IN FRENCH, BRIGITTE MICHEL-HEATH NEVER SWORE, NEVER SO MUCH AS A MERDE. AND when she visits friends and family in France, she still doesn't. Yet in English, her second language, she will occasionally resort to an obscenity. "It doesn't mean anything to me," she explains. "I know it's a swear word, but I have none of the emotions that go with it."

Ms. Michel-Heath is a native of France. She has lived in Baltimore for 16 years, holds degrees from a top American liberal arts college and a big state university, has read more Herman Melville and Sinclair Lewis than most Americans, and can wield her accepted English with as much finesse as you or I.

Yet an unfamiliar accent, like that of the Chesapeake Bay's Eastern Shore, or an unfamiliar expression, like "to case the joint," can throw her. And the way a slight change of preposition can make meaning abruptly change course -- as in break down, break up, break in, break out -- still drives her batty.

For Ms. Michel-Heath, after almost two decades in America, English remains "a borrowed language. It will never be my mother tongue," she says. Every year or two, when she returns home, speaking French again is like taking up where she left off with a best friend. "You wouldn't believe," she says, "what sort of psychic vacation it is." To her, English is still work, though it is no longer, as it was for so many years, hard work.

That's what many Americans don't understand about learning foreign languages: You can't expect to learn much from a year or two of it in school.

"The public doesn't know anything about foreign language learning," says Richard Brod, director of special projects with the Modern Language Association. " 'Fluent' is used so much in a sloppy, ignorant and uninformed manner." Says Ms. Michel-Heath, who has taught French in the United States: "American people tend to be so optimistic and unrealistic about learning a foreign language. They think, 'I have a French teacher. I will learn by osmosis.' They don't like to memorize."

Back in the 1960s, amidst a rash of wild claims about how one could, in the words of a Sunday magazine article, "Learn a New Language in Five Days," language expert Mario Pei observed: "It is time to stop kidding ourselves about short cuts to full language ability." There's nothing wrong with knowing a few stock phrases, he agreed. But recognize that that's just a bare smattering. Real fluency means speaking, understanding, writing and reading the language pretty much as you would your own.

Even accomplished learners will say that reaching that point is agonizingly difficult. In part, that's because of intellectual hurdles -- obscure idioms, grammatical Gordian knots, thousands of new words to learn. Think of the impenetrabilities of English spelling, where the "sh" sound can arise from a dozen letter combinations. But often the difficulty stems not so much from linguistic roadblocks as from the emotional obstacles erected by stepping into another language and culture. You feel confused, inadequate, stupid.

William Durden, who teaches German at the Johns Hopkins University and directs its Center for the Advancement of Academically Talented Youth, visited a German-speaking Swiss canton on a Fulbright scholarship. Mr. Durden already knew German, or thought he did. But the Swiss, he found, spoke a dialect almost unrecognizable to an ear tuned to stiff High German. His first day, he walked into a bakery and was instantly lost in a sea of alien sounds. "You get so nervous you tend to simply agree. Yes, yes, you say." By the time he left, he'd bought so much bread, pound and pounds of it, that he had to lug it home before he could resume his shopping expedition.

Nancy Rhodes, of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., once asked the immigrants in her English conversation class whether they had ever, in talking to native Americans, indicated they understood something when they had not. All smiled sheepishly and agreed they had. In a foreign language, says Mr. Durden, "you're out of control. And that's a terrifying feeling. Your mind is racing, but all you can do is grunt."

Being lost in a foreign language strips away part of the personal identity you wear like your clothes. "You see it on their faces when they come in here," says Arlene Wergin about the foreign students and faculty members whom she advises at Hopkins. " 'What am I doing here?' their expressions say." For European students, who often know English, it's usually not so bad. But for Hopkin's Chinese students, many with poor English skills, "it's culture shock," says Ms. Wergin. "They're extremely reserved, visibly agitated. Or else quiet and withdrawn. They just want to say, 'Please help me. Where is my department? How do I buy food?' "

The saga of immigrants who leave everything behind to start afresh in the New World occupies an honored place in American folklore. Often glossed over, however, is the stress they experience in living and working in a language not their own.

"Grown man. Sound like child." That was how an eminent Japanese scholar once described to Arlene Wergin how he felt stumbling through English. Yet Ms. Wergin has found that it's often a false kindness to ease the way for foreign students and faculty by placing them in the company of their compatriots. "They'll live with other Chinese, or Indians, do their food shopping together. And in the long run it's not help." Yet she understands the appeal such an island of familiarity can hold. "When you have a choice," she says, "you choose the easy way out. It's just easier to hang out with your own."

Mario Pei has written about Americans living abroad who mix only with other Americans, confine their reading to English and, even when talking to natives who understand no English, speak it anyway -- only more slowly and more loudly. In the end, marvels Mr. Pei, they come away wondering why, even after years abroad, more of the language didn't rub off on them. "It would have been a miracle if it had," writes Mr. Pei.

Before World War II, there was scant emphasis on getting Americans actually to speak the languages they studied. The dominant approach was the grammar-translation method, with heavy emphasis on literature, language structure and deciphering individual passages. You could go through a whole course and barely speak a word of the language.

All that changed with the war, when the U.S. government established crash programs to teach Burmese, Japanese, German and the other languages soldiers needed to know. After the war, with America a global power, educators came to realize, says the MLA's Richard Brod, "that we could no longer teach foreign languages as if they were Latin, as if you were never going to speak to a French person."

Along came the audio-lingual approach, inspired by the behaviorist theories of psychologist B. F. Skinner. Learning a language, according to the new wisdom, was like learning to ride a bike; it required the formation of new habits. The teacher would drill students with key phrases, introduce variations, build up to complex dialogues. The emphasis was on developing speech patterns, not on the words themselves. Today, the enthusiasm inspired by that approach is viewed as naive. And yet, says Richard Lutz, a Georgetown University linguist, he well recalls being in Paris during his junior year of college, wandering from cafe to cafe trying to find his way back to the hotel, parroting dialogues he'd learned in school -- and marveling that, "strange as it seemed, people could understand me."

The listen-then-speak approach ushered in the era of the language lab with its rows of reel-to-reel recorders and headsets; since then, new technologies have gone in and out of fashion. Today, commercial cassette tapes contain everything from phrase books to entire language learning courses. Some teachers tout video, with its ability to reveal gesture and expression as well as sound. Others, predictably, champion computers. And several colleges, like Bowdoin, use satellite dishes to beam in Russian language programs from the Soviet Union.

While the audio-lingual approach reduced language learning to little more than stimulus-response, the linguistics revolution touched off by Noam Chomsky restored its complexity. For Mr. Chomsky, language was innate, the human brain a language-constructing instrument. That a child could learn "Mommy" and "sock," than fashion them into some new linguistic entity, like "mommysock," meant, to Mr. Chomsky, that language was not just mechanically learned behavior; the child was doing something with, and to, the language. In arguing that the mind of the learner was no mere black box between input and output, Mr. Chomsky undermined the basis for the audio-lingual approach and triggered research leading to numerous insights about how people learn second languages.

Among the insights was confirmation that emotional factors, including anxiety and motivation, can indeed inhibit or enhance learning. You may have all the intellectual skills needed to absorb a language, but if your "affective filter" interferes, the intellect never gets its chance.

Another current notion is that if the student can simply listen and absorb at first, without having to spew back responses, he is apt to make better progress in the long run. Such a "silent period," which may range from a few weeks to several months, apparently aids comprehension, which ultimately benefits speaking ability. A young child naturally has that advantage.

Much more has been learned in the three decades since publication of Mr. Chomsky's "Syntactic Structures," but the language classroom has failed to make use of much of it, at least not to the extent of supplanting the audio-lingual method with any single, universally accepted "best" approach.

Douglas McNeal, a policy analyst with the National Science Foundation's division of international programs, declares unabashedly that when it comes to learning languages, "some people have it and some don't," a sentiment shared by many in the foreign language community. But sheer language aptitude (of the sort measured on standardized tests) and even raw intelligence apparently play only a small part in determining who will succeed. Personal learning strategies, and personality itself, seem to be more important. When you ask Arlene Wergin, who has seen hundreds of foreign students come through her office, to describe the good language learners among them, she replies unhesitatingly: "They are naturally gregarious and outgoing. They enjoy interactions. They're not afraid to make fools of themselves. They are people who just barrel ahead."

She could have been describing Mr. McNeal.

Twenty years ago, he was among an early group of Peace Corps volunteers to go to Korea to teach English. While still in the States, his group got five hours of language training every day. "We memorized little talks: 'Please help me. I don't speak Korean. But I want to learn.' "

Except for its phonetic alphabet (whose standardization 500 years ago is still celebrated as a Korean national holiday), the language is extremely difficult. As in Japanese, the relative status of speaker and listener governs the forms of speech. A soldier learning Korean in the bars of Seoul might use one of the two lower forms. In the Peace Corps, they learned only the upper two.

So after three months, though finishing near the top of his class, Mr. McNeal still had only a 1+ rating on the Foreign Service Institute's 0-to-5 scale, where 0 represents total ignorance, and 5 means you could be taken for an educated native speaker. Still, as he describes his proficiency at the time, "You don't know much, but you know enough. You can speak all day and all night."

And that, apparently, is what he did on arriving in Korea. For two years he lived with a Korean family in a small town. The family had five children, "so I could pick it up at any level." After another year based in Seoul, he left the Peace Corps at the 3 level. Entering training to become an interpreter, he was soon at the coveted 4 level, lacking only a native accent and a native's rootedness in Korean culture.

At age 28, Mr. McNeal began learning Japanese. Seven years later, he took on Chinese. Though he ranks it as easier than

Korean, he found it "as hard, at 35, as Korean was at 22." Now, in his early 40s, he says, smiling, "I'm an old man. I'm an old man. I'm not going to learn any more of these hard languages." But along the way, he's learned something about how to learn languages. And here's some of his advice:

*"What you need to learn most is all around you. It's best just to ask." It might take 10 encounters with a word before it sinks in. But you're apt to pick up everyday words the first time -- because they are useful. His rule of thumb? "If it's not bumping up against me, it's probably not very important."

*The worst way to understand what's being said is to try to grasp hold of every word as it hurtles past you. Doesn't work, he says. As soon as you hit the first unfamiliar phrase, you start to go under. So just let the words "flow over you."

*Cultivate "a tolerance for ambiguity." Using a new language means living amid perpetual uncertainty, never quite knowing what's going on. "You have to be willing to relax and absorb the larger context."

*Go easy on yourself. You may have all manner of verbal nuances available to you in English. But you must accept that you can't express them yet in your new language. Imagine a funnel: Your thoughts fill the wide end but, to get out, must pass through the constricted neck, which represents what you're able to express. So look for simple ways to convey complex notions. you think, "Had I learned mechanical drawing . . . " You say instead, "If I could draw . . . "

Mr. McNeal's is just one person's experience. Yet the lessons he draws from it seem to mesh with those of others who have successfully piloted through the thick fogs of an alien milieu. Indeed, for all the disagreement about how best to teach foreign languages, shift the focus to how people learn them and you find the same few principles cropping up again and again, often reflecting an emotional wisdom rather than intellectual skills.

The foremost lesson is to interact with the language. You don't learn a language passively; you have to go out to it. Kids in the Netherlands who routinely hear German television do not learn German, notes Georgetown's Richard Lutz. Spend a few months in Europe and will you pick up the language? Maybe yes, maybe no. "It takes courage and a spirit of adventure to enter the marketplace, mingle with the natives, listen to them, mimic them, ultimately speak with them," Mario Pei has written. Not everyone can do it.

Few other academic disciplines demand such a casting away of inhibitions. In most other areas of learning, students are well advised to think out beforehand what the answer is and then, when sure, supply it. Math, science, history, literature -- all profit from careful, reasoned thought rather than stabs in the dark.

But that's just the wrong way to learn a language. Former Baltimore Sun foreign correspondent Arnold Isaacs tells of once asking the archbishop of Guatemala City, at a news conference after his release by kidnappers, whether he was casado after his ordeal. Wrong. He meant cansado, "tired." Instead, he had asked the archbishop whether he was married, inspiring a flurry of laughs. "You're guessing all the time," says Nancy Rhodes. The student of language who tries to learn without erring won't. Making mistakes, lots of them, is essential. So is laughing them off.

Despite a doctorate in Thai and grounding in French, Hindi and Sanskrit, Georgetown University language expert Ralph Fasold

does not rate himself a good learner of spoken language. Getting in the way, he feels, is his tendency toward perfectionism. "I hate to sound like a kid, stumbling around in a foreign language," he says. And yet, anecdote and research agree, it's kids who actually learn languages best.

A child raised on, say, Hindi and English, can usually slip &L; effortlessly between the two. In fact, the evidence seems to suggest that achieving a native's pronunciation demands learning the language before adolescence. "You've got to learn to roll your r's before the age of 10 or you're not going to learn it," notes one language authority.

The extraordinary language skills of children have been variously attributed to their more plastic brains, less dominated by one hemisphere or the other: to "ego permeability" that permits language to reach them more readily; to freedom from adult inhibitions. Another factor, suggests Stephen Krashen, a University of Southern California expert in second languages, is that children and adults inhabit different language environments; speaking to kids, we use simpler words and stick closer to here-and-now specifics. Both factors made comprehension easier.

And yet, seen another way, there may be nothing so extraordinary at all about the linguistic ability of children. After all, they begin absorbing language the day they are born. As Case Western Reserve University's Sharon Scinicriello notes, "They're in it as long as they're awake." The 5-year-old Parisian kid who speaks perfect French? Why, he's already spent perhaps 18,000 hours in the intimate company of the French language, points out Eleanor Jorden of Johns Hopkins' National Foreign Language Center. All that time, he's been bathed in its sounds, its grammar, its idioms. That's "total immersion" with a vengeance.

The MLA's Richard Brod notes that even five years of a total immersion class -- say for six hours a day, five days a week -- would grant far less exposure to the language over the same time. How, he asks, can we expect anything from a three-credit college language course that might add up to 100 classroom hours in a year? Should we be surprised that Americans can speak and understand so little when they squeeze French class between band practice, physics lab and gym? No, he and others insist, the even-the-5-year-olds-can-speak-it argument, far from proving how easy language learning ought to be, suggests how hard it really is.

One roadblock to learning a language, after all, is vocabulary. Learn all the grammar, verb endings and linguistic patterns you like, but without words, you can't communicate. A cultivated speaker can know 30,000 words. And the only way to learn them is . . . to learn them. "It takes lots of memorizing," says the Library of Congress' Deanna Hammond. Studying Spanish in college, she spent hour after hour in the language lab. When she tackled German, picking up credit for two years of course work in eight weeks, she was in class for eight hours a day. Then she'd go home and memorize 100 words a night.

William Durden remembers going out of his way to talk to Swiss shopkeepers, timing his visits to avoid the busiest shopping hours so they'd have the patience for his fumbling. Any departures he noted from his schoolbook German he would record in his notebook. "You have to take a deliberate approach," he says. "The time will come when one morning you wake up and you can have a conversation without thinking about But that moment doesn't come from just speaking the language. It comes from studying it."

And it comes from wanting to learn it; motivation counts. Georgetown's Ralph Fasold tells of a town in Austria -- bilingual in German and Hungarian for 100 years -- where Hungarian today shows signs of dying out. In recent years, it seems, Hungarian has become associated with peasant life, German with progress. "I'm not a farmer who picks potatoes and shovels cow cr--" is how Mr. Fasold interprets the language decisions the townspeople are making. Similar forces, he reports, have

replaced Gaelic with English in a much-studied Scottish fishing community, and have kept New Yorkers from learning Puerto Rican Spanish.

But while it helps to be motivated and to work hard, the inescapable truth is that, no matter how hard you work at learning a foreign language and pen- etrating a foreign culture, you never really get there. Even in one's mother tongue that's true. We can't know the language of ballet and the jargon of immunology and the special slang of the underworld. Nor can we all be poets or gifted public speakers. In a foreign language, much more remains out of reach.

When she first came to the Library of Congress, Deanna Hammond found it humbling that, after years of studying Spanish and living in Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador, she could not express basic legal terms in Spanish. After 3 1/2 years outside the United States, her English also had holes in it. "What in hell is a 'hang-up?' " she remembers thinking. "What's a 'flip-top can?' "

Beyond the specialized and shifting vocabularies of a second language, what makes learning it a lifetime's work is that the words themselves become hopelessly enmeshed in culture.

Tourists encounter culture shock, of course, within moments of arriving in a foreign country. But some scholars have identified a "second wave" of culture shock, where an already accomplished user of the language begins to run up against false turns and roadblocks not evident at first. The result, write William R. Acton and Judith Walker de Felix in "Culture Bound," is a kind of " 'permanent immigrant' state, where one is always able to understand the words but is never completely capable of comprehending all of their connotations."

When political scientist Chan Wook Park first taught classes at the University of Iowa five years ago, some of his students complained about his thick, Korean-accented pronunciation. Among other problems, he couldn't distinguish the long e from the short, and mentioning an "evaluation sheet" was apt to provoke titters from the class.

But after two semesters, and help from American friends, Mr. Park's English improved. A turning point came when he had to deliver a formal, hour-long lecture to an auditorium packed with 500 people. He prepared for it carefully. "My colleagues praised my performance," he says.

Today Mr. Park speaks clearly and writes well. The word order of English, which once seemed bizarre to him, now is largely a solved problem, and he has a good position teaching at Franklin & Marshall College.

And yet, he admits, "I still have difficulties." One is slang. Another is Johnny Carson.

He listens intently as the star of the "Tonight Show" steps through the curtain and begins his opening monologue. Mr. Carson's sly throwaway lines provoke uproarious laughter from the studio audience and in millions of homes across America. Mr. Park listens to every word, understands every word. And never laughs.

ROBERT KANIGEL'S last story for the magazine was on slide rules.

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