15 novembro 2009

Can you really learn a language online?

Rosetta Stone contacted me and (full disclosure) sent me a free trial of their new Totale program. This online-based language learning system includes:

  • Social networking capabilities
  • Coach-led practice sessions
  • Engaging language games and access to native speakers
  • Encouragement from customer success agents
But can you really learn a language online? This is what I set to find out, because quick online language learning would be really helpful for travelers like you and me.

I chose to receive the Mandarin Chinese course, as I have four years of Mandarin under my belt. I wanted to be able to properly assess the way the language was taught. I donned and tested my headset (which they make very easy), and jumped in to Unit 1, Lesson 1.

My immediate reaction was that, firstly, it's really fun. The program uses photos and tries to get you to intuitively understand the subjects, for example, that one photo is of a young girl, and the next photo is a group of adult women. The system says the words in Chinese and displays them on the screen, and you click the picture to which you think the phrase corresponds. If you're right, you get a satisfying "Ding!" of approval. It makes you feel smart.

When it came to the computer recognizing my speech, I was very impressed by the speed at which I could speak and still be understood (and really glad I don't have roommates). One thing that concerned me about the program was the reading/writing. Chinese doesn't use regular letters (though a Pin Yin system of letters is widely used in teaching the language), nor do they even have an alphabet. Could this package teach anyone to read and write? I'll come back to that.I brushed up on my Mandarin just in time to take a trip to Singapore, and it definitely helped me understand the conversations people had around me (which they thought I couldn't understand). The lessons featured multiple male and female speakers with slightly different accents which helped broaden my ear. I didn't get that far in the program, but I found the lessons extremely well-organized. The games were sort of mindless entertainment with learning injected by osmosis, which I think is pretty smart. If you just couldn't stand another lesson, you could play a game instead and still get some benefits.

The social networking was pretty quiet (I only saw a few people "Online" in my course at a time), but it was there. The opportunity to set up coach-led sessions with a native speaker was priceless, though, and everyone I interacted with on the site was helpful and encouraging, even when I had a technical query.

After my trial, I still had a few unanswered questions (like, what about idioms that mean "porn"?), so I chatted via e-mail with the Director of Learning, Duane Sider:

Gadling: Do the lessons adjust according to my performance, or are they the same no matter what?

Duane Sider: Language introduced in Rosetta Stone solutions is carefully sequenced to provide systematic and comprehensive language learning -- in all key language skills -- from the very beginning. Reviews for each Lesson assess the learner's mastery of the Lesson content. Using a proprietary technology called Adaptive Recall, the Reviews reappear at strategic intervals based on the learner's performance, ensuring that language learned in the lesson is stored in long-term memory. Scoring is calculated for each screen of every Core Lesson and Focused Activity, and it is presented as a percentage cumulative score throughout the lesson and at the end. Learners can revisit lessons and activities any number of times to reinforce the language and skills they have learned.

G: Where does Rosetta Stone get the images? Are they stock photos or is there a massive Rosetta photography project?

DS: About 60% of our photos in the product are taken by our own photographers and a few contract photographers, and 40% are purchased from stock photography. Because images alone convey the meaning of new language learned in the Rosetta Stone immersion environment, we pay careful attention to the quality, clarity and significance of every photograph selected for use in Rosetta Stone solutions.

G: I noticed that within Chinese Unit One, you are taught to say "yellow book." "Yellow book" is a colloquial way to say "porn magazine" in China. Does the TOTALe program teach idiomatic phrases?

DS: We try to teach language that is natural and relevant, and this would include idioms and common expressions. However, we do not treat idioms as a separate topic of study, so we do not have any specially designed sections of the course that focus on idioms. Regarding "yellow book" in Chinese, we do NOT teach the colloquial meaning of this term. We only use images that clearly show a book that is yellow (not a porn magazine), so that it is clear that we are teaching the standard word for "yellow" and the standard word for "book" rather than any colloquial meaning of the phrase.

G: While I saw characters, I didn't get to any writing, and know that writing in Chinese is very complicated (you have to draw the characters with the correct stroke order, etc.). In cases like Chinese, where the traditional writing is not done with letters (or even an alphabet), does Rosetta teach how to write at some point?

DS: In Rosetta Stone Writing activities -- in the Core Lessons and in the activities focused on writing -- learners use the letters or character sets from the language they are learning to write words, phrases and sentences. Learners are not required to manually draw individual letters and characters.

So, there you have it folks. Rosetta Stone TOTALe is a highly comprehensive and fun language-teaching system and it will totally (no pun intended) help prepare you for traveling abroad, but don't expect to learn to write in Chinese or become a reading scholar. If you're just looking to learn to speak and understand, I'd say this is one of the very best options out there -- especially as you can do it on your own hours (3 AM lesson, anyone) from the comfort of your own home. So, can you really learn a language online? With this much help, including live teachers just a keystroke away, I'd say yes.


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