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.

Presented by

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.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?

In a series of candid video interviews, women talk about self-image, self-judgment, and what it means to love their bodies

Elsewhere on the web


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In