Gizmo Watch April 2007

Total (Onscreen) Immersion

No gimmicks make learning a foreign language easy. But there are tools to make it less hard. When I’m headed for a taxi or subway in China, I carry a bunch of flash cards, the best tools I’ve found for learning (and relearning) written characters. The Canon Word Tank V-80, a small handheld device I now carry with me, has a screen on which I sketch in a character I see on a sign or in the paper and then get a translation, plus pronunciation from a digitized voice.

The tool that intrigues me now is Rosetta Stone, the language-learning program sold in booths at airports and advertised in many magazines, including this one. At first its approach struck me as bizarre. The lessons, available for purchase on CD-ROM for around $200 or online for $50 a month (I bought the CDs), contain absolutely no explanation of grammar or vocabulary, or any other information in English. They consist instead of a seemingly endless series of four-panel photos, with a native speaker of Mandarin (or whatever) offering a description of what is taking place in one of the photos. “The boy is falling down.” “A young woman is driving the blue car.” You can choose whether to hear the description, see it in writing, or both. You click on the screen to choose which photo best corresponds to the description.

The whole process, as I was told by Duane Sider, Rosetta Stone’s director of learning, “is meant to mimic the immersion process by which we all learn to understand and speak a language as children.” You can repeat what you have heard, using your computer’s microphone. A “voice print” then appears onscreen, showing how the tone, pitch, and emphasis of what you said matches (or in my case, varies from) the native speaker’s. (The company’s Web site offers free demo lessons.) My ear for language is poor, and this visual feedback has helped me improve my pronunciation, including the dreaded Chinese tones, more than ordinary teachers could. It’s a shrewd use of computerized technology.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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