in California and maybe find a husband at the same time.

“I wasn‘t raised speaking Portuguese, even though my parents speak it well. I did not buy Rosetta Stone, but instead a course from another well-known language company which advertises online and claims that you can learn to speak a language in a few days. Their ads really convinced me that I could do it, and the salesperson on the phone talked about a refund policy which made it seem that, if it didn‘t work, I could get my money back.”

For the next three months, Manuel studied Portuguese, following the recommended schedule and awaiting Maria‘s arrival.

Por favor, can we try English?

“I was with her relatives when we met Maria just as she stepped off of the Greyhound in Hanford. I tried my best to say, “Welcome, I am so happy you are here, you look lovely,” but I was so bad at speaking. She couldn‘t understand a word of what I thought I was saying and, clearly trying not to laugh at me, in perfect American English, softly asked if we could please try speaking in English.

“I was able to say my name, count, list food items, parrot questions and certain statements, but as far as actually being able to carry on a conversation, this was totally impossible. And, believe me, I studied as the materials suggested,” Manuel told us.

“Even though I worked hard at learning the language, I realized the advertising claims were just hot air. I contacted the company and asked for a refund, but they said that I needed to first take a test for them to even consider the refund, which was not a sure thing in any event because I was probably too late.

“I just feel like an idiot and regret the day that I ever thought I could teach myself the language. And now I could be out the money. Can you help me? Are there any good self-study programs out there?” Manuel asked, adding, “I want a second chance to show Maria that I am serious about learning her language and to see if, maybe, the matchmaker is right.”

Next time: You and the Law plays Cupid.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.