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.