At Her School, Language Barriers Simply Crumble

As the global market continues to expand, executives find themselves conducting an increasing amount of their business in foreign countries – forcing many business travelers to attempt to master a language in a minimal amount of time.

Enter language pro Michele S. Ross, who speaks six languages fluently, and knows a fair amount of another four.

As the owner and president of Corporate Language Workshops in Chesterbrook, over in Chester County, Ross says she needs only 15 days to prep an executive for a trip abroad. Okay, she'll admit, it may be a bit closer to a month when it comes to tougher languages like Hebrew, Chinese or Japanese.

"It's not a miracle; it's just a lot of lessons crammed together," explains Ross, 62, who ideally puts students through 195 training sessions in that 15-day time span. "What makes it work is the method."

No English, Please!
That method includes intensive drills where students are encouraged to speak only in the new language, without reverting back to their own. Ross won't even speak in a student's native tongue during the process.

"Every word that you use in English [or the student's original language] is really a waste of time," she says in a pronounced French accent.

During elementary drills, Ross draws simple pictures or points to objects so that students will use what they see as a way of visual recognition. In a Hebrew lesson, for example, Ross will hold up a book, and have the student repeat the word sefer.

Ross, though, frowns upon language classes that force students to memorize long lists of vocabulary words.

Instead, she focuses on teaching people the "active language" in the hope that once overseas, they can use their skills to navigate everyday situations.

"You're better off with a few words that you can really use, rather than understanding a lot and not being able to use it," she believes.

Ross' interest in languages came at an early age, when her parents moved from Belgium to Israel after World War II.

"After the war, my parents were idealists, Zionists. So they decided to move to Israel," says Ross, who lived in Israel from age 5 to 13. While learning to speak Hebrew, she also studied English and spoke French at home.

Her family moved to Africa for three years in the early 1960s. There, she increased her language skills by picking up a little Swahili.

After college in Belgium, the then 22-year-old moved with her family to the United States. Despite a degree in fine arts, she found a job teaching foreign languages. Soon, she realized that she had the skills to develop a similar business of her own.

"I improved their methods and developed my own," states Ross, who in the late 1970s started Language Workshops, which later changed to its current name, Corporate Language Workshops.

"I realized that I was good enough to do it. Why would I do it for someone else when I can do it for myself?"

Ross' business mainly services large companies like IBM and Unisys, which typically house one of her teachers at their facilities for a certain period of time so that multiple employees can take lessons before upcoming trips.

"We've had offices in some companies for 15 years," proclaims Ross, who prefers to employ native-language speakers as teachers.

Summing up the professional path her life has taken, Ross looks back without a trace of nostalgia to the first language job she ever had, saying: "I compete with that company now."



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