I was travelling in Brazil with a friend, and over dinner in a Rio pizzeria, a beautiful young girl sitting opposite us handed him a note on her way out. The waiter translated it: something about giving her a call because he could be the love of her life. My very single friend naturally responded to the invitation, called her up, and drove into a brick wall. She could not speak a word of English, and it would have been all Greek to him, except she spoke Portuguese. The waiter helped with some translation, but his English wasn’t too great either, and so the stunning potential soul mate eventually hung up on him in frustration.
At the airport on the way home, I noticed a store selling a language learning software called Rosetta Stone. If I ever hoped to avoid my friend’s fate, perhaps it was time to learn a new language. I’m not passing up the love of my life simply because I can’t say “lets have coffee tomorrow at 8pm?” A few weeks later, Brazilian Portuguese Levels 1, 2 and 3 arrived in a bright yellow box, promising a whole new world.
“He was a farm boy, she was an Italian supermodel…” reads a magazine advertisement for Rosetta Stone, a company that offers easy to use, computer-based language courses in over two dozen languages. Named after the famous archaeological discovery that enabled historians to first translate Egyptian hieroglyphics, its technique is simple: using images, text, and sound, it immerses the student into a new language with no translation, creating a wholly visual world to mimic the way a child discovers a native tongue. Level 1 is broken down into various sections, such as Language Basics, Greetings and Introductions, Work and School, and Shopping. Each 30 minute Core Lesson is then broken down into 5 and 10-minute tutorials that take you through the lesson in more detail, emphasizing vocabulary, writing, listening and grammar. For the busy worker bee, the time-conscious nature of the program makes it easy to schedule, and initially, becomes quite addictive.
A photo of a woman appears. A voice says: mulher. I repeat the word, see how it is spelled, and get rewarded with the green tick and sound of success. If I get it wrong, I get an X and the sound of a boo-boo. Should I make enough boo-boos, the software advises me to repeat the section. Gradually proceeding through the levels, it gets more difficult, as phrases and sentences take form. According to the box, the student will learn naturally, engage interactively, speak confidently, and have fun. Three months later, fate sent me a lovely Brazilian girlfriend, but I still couldn’t string a correctly pronounced sentence of Portuguese together.
While Rosetta Stone is a successful, publicly traded company, with high profile clients like the US military and affording a spokesman in Olympic superstar Michael Phelps, it has also been the target of much criticism online. Not surprisingly, its harshest critics appear to be traditional language schools. Yet there are also blog posts from users who have complained that using the system is too slow, too expensive, lacking in useful phrases, and insensitive to local customs. Indeed, the same photos and learning formula is used across all the languages on offer, a universality that has its limitations in practical use. After three months of using Rosetta Stone almost daily, I could understand some words, but stammered trying to put together a cohesive phrase. It doesn’t help that Brazilians crack up at my pronunciation, or my old-fashioned terms and tone. That being said, I like the game-play quality of the software, its portability and interactivity, and well, I’m probably a very slow learner. But I can tell the bom (good) from the ruim (bad), and best of all, my girlfriend appreciated my continuing effort. So much so that she agreed to marry me a few years later. When it comes to learning a language, things click together faster when you’re in the actual country, immersing yourself in the language, people and culture.
Whether you study in an intensive language school, buy a tutorial book, order a copy of Rosetta Stone, or use combination of the above (which seems to be the going advice from language students online), whatever system keeps you enthusiastic about learning that new language, is ultimately the one that works. In the meantime, I’ll keep hacking away in drunkanese.