Um novo ano, um novo desafio! Or: how to learn languages for cheap in Montreal.

Which language will it be?
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Two days ago, Kristina wrote a great post, reviewing both her year just past, and the one to come, all in an upbeat and confident mood. And, Kristina, you wished us all that the year “be filled with dreams come true” – thank you for the good wishes, and may your year turn out as you intend to, too!

Speaking of dreams, though, here’s a personal one for 2014: if all works out well, this will be the year I learn Brazilian Portuguese, for the sake of my thesis (on Brazil), for related travel plans, and for the general fun of it. But how does one get started with such a project? The paths and possibilities towards new linguistic skills can be bewildering, and they took me some time to sort through before I even said my first word in Portuguese. I’ve since found my way, however, and thus proudly present the clumsily titled “2014 starter’s kit to learning languages for cheap in Montreal” – with my very own special recommendation at the end.

Choosing your Criteria

Everybody has their own reasons to learn a new language, be it related to your academic studies, travel, leisure, or, if you live in Montreal, the city itself. Once you’re set on which language you’re willing to have a go at, you face a first series of crucial questions:

  • How much time do you want to invest? This will more than likely determine how fast you learn the language.
  • How much money do you want to invest? This, it turns out, need not determine how fast you learn the language.

I personally started out my search for a course whilst hoping for relatively fast improvement (since I need the language for my research), and so I was initially willing to invest a bit of money. Thus, the first thing I looked at were language classes.

Language classes

Language classes are nice because they structure your learning experience, and because they are a great way to meet new people. For starters, I looked at options at McGill itself:

  • PGSS leisure courses: for graduate students, McGill’s very own Post-Graduate Student Society offers leisure courses in French and Spanish at different levels, running for 10 weeks during the Semester, at usually just below $100. That’s pretty neat, but it may be a relatively slow way to learn a language (they are called “leisure courses”, after all), and if you’re looking for other languages, then this won’t get you very far.
  • Learning French at McGill: if you are intending to learn French, and want something a little more intense than the PGSS courses, has got all the information to get you started. Some of the courses may be taken for credit as part of one’s degree, meaning they are “free” for students. Of particular interest for international students, enrolling in a French course may get you your international fee waived (for that one course), meaning you could both learn a new language and save some money on your studies.
  • Learning other Languages at McGill: the Department of Languages offers for-credit courses in German, Spanish, Italian, and Russian, Jewish Studies offers Hebrew and Yiddish, Islamic Studies has Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Turkish, East Asian Studies has Korean, Chinese, and Japanese, South Asian studies offers a variety of online language resources, and McGill also used to offer introductory courses to Cree, but unfortunately, these seem to have been put on hold for the moment.
  • McGill’s School of Continuing Studies: the school offers courses in French, Spanish, and English, though they are pretty expensive and not-for-credit, so it’s not really a prime option (same for Concordia’s Centre for Continuing Education).

Unfortunately, McGill offers no Portuguese whatsoever, so for such and other languages, you may be pressed to look elsewhere:

  • Other Universities in Montreal: all of Concordia, UdeM and UQAM offer a variety of language courses. Insofar as these are for credit, McGill students can take them (if their program requirements allow it) for “free” through the Quebec Inter-University Transfer System, which allows you to take courses at other universities (one of the great things about studying in Quebec!). Some of the courses are not-for-credit and open to the public, though, and (e.g. at UdeM) cost around $120 for 10 weeks.
  • Private languages schools: the main Montreal language schools (all quite close to campus) seem to be CILM, the YMCA, and Berlitz (poor website though), whereas Fabrika‘s tutors offer to meet you when and where you want in Montreal (your home, a cafe, a library, etc.) to deliver private tuition. As with all the private alternatives, the downside is that classes tend to be rather expensive, so I don’t dwell on them.

Language Software and the Internet

Classes are neat, but they do usually cost, and even if they don’t, they imply coordination with other people, both for time and place, and for the pace of your progress. Whilst the presence of others may encourage you to push yourself harder, the flip-side is that it’s hard to go much faster than the rest of the class. Because I was looking (/ am hoping) for fast improvement, I thus turned to personalized learning solutions, including, most prominently, language software.

  • Language Software: once again, I was spoiled for choice. There are numerous programs and offers, ranging all the way from the notorious (and expensive) Rosetta Stone software suit to small, free, open-sourced programs. Teaching styles vary greatly (from more rules- and memory-based to more intuitive-learning types), as do features (e.g. live online classes, voice-recording abilities, smartphone portability), so there’s no prime choice as far as I can see. Reviews, such as here and here, suggest that the obvious seems to unfortunately be true: pay-for-use software tends to be more complete and coherent than free software, although there are some decent free programs (see the reviews).
  • The (vast and free) Internet: in turn, the internet offers a gigantic pool of free learning resources for almost any language. Most of it, like the BBC’s “Talk …” Series, is introductory material only, although one could probably learn an entire language by patching together enough sources. That, however, can be a real hassle, and it’s not very conducive to a coherent, routinized learning experience.

And the winner is… the BAnQ

The computerised options are thus numerous, but that world collapsed for me when my laptop died. This, however, turned out to be fortunate, because it made me turn to other resources I hadn’t even considered yet.

  • Written courses: As language-learning (like most things) has been around for longer than computers, there is a vast choice of written language courses, i.e. manuals usually complemented by a CD in order to catch the right pronunciation (some programs and reviews here). These books offer comprehensive courses, but they cost money, of course, and are not always cheaper than software. But here’s the catch…
  • Libraries! To no surprise, these books are available in libraries (as is software, but more rarely so). Since most books don’t require anything to be written into them, they can be re-used almost indefinitely. Unfortunately, McGill’s library does not seem particularly well-stocked with them. But other libraries are!
  • The BAnQ: directly connected to the metro stop Berri-UQAM (no need even to go outside), the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ) is Montreal’s main public library. Membership is free to anybody with a residential address in Montreal (including international students), and the library so happens to stock shelves of language learning resources, including written courses and corresponding audio materials. It also sports several on-site computers with pre-installed language software. Now, not all languages are covered, of course, but a good number is by most standards, including, to my delight, Brazilian Portuguese (and a wide variety of materials for it, at that!). Loans are 21 days, renewable, and given the numerous copies of many items, you shouldn’t be at risk of loosing your copy anytime soon.

Summa Summarum…

In the end, there are many paths to new linguistic skills (some of which I’ll certainly have forgotten to mention). One such uncomplicated, cheap and (unlike laptops) fail-safe path is via the BAnQ. Not that using a public library is all that revolutionary, but so happy was I about my new BAnQ library card that I promptly took out a copy of a comic book I had recently bought, to then return my own bought copy to the store for a refund (sorry, Archambeault…). The BAnQ is clearly not the only solution out there, though, and hopefully the above offers some partial help in getting through the jungle of language-learning possibilities. And who knows – with some time, luck, and absolutely no money, you might one day reach the hidden temple of fluency. Boa sorte!

ps. For more information about language-learning in general, check out any of the following blogs: KokothepolyglotLingvoStartSpeakingFluentlyRawLangs, or Lingholic.

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