What's the Best Language-Learning Technology Out There?


I'm starting off 2011 with a big personal and professional goal: to end the year conversationally competent in Spanish. There, I said it. Mira, lo dije.

momdadawwww.jpgMy father is from Mexico and my next big project will center on our family (more on that some other time), so it's come time to get serious. I'm not starting from zero. My vocabulary is decent because I've dabbled in Spanish through the years, always with dilettantish intensity before and after trips or extended stays in Mexico or Spain. But I've never been able to take on the grinding, grueling aspects of long-term language acquisition. I'm good at daily hard work in other aspects of my life (actually, I love it), so it has always mystified me that I haven't been able to stick with the program when it came to Spanish.

This past month, I think I figured it out (in part). My life is task-based. Write this post, finish proofing this book chapter, edit this essay, run five miles, meet up with old friend, etc. But learning Spanish has never been like that for me. Instead, it's so vague. I should go home and look at my flash cards maybe or take out that old Spanish book (say, Madrigal's Magic Key to Spanish with illustrations by Andy Warhol).

But now I want to get serious. I could take a class, but with the irregularity of my schedule and a bunch of travel planned, I feel like that would be a recipe for failure. The default, it would seem, would be to buy Rosetta Stone. There, the price (something like $500 for Levels 1, 2, and 3) is both deterrent but also benefit. You put out $500 and you've got some real skin in the game; you have to get your money's worth.

So, that's my current plan. But I wanted to check with you all first because it seems like this would be a field where innovation could really make things better, if not easier. There must be dozens of startups trying to harness the power of social media, online services, rich audiovisual experiences, etc to create the next-generation language learning platform, right?

I'd love to hear from you if you're running one of these startups or you've used a new service or if you've got some personal technology-based technique that you think really works.

Here's what I'm looking for. I'm willing to spend something like 10-15 hours a week. I need to be able to do just about all of that work in the evenings and on the weekends. I also would love to be able to spend more time if I have it, and be prodded if I'm not hitting 10 hours a week to do better. I have a Mac and an iPhone, and have been looking for a compelling reason to buy an iPad (which this could be). As for the price point, free would be great and Rosetta Stone is my upper limit. So that means I'd like to spend no more than $500 over the next six months.

I promise to share what I learn back in this space, of course. Also, I expect to be publicly shamed if I give up on this task. In fact, I'm counting on it, so if you don't hear from me about this project for a while, feel free to send hecklemail to amadrigal[at]theatlantic.com.

(P.S. I know that people always say, "You need to just go there and be immersed." I agree with that up to a point, but I did spend several months in Spain and because I wasn't quite good enough to keep up with the Spaniards, I found that I stayed quiet a lot of the time. (Which would shock anyone who knows my English-language personality.) I got better, for sure, but I need to get to the level where I can easily hold up my end of a conversation. And besides, I'm a book learner, and I want to exploit that tendency until the time comes when I can get in a lot of practice with family.)

Image: My parents back in the day. You can already see my dad's resemblance to The Most Interesting Man in the World. (Also, check out my dad's tie! That thing is like 4x the width of my current set of ties. You hardly even need a shirt.)

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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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