Dimberu: Learning languages in a digital age

So you want to learn a new language, huh?

There are plenty of reasons you may decide to learn a new language. Perhaps you have an upcoming internship abroad or plan to backpack in a new country. Maybe you want to make yourself more attractive to potential employers or you just want to impress that cute, new foreign student by speaking a few words in her native tongue. Whatever the reason may be, learning a new language is at once an exciting and daunting task. And if proper instruction is not a viable option, there are plenty of technology-based language learning tools available on the market today that you might want to consider.

Before we look at a couple of these tools, it’s important to note that there are two different approaches to learning a new language. The translation method, as it’s name implies, translates words and phrases from the new language to the student’s native language. On the other hand, the immersion method involves using only the language being learned, which is how we learn our first language. The best immersion experience is, of course, living in a country where the new language is the predominant one, forcing you to adapt quickly. So while it’s not exactly the same, some software programs allow you to learn via immersion by introducing new words and phrases through association and use.

Undoubtedly, the most well known language-learning software program is Rosetta Stone. A major reason for its success is the fact that Rosetta Stone has been successful in replicating the natural language learning process, a feat not often found in other programs. The lessons are fun and engaging and involve looking at a scene with a voice over describing it to you to repeat and practice. A really cool feature of the Rosetta Stone program is it’s proprietary speech-recognition software that provides feedback on whether you are pronouncing the lesson correctly. This is immensely helpful as it allows you to avoid wasting time by practicing (and learning) the wrong pronunciation! Another useful feature is the ability to have live conversations with a native speaker so you can see how well you have picked up your new language.

While Rosetta Stone is a great product, it is on the more expensive side and it does require plenty of time in front of the computer. So if you are interested in a cheaper and more mobile format, PlaySay is a relatively new company that offers a different way to learn languages. The program begins by using the translation method for beginners and then adapts immersion techniques at the more advanced lesson levels. PlaySay also uses a cellphone-based platform to help you utilize any spare moment to brush up on your lessons. Digital audio and image flashcards that can be downloaded onto your cell phone (or iPod) let you work on the lessons anywhere. More recently, the company has started to offer an interactive tool that gives you short lessons via text message so you can keep practicing even if you aren’t sitting in front of your computer.

When you are ready to learn a new language, rest assured that there are plenty of fun and effective products out there to help you. The method of teaching as well as your budget and available time are all factors that should guide you when deciding which product is best for you. Perhaps even a combination of products can work. In the digital age, language learning doesn’t have to be confined to a textbook and a desk — you can impress that employer or international student with just your iPod and a few spare minutes.

Peniel Dimberu is a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Immunobiology.


  • lewa

    The reason Rosetta Stone is the most popular program has nothing to do with its quality and everything to do with its advertising! I wouldn’t be surprised if they spent more money on ads than on developing their product. Everyone thinks of Rosetta Stone when they think of technology for language learning, which is a shame. The speech recognition is not nearly sensitive enough to capture correct vs incorrect pronunciation meaningfully; I’ve seen people pronounce completely toneless Chinese and get the green check, and I’ve seen native speakers get the red X.

    Furthermore, the program uses the exact same curriculum for every language it teaches, which means that while its curriculum might work for Spanish, it’s awful for Chinese or Russian. Add that to the prohibitive price, and Rosetta Stone should be a no-go for most buyers.

    A free option is the FSI Language Courses; FSI stands for Foreign Service Institute, and these are the courses used to train diplomats before they go abroad. They are in the public domain, having been developed with tax dollars. Find digital versions at http://fsi-language-courses.org. Not every language course is good, but many of them are.

    Finally: I’m perplexed as to why the YDN would publish an “editorial” that contains no information not fed to us in the products’ advertisements. Dimberu has simply repeated the main selling points of these two products. No negatives are mentioned (except for the price).

  • yaler

    yeah, lewa, I’ve heard that Rosetta spends 50% of their revenue on marketing! lol they just went public (IPO) so they’ve gotta lot of $ to bulldoze their competitors and flood the market w ads.

    That’s interesting, where’d u hear that their curriculum is the same for every language? That’s surprising, most particularly how it’s plain common sense such would be ineffectivbe.

    Althougj I appreciate FSI’s ‘courses’, they’re rather limited and don’t provide rich context like Rosetta Stone or PlaySay. I do agree with you, however, that Rosetta’s prices are astronomical (not that they’re not worth it if you actually use the program extensively…past two weeks that is!). Maybe I’ll get a pirated copy of Rosetta and try it out lol. I hope PlaySay expands the current free teaser for any cell phone (i was surprised it even worked on my 2004 Nokia) that they have available on http://playsay.com cause it looks reallyt cool!

    Yeah, more of a comparison w the pros and cons of each would’ve been better, but I think this articlew nicely summarized both language learning solution’s main values.

  • lewa


    My high school had purchased Rosetta Stone in several languages, so I had an opportunity to try them all out. The curricula are really almost exactly the same, using the same pictures and sentences in the same order. There are some small changes from language to language, but mostly everything is identical. Try their first lesson for Chinese at their website, for example, and you’ll see how badly suited RS is for such an “exotic” language. You can also go to their downloads section (under support) and download the “Course Contents” PDF to see the sentences each language product teaches. Quick comparisons show that everything is pretty much the same.

    Of course, if you’re using the software for free (library, pirating the software, etc.), you have nothing to lose but time. Some of the courses are quite good, especially for Romance languages.

    I’m surprised you say the FSI courses are limited. The Spanish, French, Chinese, and Swahili courses at least are much more comprehensive than their Rosetta Stone counterparts. They take diplomats to a high level of fluency. If you mean limited in that they don’t have as many pictures / video / interactive software components, then sure, but I’m not sure all those things help you learn. I think they’re more likely to distract you unless used very wisely.

    Some of the FSI courses are lacking, eg Italian. And some are not very user-friendly (Hebrew, for example).

  • DanielKim

    I am not sure the top 2 links are really genuine comment. It feels more like a in-content marketing with blog sourcing to link their sites to their websites.

    For a fact, if you are really wanting to learn language for free, you can go to MIT OpenCourseware, which is shared by millions of people and there is no limitation or regulations or policy or free trials. It’s open to public, and shared by MIT professors for students to educate themselves.

    MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) offers 2000 subjects for free, whether it be French, Chinese, Italian or Japanese. Plus, there is no need for any sign-ups. Just simply, pure free to check all documents and download at your will.

    If you are looking to learn more on your own, I suggest using MIT Courseware, a public sourceware for educating people around the world. Best of all, it’s from one of the world’s best university in the world. I would say Top 10 or 20 and that’s unbeatable offer.

  • DanielKim

    By the way, MIT Courseware link is http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm
    This website offer free language course using free video, pdf files, word document with exams and their answers, class book names, podcasts and e-mails to ask professor about questions regarding the course/documents posted online. They even have recordings of words, so you can learn from the basics.

    Free language education for those who are motivated to learn on free time.
    and if you flag this, you are against free language education, which more than 100,000 people are using in MIT OpenCourseware.