JUNE 23, 1997
Personal Business


Immersion programs can do the trick

The overnight train from Paris to Venice was easy prey for the thieves who used to slip aboard and rob passengers in their sleep. And one night, true to my fears, I awoke at about 3 a.m. to the dark shadow of a man hovering over the bunks. Even though I spoke almost no French at the time, my mind thought back to words I had heard over and over in an ad on French TV. In it, a housewife finds an intruder in her kitchen, and she shouts something at him. I didn't know what it meant, but I knew it was good for scaring off robbers. So I yelled, more or less, the same thing: ''Qui etes vous? Qu'est-ce que vous faites la?'' (''Who are you? What are you doing there?'') It worked. He ran away.

Of course, shouting ''You are a cucumber!'' might have done just as well. But hearing that phrase over and over again had planted it in my brain. And unlike the pages of vocabulary I was trying to memorize, I was able to recall it more easily than any made-up dialogue in a book. That was long ago, and now I speak five foreign languages with varying proficiency. My advice is, if you want to learn a language, you have to immerse yourself. That means hearing it, or at least thinking it, virtually every day.

Summer immersion courses ranging from one to eight weeks are the best way to do that. They are widely used by companies preparing to send executives overseas, and tend to be expensive. ''Language is constant interaction,'' says Jon M. Strolle, associate provost of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, which along with Middlebury College in Vermont is one of the two most reputable programs in the U.S. If you can't travel, Berlitz (800 457-7958) offers two-week, all-day tutoring around the U.S. in virtually any language, from Kazakh to Thai. Berlitz, which costs $4,500 to $5,000, tends to teach quick phrases rather than solid grammar.

There's also growing interest in immersion courses held in the countries themselves. Experts caution that you should study the basic elements of the language beforehand in order to get the most out of the experience. The National Registration Center for Study Abroad (414 278-0631) has approved dozens of foreign immersion courses lasting one week to a year. The Goethe Institut (212 439-8700), which runs night courses in many U.S. cities, arranges intensive study vacations of from two to eight weeks in cities throughout Germany, costing $1,000 to $2,000. The French Government Tourist Office (212 838-7800) has similar programs.

If you're starting from scratch on a European language, most experts say it takes two to three years of part-time study to become proficient enough to conduct basic transactions. Immersion study can cut that time down to three to six months--especially if you are learning related languages, French after taking up Spanish, say, or have studied the language in high school. ''All is not lost, even many years later,'' says Barbara Freed, a linguist at Carnegie Mellon University. While any dutiful student can master a language, musical people who can distinguish tones and inflections can better imitate sounds.

Asian languages take more time, mainly because there are few cognates, or shared words, [like politics, politique, poltica] and because their pictograms must be memorized. But consider this: Chinese has none of the complicated verb changes of French or German. So once you learn a few nouns, pronouns, and verbs, you can speak basic sentences. ''I went to the bank last week,'' takes nine words in French but six simpler ones in Chinese: ''I last week go silver business.''

People who don't have weeks off for study can use software programs, language tapes, and books. These emphasize rapid acquisition of oral skills and can aid tourists who need just enough Italian to make their way through Tuscany. Unless you are supplementing your study with real-life interaction, however, you will need strong motivation to get through most of these courses.

Here are some suggestions to supplement your efforts: If your city has radio and TV stations in the tongue you're learning, turn it on as background noise to give you an ''ear'' for the language. Or keep a journal--just five sentences on your day. Whichever method you choose, make it a habit. Bonne chance!

Sheri Prasso