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EDUCATION PROFESSIONALS SAY SLOVAKS' THIRST FOR FOREIGN LANGUAGES HAS FUELLED DIASPORA OF UNSUPERVISED SCHOOLS

Brain-wave English courses cash in on language hunger

PETER Bujna spent two weeks in May learning English in a somewhat novel manner - playing games and relaxing with a pair of small earphones. Although he may have appeared idle, his language instructors told him that the manipulation of his brain wave pattern through the headphones had allowed them to transfer foreign language knowledge directly into his subconscious.
"After I returned from this two-week course, I didn't remember anything," protested Bujna, a pharmacist from the eastern Slovak village of Prakovce.
The opening of Slovakia to the western world after the 1989 collapse of communism led to a steep growth in demand for foreign language instruction among people of all ages and backgrounds, say education professionals, with the gaps left by the official education system often being filled by proliferating private agencies and language schools.


THE 'PSYCHOWALKMAN', its promoters say, stimulates learners' brains by emissions of light and sound.
photo: Courtesy Hemisféry

PETER Bujna spent two weeks in May learning English in a somewhat novel manner - playing games and relaxing with a pair of small earphones. Although he may have appeared idle, his language instructors told him that the manipulation of his brain wave pattern through the headphones had allowed them to transfer foreign language knowledge directly into his subconscious.

"After I returned from this two-week course, I didn't remember anything," protested Bujna, a pharmacist from the eastern Slovak village of Prakovce.

The opening of Slovakia to the western world after the 1989 collapse of communism led to a steep growth in demand for foreign language instruction among people of all ages and backgrounds, say education professionals, with the gaps left by the official education system often being filled by proliferating private agencies and language schools.

"Barely one tenth of language schools in Slovakia are supervised by the Ministry of Education," said Alžbeta Ferenčičová from the Office of Information and Prognoses, attached to the Education Ministry.

Among the "hundreds" of unsupervised schools Ferenčičová says have entered the fray for paying students are a handful that apply brain-wave tweaking technology, a so-called alpha-based approach to education.

Roman Baroš from Hemisféry, a company that sells the 'psychowalkman', a set of headphones with special glasses emitting pulsing light, explained that methods vary from school to school, but the general idea is the same.

"The alpha method is based on light and sound stimulation, which can [positively] affect the brain's functioning," said Baroš.

"A human in relaxed state can receive information better," said Baroš, adding that ordinary language courses are often carried out in unsuitable conditions and using ineffective teaching methods.

"People often just sit in a classroom listening to some small cassette player blabbing somewhere in the corner of the room. Most courses just focus on memorizing the grammar - that doesn't make sense," he said.

Peter Polák, manager of the Alfa School, said that a one-week course cost approximately Sk15,000 ($300), during which the student can "learn basic tourist English, or approximately 700 to 1,000 words."

The Slovak national average salary is slightly over Sk12,000 a month, and many traditional method language schools offer courses starting at Sk60 an hour.

Experienced language teachers remain skeptical of the methods used by alpha trainers, and stress that personal factors, rather than study environments, are far more important in evaluating the quality of education processes.

"I don't trust such methods. First of all, [to learn a language], it is important to want to learn. In such a case, one can learn a foreign language even using the worst method or having the worst teacher," said Miroslav Bázlik, a language teacher from the Department of English and American Studies at Bratislava's Comenius University.

A Slovak student who wants to learn, said Bázlik, has countless study possibilities. The choices range from highly professional language schools, offering luxurious study conditions at course prices of more than half the average monthly wage, to small agencies with lower prices and a no-frills education environment.

The British Council, for example, offers three-month adult courses at just over Sk7,000, promoting its classrooms as "well-equipped with video and audio equipment," and advertising "native-speaking instructors with internationally recognised English teaching qualifications."

On the other hand, Educenta, a Bratislava-based language agency, offers a similar course for Sk2,800, saying it is conducted by either Slovak or native-speaking teachers "with experience".

It is also not unusual to see leaflets glued to bus-stop shelters announcing "anglická konverzácia" (English conversation) with a phone number attached. Although these are often not legal entities offering the courses, they are still a cheap opportunity for language-hungry Slovaks.

Insiders say potential students should choose their educators after detailed research, and should understand that knowledge is not a product that can be purchased like a consumer item.

"Some people still think they can put on these special glasses and learn English in one week," said Polák.

"There's no such thing as a funnel to pour knowledge into your head," he said.

Alpha-method experts maintain that their technique is as effective and natural a way to learn a language as any other, but admit that life offers an even better solution.

"The best method to learn a language is to fall in love with a person who speaks that language," said Bázlik. "I don't know of any better way."

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