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.