My First Night with Rosetta Stone

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I spent my first night with a Rosetta Stone trial last night. It was better than I thought it would be, and I have a couple of quick thoughts on why it worked so well for me.

To catch you up: I've resolved to learn Spanish this year, and because I'm a technology nerd, I realized I needed to use something more than a book and some paper flashcards. So, I opened up a discussion earlier this month about what software and services I should use. My first three choices were: a simple flash card vocab app, the El País app, and a custom podcast created by my (native-speaker) father of him reading Roberto Bolaño's Los Detectives Salvages. We haven't started podcast yet, but I'm finding my other decisions are working out. (More on that soon.)

The way I've conceptualized this quest is in three three-month chunks. The first three months, I'll be rediscovering all the Spanish vocabulary I already know and refamiliarizing myself with the grammatical constructions I used to know. The next three months, I'll be finding my weaknesses and upping my level of speaking and writing. And the three months after that, I'll be really working on conversation.

I will probably end up using different applications for each of those three periods -- but I'm not going to be dogmatic about all that. For the first phase, Rosetta Stone seemed to make a lot of sense to start working with. The company gave me a free trial, but if I end up sticking with it, I will purchase the program.

Rosetta Stone is the standard against which I'm going to measure other pieces of software. Not because it's the only or even the best piece of software (I don't know that yet), but because it is by far the most heavily marketed and well-know.

Last night, I started way back at Level 1 Spanish. This is "Spot corre" (Spot runs) stuff, and it's far below what I actually know. Nonetheless, I think that's good for a little while because I can focus on the dynamics of the program.

My first thought, after I got through a miserably long installation, activation, and updating process, was that I liked it much better than a book. Using Spanish books for self-study, I tended to skip things that I thought I already knew. I didn't take the time to practice and practice and really get the basics down. In this case, because the software is setting the pace, I had to go through that learning.

Second, I'm trained by years of playing games and using applications to want to finish the level. I want to beat the game. So, when I start a lesson that has 35 components, I damn well want to get through all 35 components. Rosetta Stone makes this easier because it auto-advances. They take away all the decision points where you could decide to wander away and check your email or make un sandwich (yeah, I learned that). You finish one little lesson and you're automatically at the next one. If you are (as I know I am) a task-oriented learner, this works really well. You've always got something to do.

Third, I like talking to my computer. Rosetta Stone comes with voice recognition software that seems to work pretty well. So when I say, "La mujer nada" (The woman swims) it knows whether I said it right (or close enough to right). The great thing about this is that I have no shame in saying things out loud when there is no one in the room. You should have heard me rolling my Rs; I was just belting it out. I know I'll have to get over my fear of talking with real people, but in the meantime, I really like training with this nonjudgmental machine that requires me to talk all the time. It feels like exploiting a little loophole in my brain and I think it might help me a lot.

As for my other little steps: drilling with flash cards on the way to work and reading El País on the way home, both are really working. I'm getting back my vocab with the flash cards and pushing my comprehension with the paper. But what's more important is that the routine keeps my quest at the top of my mind. Every single morning I wake up and think, "I'm going to learn some Spanish today."

Thanks again for all of your suggestions and encouragement. I'll keep sharing tips, tricks, reviews, and the journey. Feel free to do the same!

See all posts about my tech-aided quest to learn Spanish.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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