Learning a new language made easy

If learning a new language is on your list of things to do, there are several products out there to help make that happen. The trick seems to be finding one that will work for each individual and some are a better fit than others.

Back in 2007 Gadling’s Jamie Rhein introduced us to Rosetta Stone, an interactive computer software program that has been proven effective even in elementary school children. Still, the price tag of $449 per language for levels 1-5 may make many think twice. Just trying German, for example, takes $179 to get started.

Babbel, the browser based language learning program also has a mobile app for learning on the go. Both versions come with a speech recognition feature to give users a real time score on their pronunciation.
Perhaps just right to help prep for that next trip, there are various scenarios to learn from like culinary, shopping, urban, etc. Users can take beginner to advanced courses in up to 11 different languages.

Pricing is unique too. Babbel charges by the month for unlimited use starting at $12.95 with no long-term commitment or barely used box staring us in the face when our efforts fail. Prices go down by pre-paying with a six-month subscription priced at $7.95 per month.

Not sure? Babbel will let users try it for free.

The Babbel program has a good track record too with over 1 million users in 2011 in 200 countries. Planning a dream trip to Sweden, I tried a sample lesson and found that Dette kan fungere for mig (this might work for me).

Flickr photo by ob1left

Useful foreign phrases, Part 2: how to say, “Can you write this down for me?” in 10 languages

A post written by Chris on Tuesday reminded me of this little language series I started in March. In “Ten things Ugly Americans need to know before visiting a foreign land,” Chris recommended brushing up on the local language. He joked about dashing around Venice clutching his concierge’s handwritten note, “Do you have 220/110 plug converters for this stupid American who left his at home?”

Thanks, Chris, because I’ve had this post sitting in my queue for awhile, as I debated whether or not my phrase of choice would appear useful to readers. It’s saved my butt many a time, when a generous concierge or empathetic English-speaker would jot down crucial directions to provide to a cab driver. It’s also helped me out when I’ve embarked on long-distance journeys that require me to get off at an unscheduled stop.

I have a recurring nightmare in which I board the wrong bus or train in a developing nation, and end up in some godforsaken, f—ed up place in the wee hours. Actually, that’s happened to me more than once, except I was actually in my intended destination. So the other piece of advice I’d like to impart is: do some research ahead of time on accommodations and how to reach them as safely as possible if you’re arriving anywhere in the wee hours–especially if you’re alone, regardless of your gender.

I digress. Before your next trip to a foreign land, take the time to scribble the words, “Can you (please) write this down for me?” in your guidebook or dog-ear it in your phrasebook (you’re bringing one, right? Right?). It will serve you well, I promise you. Below, how to make this useful request in ten languages.

P.S. It bears repeating that I’m far from a polylinguist; I’m relying on phrases based on past experience or research. If I inadvertently offend anyone’s native tongue, please provide a correction in the “Comments” section.

1. Spanish (Catalan): ?Puedes escribirlo, por favor?

2. Italian: Può ripeterlo, per favore?

3. French: Pourriez-vous, l’écrire, s’il vous plait?

4. German: Könnten Sie das bitte aufschreiben?

5. Czech: Můžete prosím napsat to pro mě?

6. Portuguese: Escreva, se faz favor.

As I noted in my Part 1, many languages, including those spoken throughout Asia and the Middle East, use written characters. For that reason, transliteration will vary, which is why the spelling or phonetics may differ. These languages are also tonal in nature, which makes them notoriously intimidating to Westerner travelers. Just smile, do your best, and have your pen and paper handy.

7. Chinese (Cantonese): Ng goi nei bong ngo se dai.

8. Japanese: Anata ga shite kudasai watashi no tame ni sore o kakikomu koto ga dekimasu ka?

9. Vietnamese: Có thể bạn hãy viết ra cho tôi?

10. Moroccan Arabic: Ktebha līya.

What useful phrases have helped you on your travels? Please tell us!

[Photo credits: pencil, Flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography; tourist, Flickr user Esteban Manchado]

Compromise over Rosetta Stone fight?

Dr. Zahi Hawass, the head of Egyptian Antiquities Council, has offered a compromise in his battle with the British Museum over the return of the Rosetta Stone.

The stone was discovered by French archaeologists in 1799 but went to the British Empire in 1801 as spoils of war after they ejected Napoleon from Egypt. It’s one of the most important of ancient Egyptian artifacts because it has the same text written in hieroglyphs, demotic (another Egyptian script), and ancient Greek. Until its discovery nobody could read ancient Egyptian, but Greek had never been forgotten. The key to unlock one of the world’s greatest civilizations had been found.

The Rosetta Stone is one of the treasures of the British Museum, but Dr. Hawass has been leading a fight to get it back. Now he’s said he’ll stop if the British Museum loans the stone to Egypt for a few months.

If it did make it back to Egypt, it would probably be displayed in Cairo’s newly revamped National Museum, a jaw-dropping collection of ancient treasures.

The Brits might want to take him up on this. Dr. Hawass has been a tireless crusader and has already gotten the Metropolitan Museum of Art to return a stolen artifact and had a similar victory with the Louvre. He’s shown he won’t give up until Egypt’s heritage is back home.

Rosetta Stone TOTALe – Can you really learn a language online?

Rosetta Stone contacted me and (full disclosure) sent me a free trial of their new Totale program. This online-based language learning system includes:

  • Social networking capabilities
  • Coach-led practice sessions
  • Engaging language games and access to native speakers
  • Encouragement from customer success agents

But can you really learn a language online? This is what I set to find out, because quick online language learning would be really helpful for travelers like you and me.

I chose to receive the Mandarin Chinese course, as I have four years of Mandarin under my belt. I wanted to be able to properly assess the way the language was taught. I donned and tested my headset (which they make very easy), and jumped in to Unit 1, Lesson 1.

My immediate reaction was that, firstly, it’s really fun. The program uses photos and tries to get you to intuitively understand the subjects, for example, that one photo is of a young girl, and the next photo is a group of adult women. The system says the words in Chinese and displays them on the screen, and you click the picture to which you think the phrase corresponds. If you’re right, you get a satisfying “Ding!” of approval. It makes you feel smart.

When it came to the computer recognizing my speech, I was very impressed by the speed at which I could speak and still be understood (and really glad I don’t have roommates). One thing that concerned me about the program was the reading/writing. Chinese doesn’t use regular letters (though a Pin Yin system of letters is widely used in teaching the language), nor do they even have an alphabet. Could this package teach anyone to read and write? I’ll come back to that.I brushed up on my Mandarin just in time to take a trip to Singapore, and it definitely helped me understand the conversations people had around me (which they thought I couldn’t understand). The lessons featured multiple male and female speakers with slightly different accents which helped broaden my ear. I didn’t get that far in the program, but I found the lessons extremely well-organized. The games were sort of mindless entertainment with learning injected by osmosis, which I think is pretty smart. If you just couldn’t stand another lesson, you could play a game instead and still get some benefits.

The social networking was pretty quiet (I only saw a few people “Online” in my course at a time), but it was there. The opportunity to set up coach-led sessions with a native speaker was priceless, though, and everyone I interacted with on the site was helpful and encouraging, even when I had a technical query.

After my trial, I still had a few unanswered questions (like, what about idioms that mean “porn”?), so I chatted via e-mail with the Director of Learning, Duane Sider:

Gadling: Do the lessons adjust according to my performance, or are they the same no matter what?

Duane Sider: Language introduced in Rosetta Stone solutions is carefully sequenced to provide systematic and comprehensive language learning — in all key language skills — from the very beginning. Reviews for each Lesson assess the learner’s mastery of the Lesson content. Using a proprietary technology called Adaptive Recall, the Reviews reappear at strategic intervals based on the learner’s performance, ensuring that language learned in the lesson is stored in long-term memory. Scoring is calculated for each screen of every Core Lesson and Focused Activity, and it is presented as a percentage cumulative score throughout the lesson and at the end. Learners can revisit lessons and activities any number of times to reinforce the language and skills they have learned.

G: Where does Rosetta Stone get the images? Are they stock photos or is there a massive Rosetta photography project?

DS: About 60% of our photos in the product are taken by our own photographers and a few contract photographers, and 40% are purchased from stock photography. Because images alone convey the meaning of new language learned in the Rosetta Stone immersion environment, we pay careful attention to the quality, clarity and significance of every photograph selected for use in Rosetta Stone solutions.

G: I noticed that within Chinese Unit One, you are taught to say “yellow book.” “Yellow book” is a colloquial way to say “porn magazine” in China. Does the TOTALe program teach idiomatic phrases?

DS: We try to teach language that is natural and relevant, and this would include idioms and common expressions. However, we do not treat idioms as a separate topic of study, so we do not have any specially designed sections of the course that focus on idioms. Regarding “yellow book” in Chinese, we do NOT teach the colloquial meaning of this term. We only use images that clearly show a book that is yellow (not a porn magazine), so that it is clear that we are teaching the standard word for “yellow” and the standard word for “book” rather than any colloquial meaning of the phrase.

G: While I saw characters, I didn’t get to any writing, and know that writing in Chinese is very complicated (you have to draw the characters with the correct stroke order, etc.). In cases like Chinese, where the traditional writing is not done with letters (or even an alphabet), does Rosetta teach how to write at some point?

DS: In Rosetta Stone Writing activities — in the Core Lessons and in the activities focused on writing — learners use the letters or character sets from the language they are learning to write words, phrases and sentences. Learners are not required to manually draw individual letters and characters.

So, there you have it folks. Rosetta Stone TOTALe is a highly comprehensive and fun language-teaching system and it will totally (no pun intended) help prepare you for traveling abroad, but don’t expect to learn to write in Chinese or become a reading scholar. If you’re just looking to learn to speak and understand, I’d say this is one of the very best options out there — especially as you can do it on your own hours (3 AM lesson, anyone) from the comfort of your own home. So, can you really learn a language online? With this much help, including live teachers just a keystroke away, I’d say yes.

The cost for all this individual attention is usually $1,199 for a year of unlimited online access, an audio kit and all the lessons, but they currently have an introductory offer of just $999. Click here to see if they have the language you want to learn!

Rosetta Stone’s Adams: World travelers should learn Spanish, Chinese

International travelers know what a formidable barrier a foreign language can be. From time to time, language spills over into the headlines – as it did last week when Fidel Castro insisted his brother’s comments about political reform in Cuba were “misunderstood.” Tom Adams knows about language barriers and how to overcome them. He’s the chief executive of Rosetta Stone. Yeah, the company with the ads featuring a hardworking farm boy and an Italian supermodel. I spoke with him recently.

Q: Can you get along with just English when you travel internationally?

Adams: You can if you’re traveling to major cities and don’t plan to really engage. However if you’re trying to go into the field and really discover a culture and a country, then yes, you do need another language. I think that anyone who has successfully learned another language knows that the benefits are tremendous. Those that experience success communicating in a new language often describe it as life-changing.

Q: Let me confess, I’m one of the people who makes fun the tourists who try to learn a language before they visit another country, or worse, they tote around a phrase book and read from it. Convince me of the error of my ways.
Adams: I would tend to agree, people that try to get by with a phrase book don’t get very far. It’s better if people can learn a language the way they learned their first language, without translation, so they have an intuition behind the language when they are actually in country. I think it is wonderful that people make the effort to try and go deeper into the cultures that they explore when they are traveling. Locals will give you points for trying and it makes life more fun.

Q: As a student of linguistics in college, I always thought total immersion – which to me always meant dating a native speaker – was the best way to learn another language. Was I wrong?

Adams: There is no doubt that immersion-based instruction is the way to learn a new language. In fact, I would challenge that those who try to learn any other way are highly likely to fail. Dating someone from another country is not enough to learn a language, though it is very stimulating.

The problem is that if they speak your language you’re likely to stay in your comfort zone and use your native language. An instructional immersion environment forces you to use the language. If you’re learning the right way with the right immersion tool or service, then having a boyfriend or girlfriend that speaks that language natively provides a great opportunity for practice – as well as motivation.

Q: Why don’t more Americans speak a second language?

Adams: Fundamentally, Americans have not had the opportunity to use the right methods. Most Americans use grammar translation and classroom solutions to memorize vocabulary, translate the language and pass the test.

Learning another language works better when it’s done in a natural way and you can leverage your own language learning ability. If given the opportunity to learn with the right tools, Americans – like others around the world – can learn languages with great levels of success. Of course, many Americans do not travel internationally as much as Europeans, for instance, so there is less opportunity to use the language – and that does not help.

Q: If you’re monolingual, and had to pick just one language to learn, what would it be?

Adams: Choosing a language to learn is a very personal decision. I decided to learn Chinese because I was being relocated to work there. I know others who have learned Russian because they are married to someone of Russian origin. It’s a very personal thing.

Q: What are the advantages of knowing another language, particularly from a traveler’s perspective?

Adams: If you want to engage a culture and feel somewhat independent when you’re traveling, then learning and knowing another language is critical. Imagine the reward from being able to greet people and have basic ways of introducing yourself and making that initial connection.

Add to that the freedom and independence when you can experience a country without being restricted to English. Imagine being in China and being able to say “I would like to buy that for a cheaper price, what can you do for me?” If you do gain real proficiency in the language and are able to communicate on a social level with friends that you make – that takes the trip to a whole new level. Someone that speaks even basic Portuguese will have a completely different level of experience when traveling in Brazil. It’s life changing.

Q: Which languages do you speak, and how did you learn them?

Adams: I speak Swedish, English and French fluently. I learned all three languages through immersion. Swedish is my native language and I learned the other two as a result of living in France and England as a child. I’ve studied Spanish by going to Spain and spending time there at a language center and living with Spanish students. I also have a basic knowledge of German and Chinese, which gives me some freedom and empowerment when I am traveling in those countries. I learned Chinese by living in the country and using an earlier version of Rosetta Stone.

Q: Which is the most difficult language to learn, from your perspective – and why?

Adams: All languages are learned by people as they grow up. For example, an Arabic boy learns Arabic just as easy as an English boy learns English. There is really no difference. And yet as adults, we try to rely on our own language to learn the new language. Whether you’re learning Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Swedish, Polish, Russian you’re really learning the same way. All languages can be learned provided that you learn them the right way.

Q: When you’re learning a new language, you make rookie mistakes. Do you have any favorites you’ve heard?

Adams: When I was learning Chinese, one of the challenges I had was that the word “is” or “am” is pronounced essentially the same way. Depending upon the tone in Chinese, “shi” means either “shit” or “am.” In the beginning of my Chinese language learning experience, I would say “I am Tom Adams.” However, I was actually saying, “I shit Tom Adams.”

Q: How many languages should a world traveler know? And which ones?

Adams: At least one other language, but preferably two. In today’s world, if you know Spanish and Chinese you’re in a great position. You can travel throughout the Americas or to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and a huge number of people are able to understand you. Chinese and Spanish are of course important for business.

Q: If you could change one thing about one language – declensions, script, inflection – what would it be?

Adams: If I could change one thing about the languages that I have studied it would be the tones in Chinese. I found using tones very challenging since it conveys alternate meaning and it relies on your aural muscles and their ability to interpret those different sounds. It takes a while but soon you get there and there is no way around it.

Christopher Elliott is a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler. For more interviews, check out his travel blog.