EVERY STUDENT has a preferred way of learning. Where one might prefer the structure offered by a traditional classroom, another may find a more interactive, or even a distance-learning approach more suited to their needs. Finding a language provider that meets personal requirements depends largely on those preferences, but it is worth keeping in mind that learning a language is about learning to communicate. The process is different from mastering accountancy or strategic analysis, for example. To study a language means eventually to be able to understand it and practise speaking, reading or writing it. Alison Ridley, acting head of the Centre for Professional Business English at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said there were four components to language learning: exposure, motivation, use and instruction. The last component was not essential, but could be useful when the student was not immersed in the target language, she said. Studies have found motivation to be far more indicative of success than age or ability. The centre provides public and company courses, offering foundation, speaking and writing programmes and business English, as well as workshops in management communication targeted at managers and executives who need high-level English. Faye Man, senior centre director at the Wall Street Institute, said the best way for students to learn a language was in a relaxed environment while communicating with others. The institute, which provides tuition to adults who need to use English for their work, applies the same teaching method throughout its centres worldwide. The method is based on the same way native speakers learn to speak their own language. 'No matter which language we learned as children, we all learned to speak it the same way,' Ms Man said. 'It came to us naturally through listening, speaking, reading and writing, and we acquired it simply through day-to-day practice - learning the language without consciously being aware of it.' The institute combines computer-based multimedia learning with small group lessons. An English cafe provides a 'real-life' situation to practise, and training centres are English-speaking environments only. The pace of a course is personalised to suit individual needs, allowing students to acquire the language naturally with minimum effort. 'Students learn faster than they could in a traditional classroom where they might be faced with large classes, fixed timetables and little personal attention,' Ms Man said. At Executive Mandarin, teaching methods are centred on a core curriculum based on academic research on language learning: multimedia delivery, interesting activities, role-playing and structured lessons. Programme manager Helen Cheung said teachers focused on how individual students responded to different techniques, and on keeping them motivated to study. The school offers different streams for different learners: speakers of other Chinese dialects, people with no familiarity of Mandarin, and children. Its teaching process for corporate clients is based on a method called Advance (Assess your objective; Design the course curriculum to achieve your objectives; Verify the curriculum meets your needs; Administer training; Nurture the learning process and the students; Creative learning solutions tailored to students' needs; and Evaluate results and progress). Ms Cheung said while most approaches to language learning did not vary much, programmes at Executive Mandarin were based on feedback from teachers and clients. 'We conduct a lot of linguistics research, train our teachers and have teacher meetings for them to discuss approaches that work well with certain students. It is a structured yet iterative process that is very results-orientated.' Language programmes at the Open University of Hong Kong provide a slightly different learning route. Based on the university's general policy of distance learning, students receive course materials to work through, but its language programmes also provide for plenty of opportunities to practise. 'To learn a language, you need to understand and practise the language,' said Li Kam-cheong, assistant professor and programme leader of language enhancement courses at the university's School of Education and Languages. 'Open University provides multimedia material specifically designed to help master comprehension skills.' The university has added several new programmes to its list since October, including an Associate of Language Studies (English), a Postgraduate Certificate in Chinese Studies for Language Teaching, and a bachelor's degree in Chinese language and literature. Experts generally agree that native speakers ultimately provide better tuition than non-native speakers. Ms Ridley said they shared a culture, in particular, and a knowledge of a first language, and could therefore anticipate learner problems. Non-native speakers provided less opportunity of natural exposure and might teach poor pronunciation. While non-native speakers might have a sound theoretical knowledge of the language, Ms Man said, they rarely mastered it to the level of a native speaker. 'The native speaker teacher provides a most natural and authentic environment for communicating,' she said. What to look for in a language provider and its teachers The institution should have a solid background; It should have the ability to run programmes cost-effectively; and There should be quality academics and teachers on its staff. A good teacher should: Have enthusiasm for the subject; Have knowledge and experience of the language; Have language that is a good model to learn from; Have the ability to understand a students' needs; Have problem-solving abilities and empathy; and Be able to understand why and when a student makes mistakes, and know how to help the student improve.