The Shockingly Low Cost of Learning a Language

Right before the dawn of the Chinese commie covidian era I made a life decision. In late 2019 I decided to rid myself of any and all clutter, and get really good at a few things, rather than being super average at a lot. I just had too many hobbies and too many time sucks. I decided to jettison the banjo and gave that to my daughter. Also shot into space was my anti-library – I decided to either read it, or get rid of it. I had a few other small time hobbies that I got out of. So what was left was for me was to keep my regimen of physical fitness, work, and to learn French. When I say “learn French”, I want to be fluent.

I took some French in high school and college, and after many years found an interest in it again. I downloaded an app or two to my phone, but that quickly got boring. After picking around with different things online, I decided on a much more traditional way to learn the language – start from square one, and go back to school, specifically adult continuing education. I know how to work, and learning a language is work, no matter what the ads you hear that say “ten minutes a day” want you to believe.

After thinking about it, structured book learning and progression is the best way for me, and the schedule that I have. And adult continuing education isn’t graded or have a high pressure environment. All of the people in the class are taking it for enjoyment or professional reasons, and are, well, adults.

I am fortunate to live in a town where there is a big assed university, so I hit the UW Madison website and they did indeed offer French in their adult continuing education offering. So I signed up for French 1, wanting a full review of things I already knew. The course was under $200 for 12 weeks of assignments and 1.5 hours per week of in person class. That’s quite a value. The assignments are a mixture of cultural things, grammar, video, audio, etc. All of this is hosted on the UW website. Towards the end of French 1 we got booted from the buildings because of the commie crud, but we finished with Zoom. I have to admit that it was sort of fun going back to school, walking on campus, and getting back to an institution of higher learning even though it was just basically “night school”. I hadn’t been to a structured class since 1990 and my days at U of I in Champaign.

French 2 was done on all zoom, and I am now nearing the end of French 3, same thing. Each class was about the same price and the classes are very well run and extremely enriching. Already I am certain that if you dropped me in the middle of France and I had to get along, I could. I am well on my way to being fluent. My original plan was to be fluent in five years, but I think I can do it in three at my current pace.

I will have to re-take French 3 as that level is exponentially tougher – it takes a little longer to progress to French 4, which are basically fluent persons who are brushing up or moving into the finer points of the language.

In addition to this I hired a French teacher for some private lessons. We just log onto Zoom and talk for an hour at a time and she corrects my grammar and pronunciation. Invaluable. $50/hour. I bought ten lessons.

I have also supplemented with some online items from the Coffee Break series. Coffee Break offers full blown courses and short weekly passages that test listening and comprehension skills. Again, minimal cost.

I think that all of this would have been possible in the past, but harder to do. Zoom didn’t exist just a decade ago, so you would have to lose the time to travel for a face to face lesson if you were doing privates. While the in person classes would have been the same, the amount of video and audio resources available for free online are innumerable, and the ones in our class would have been much harder to distribute, versus just going to the UW website and downloading everything.

With the numerous choices online I had to pick a certain strategy and avoid the noise. The competition is intense for this market.

I got a mass market email today advertising an Air B and B like service in France (when it opens up). You can stay at someone’s house in France for a week who will speak French to you and take you around town and cook two meals a day for you. For $1500 a week. That is incredible and will be my next phase when I can do it.

I don’t really have a point to the post outside of showing that to further yourself, all you need is desire and a little money (and not even that much money). Which certainly brings into question how a college can charge what they do to teach what they teach.

23 thoughts on “The Shockingly Low Cost of Learning a Language”

  1. I started to do the same thing with Mandarin about 20 years ago. My daughter, who had been to China a few times and had friends there, was going to take it with me. She had begun UCLA and just could not make the commute to OC, even once a week. LA Traffic even 20 years ago.

    I had studied French tapes, etc and could get along in France but bogged down on more. Good luck.

  2. Interesting tale, Dan! For me, the adult (re)education thing started with a differential equation I came across in the line of duty. No problem, thinks I; I did college calculus. Then there was the horrifying realization that if one does not use div, grad, curl and all that, it atrophies.

    First step was to start where I intended to end — with differential equations. Not a good idea. It quickly became apparent I needed to take several steps back before running at differential equations.

    The Great Courses series of DVDs & downloads provides some excellent material for self-study. There is also a lot of math education available at no cost online, but I found the well-organized material from Great Courses to be worth the price. I also have bought a number of calculus texts (new and old) for self-study. Older used books are not only very cheap — they are also generally superior to what comes out of today’s academia. I thought about night classes at the local U — but the level of Political Correctness on a modern campus is personally unacceptable.

    Of course, studying math — one brain cell talking to another brain cell — is very different from learning language — one human being talking to another human being. Still, the experience has reminded me of the wisdom of Andrew Carnegie and his libraries — there are few obstacles to learning for a person who can read and has access to the deep pool of published material in almost any discipline.

  3. Gavin – I too feared the political correctness bullshit, but was pleasantly surprised that with the adult continuing classes it has been basically void of any politics, indoctrination or any of the typical leftist claptrap seen on college campuses. Which is great. I think I remember one political discussion in all of my classes and it was very short.

  4. I remember last year there was a story about a service connecting elderly French people with people learning French, on zoom calls where they get some human interaction and you get some conversational practice and help.
    Italian would be mine…

  5. I have recently been bitten by the “adult education” bug but have satisfied it by watching several of the Great Courses that are offered free through my library. I don’t want to become particularly proficient in any area, just to learn more about topics that interest me.

    So far I’ve watched courses about King Arthur stories across time and culture, the cultural history of food (that was particularly good), cathedrals, Shakespeare, and now the linguistic history of English in America.

    These courses are a few years old, so also void of political correctness. Not sure if that would be true of newer ones.

  6. I’m trying to read the literature that I manage to skip/evade/wiggle out of in my High School and College English courses. I’ve read several now and have found it very enjoyable. The books I can remember of the top of my head are Old Man & the Sea, All Quiet on the Western Front, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, A Tale of Two Cities, Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Pride & Prejudice, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Great Expectations & Frankenstein. There are others that I can’t remember right now.

    I like the language idea and might look into that since my wife teaches at a small local college and I might be able to get a price break!

  7. I read 3-4 books a year in Spanish to keep up my language skills. (Speaking is easier to maintain- talk with neighbors or go to the local Mexican grocery.Or YouTube.) I am considering tackling Don Quixote in Spanish. There was a lot less change in 400 years from the Spanish of Cervantes compared to the Spanish of Shakespeare. Which tells me that the Royal Spanish Academy was successful in its goal to stabilize the Spanish language.

    I focus some of my reading on literature. I have currently dug into Eudora Welty’s Losing Battles and Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. Thus far Eudora Welty’s dialogue has enchanted me more than Dickens. Which is more of a compliment to Eudora Welty than a put-down of Charles Dickens.

  8. Texas is among the states that offer free university tuition for seniors. Forty years ago, I don’t believe free university tuition for seniors was as prevalent. But then there is Winnie-the-Flu to deal with these days.

  9. Dan
    I’ve done a couple of similar things…and with variable results. I actually felt as if I picked up a fair amount of Italian with one of the on line programs. But when I got over there they all talked so fast and with so much background racket that it was very tough going. That’s the bad part of being over 60. The good part is that after that age both the UW system and the state tech schools all let you attend tuition free. Just some course fees. So I did a refresh on my high school/minimal college German a couple of years back at UW Eau Claire. It was…meh. Lots more grammar than I was expecting. I just want to be conversational. But as mental exercise learning a language is always great.


  10. I’m retiring in six (please God, let it just be 6) to 11 years, and am plotting out what to do with my time in retirement as much as I’m plotting out our finances.

    Like Jeff, I plan on hitting the books – in this case, the classic UofC “Great Books of the Western World” curriculum. (Check back with me on my dedication once I start slogging through “Paradise Lost”…)

  11. @Tim – conversational is difficult to teach, probably the hardest part. I can’t see any way to do it in the adult continuing education world but to spend the big bucks and hire a private tutor, however there are new companies and platforms online that host cheaper foreign language speaking natives that will converse with you. I have seen rates as low as $25/hour. Alternately, I imagine if you really tried, you could ask around to local colleges and/or high schools to find a French native speaker or teacher (or whatever language you prefer) who might do it cheaper, or simply for fun. Or hit reddit, craigslist etc. Heck, you might even find someone who would trade Italian lessons for English.

  12. will connect you with trained foreign language tutors, at a wide range of fees, but plenty below $20 per hour.

    There are many teachers to choose from in all major languages, not just French.

    Bonne chance.

    (note to reader: I have no affiliation with iTalki; just a [very happy] customer)

  13. Thanks for the inspiring post. I was actually one of the first 15 cadets to take Mandarin Chinese at West Point, oh so many years ago. There are four regiments at the Academy, and I went through Beast Barracks (the West Point version of boot camp) with the infamous first regiment, where the upperclassmen excelled at hazing plebes. Because Chinese was only offered to the second regiment, I was reassigned to that more benign environment. Our first teacher was a white Russian whose dad had fought in the civil war after the Revolution, and ended up in China, eventually making it to the US. He had some great war stories. I took Chinese for four years, and then for another semester in Germany at the University of Regensburg. There we had a Red Chinese textbook with stories of Lenin’s greatcoat, life on a people’s commune, etc. However, I was never able to live in China, and become really fluent, so gradually forgot most of what I’d learned.

    OTH I took some German in high school, and since I was stationed in Germany for three years, I did learn to speak the language fluently, albeit with a Bavarian accent that my German friends laughed at. I’ve thought a lot about relearning Mandarin, and your post has given me a kick in the right direction. The grammar is quite simple and, according to the experts, English has more structural similarity to Mandarin than any other European language because of the lack of declensions, etc. The biggest difference is that Chinese is a tonal language. A syllable can mean several completely different things depending on how it is pronounced.

  14. Thanks Helian – I have thought that if/when I get French under my belt that a basic level of Mandarin would be interesting to take a shot at.

  15. Yes, I’m no authority on the subject, but I’ve heard that Cantonese has eight tones, and Fukien has ten! There were a lot of Chinese speakers in Vietnam back in the day, but all the ones I ran into spoke Mandarin. The Chinese call it the “country language,” and all educated Chinese are expected to speak it along with the local dialect, just as the Swiss German speakers can (mercifully) speak high German in addition to their incomprehensible dialect.

  16. Helian/Doug Drake Says:
    April 26th, 2021 at 11:27 am

    From the 1800’s up till the 1980’s most Chinese who came to this country were from Guangdong Province, surrounding and up the Pearl River from Hong Kong. The capitol [Guangzhou] of which province was called Canton in the West. Thus, the language spoken was called “Cantonese” here. When my dad was a kid in China, you could cross the equivalent of a county line and find they spoke a different variant of Cantonese that was not intelligible, so they would draw the Chinese characters [the same all over China] in the dirt to communicate.

    The home dialect for our family, and our friends, was called “5th County Cantonese”. My dad very much wanted me Americanized, so he made no effort to teach me Cantonese, and I have pretty much forgotten what little I last used over 40 years ago. But it had 9 tones. There is a kind of neutral tone that you might not be counting. Mandarin has it too. I’ve only met one person who spoke Shanghai dialect, and it has 13 tones.

    When I was in high school I took Mandarin on extension at Denver University, and for a year when I was at the University of Colorado. With a lot of time and effort I can kinda, sorta, sometimes get my thoughts across. I have to admit that now I mostly use it for cursing, which I had to learn later to teach an author friend for a book of his.

    One slight correction on the name of the language. Mandarin is romanized as Guoyu which does not really translate as “country language”, but rather “national language”. All the schools exclusively teach Beijing dialect Mandarin as a way of imposing national unity, but local dialects can be used and learned at home and they are dying out. The Chinese do not bother to romanize the tones as they figure Westerners cannot do it right anyway. There ARE ways to romanize the tones; either the numbers 0-4 or 1-5 depending on the system as superscripts after syllables which includes the neutral tone, or symbols over the syllables that I cannot duplicate here indicating the “high level”, “low rising”, “high rising”, and “falling” tones with no mark for neutral.

    Subotai Bahadur

  17. I’ve been very interested in this as my kids approach college age and it seems like one of those goods where the cost could exceed the value very soon. Also, they are in their own local experiments for online learning at the moment so I see how they are reacting to it.

    1. Online learning is getting very good at delivering content. Video lectures, zoom classes, articles, forums, quizzes, games, infinite problem sets, virtual workspaces, spaced repetition flashcard apps, wikipedia, deep-dive specialist websites, links to free 3rd party generated explanations. All very good ways of getting content to users.

    2. Online learning is bad keeping students committed to work within a given time frame or guaranteeing honest student representation. Maybe other things as well, but this is what I’ve noticed the most.
    It’s far too easy to drop or slow down in a class. All you have to do is go away and never come back. And like many endeavors, the hill climb back to where you need to be if you fall behind gets worse with time. Compare that to what a college offers: peers, guidance counselors and concerned professors might find you, or your parents, and get you back on track. (And, related to verification: a physical person verifies that it is you honestly taking your tests)

    If someone could create a college-campus like environment that provided #2 inexpensively, while getting all the benefits from #1, they could probably crack college costs wide open. Really, a community college where the teaching isn’t by professors, but online content with adjuncts walking students through an course, is probably the model that has the best of everything.

  18. “No-name” for now:
    2. Online learning is bad keeping students committed to work within a given time frame or guaranteeing honest student representation. Maybe other things as well, but this is what I’ve noticed the most.
    It’s far too easy to drop or slow down in a class.

    I took an online course 20 years ago. It wasn’t my choice. The course was required, and it happened to be online. Didn’t like it. I ended up dropping the course. That was the last course I ever dropped. It was also the only online course I took.

  19. Anonymous: “related to verification: a physical person verifies that it is you honestly taking your tests”

    That is RACIISSTTT, man! Really!! Next thing, you will be asking for someone to verify that it is really you voting for Beijing Biden for the third time today.

    To be more serious about “keeping students committed to work” — if the student is not committed to learning, it is all pretty much wasted effort and wasted dollars and wasted years of a young person’s life. Best choice then is to get the student enlisted in the military. When she comes out, she can take advantage of the excellent educational benefits offered to veterans. And at that point, she will indeed be committed to work.

  20. I doubt the military will be very keen on your precious flower. With the academic week starting after noon Monday and ending mid-afternoon Wednesday, she’ll likely spend a lot more time in class in the military than the ‘U. The curve’s a lot tougher as well.

    Now that the military has discovered the luxury of only dealing with recruits that want to be there, I don’t see them going back willingly.

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