Historically language study has come pretty easy to me. I studied Spanish for 3 years in High School, German for nearly 2 years in College and have dabbled with other languages (Arabic, French, Italian) with Rosetta Stone and have seemed to pick them up pretty easily. My issue is sticking to it until I am functional.
High School Spanish was just that -- High School. It seemed like no one really wanted to learn. I also had a different teacher (and teaching style) each year. My German teacher was fantastic instructor, he even won Teacher of the Year in 2009. He wrote our German book, he spoke very limited English in class -- he really engaged us in the language. My favorite part of that class was the question he posed each and every morning of class "Was singen wir heute?" -- What are we singing today? Then we'd start off class with a German song. Such a great professor.
The Rosetta Stone program works very well, for me. I find it to be entertaining and at a quick enough pace that I do not get bored. While you can work through a single lesson pretty quickly, it does seem like it takes forever to get through some lessons. Rosetta Stone allows you to read, listen and write/type pretty easily. There is also a speech recognition component that allows you to speak specific phrases and it will rate the quality on a speedometer type gauge. I think the speech aspect is the worst in Rosetta Stone. I had a hard time getting green/good pronunciation in French...and I didn't quite understand how what I was saying didn't match up with the sample. Which brings me to my current language studies.
I knew I wanted to learn French before we traveled to Paris and unfortunately the Rosetta Stone wasn't going to cut it. I did a bit more research and found Alliance Francaise Chicago...and more importantly they had a French for Travelers Course that started the week after I found the class and ended two days before we left for Paris -- it's meant to be.
The course was taught by a young French woman from Paris. Our class had an interesting mix of people: young and old, white and non-white, smart and well...not so smart. Everyone in the class had studied another language before (Spanish, German, Russian or Italian). As the class progressed we got to know each other and got to know the people who wanted to learn and those who did not -- just like my original High School Spanish class.
I really liked the class. I learned a lot every day -- and when class was over, I was full of excitement and wanted to learn more. My language skills were so poor, but I enjoyed saying what I could and pushing myself to listen and understand something brand new.
While my vocabulary was quite limited, I was confident I could get by and not struggle too much. I even managed call the hotel a week before to confirm my reservation and request an early check in. I did this all in French.
Once in Paris, I was surprisingly able to communicate with people. I wasn't eloquent at all. I did run into a few problems when ordering dinner a couple nights. I had a hard time pronouncing the word for lamb, which of course, I ordered at least once a day.
I was so happy I studied French before my trip. After spending five days in Paris and interacting with the Parisians, I knew I wanted to continue my French studies. I jumped back in at an elevated level (which is very tough and most of my classmates have studied French several years prior) and still really enjoy it. It is quite a push for me though.
Do you speak a foreign language? When you travel, do you take language classes? Rely on a language section of a guide book? Buy a separate phrase book? Do you just speak English, but do so loudly? God, I hope it isn't the latter...