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]

On Celebrity Cruises X marks a change to on board experiences

Cruise lines continue to hack away at what we think of them. Pretty much burried are images of shuffleboard, bingo, and “just old folks” on the ships. Now, they are moving forward with intense new branding efforts that are making for clear choices between lines.

It wasn’t all that long ago that if your answer to “Where did you go on vacation?” was “on a cruise” that similar images, impressions and perceptions would come up. Cruise vacations really were quite similar between lines and “on a cruise” was a good, accurate answer.

Now, cruise lines are clearly focused on defining their brands and making sure you know it.

Celebrity Cruises, traditionally seen as a more upscale line with a more fancy onboard experience, is taking it’s signature “X” icon to a different level with a new theme “X the rules”. This is different than Norwegian Cruise Line’s “Freestyle Cruising” that promotes how guests are “free to do whatever…” It’s different than sister-line Royal Caribbean’s “Land of why not?” campaign.

Celebrity Cruises is promoting change through a “trendsetting onboard experience”, different than other lines. Still upscale, Celebrity “iLounges” offer the latest Apple technologies and invite guests to become immersed in new applications through “iLearn” courses. Celebrity also offers vacationers the chance to learn a new language through Rosetta Stone, become immersed in the culture of the destinations with experts from Smithsonian Journeys, or taste the difference a glass makes in comparative wine tastings with Riedel Crystal.

Yes, there’s still bingo and you can find shuffleboard if you look for it. But Celebrity ships, new and old, are going after a unique onboard experience that won’t be for everyone. That’s a new direction for cruise lines in general who wanted to be everything to everybody for so long as the industry was developing.

While only an estimated 20% of the U.S. population has taken a cruise, the Cruise Lines International Association predicts strong growth in the future. If the individual lines have anything to say about it, they will find you, sail with you, and be everything you ever wanted in a vacation.

As Celebrity might have said in the not-nearly-as-well-defined past “It’s all about you”.

Flickr photo by sailorbabe80

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!