It’s common knowledge that to really learn another language you need an immersion experience. But since most of us can’t pack our bags and move to Florence or Barcelona or Kyoto, we sadly store away our dreams and think…someday.
What isn’t common knowledge is that you don’t have to leave home to get a virtual immersion experience, and thus learn a new language faster than ever before.
I hold up as proof one student I know who, despite having no discernable talent for learning language (in fact, he is still trying to master English after living in the U.S. all his life) is nevertheless making impressive progress in his second language of Spanish. Enough progress, in fact, to delight himself and be a source of fine amusement for his Spanish-speaking friends.
That student is me.
Y si yo puedo, Usted puede. (And if I can, you can.)
The secret is technology, but not the technology you may think.
First, let me talk about the most obvious way to use technology—learning at your computer. You may have seen those bright yellow boxes from Rosetta Stone in magazine ads and in airports. I bought the Latin American Spanish package and am halfway through its three levels. The software has you listen, read, speak and type. It’s fun, and the glorious photography makes it all the more pleasing.
I can report that the adult learners studying English as a second language in my town like the program and diligently spend hours in front of their computers.
The company maintains that since we all learned our first language with no translation, we should learn subsequent languages that way, too. Many times, though, I found myself looking up words in either my electronic or print dictionary and writing down translations in my notebook (a Circa translucent letter size notebook with tabs, of course). A little explanation in English made it easier for me.
Still, I found Rosetta Stone a good way to begin. Its user-friendliness eliminates the fear factor. Soon I was ready to venture farther afield, untethered to my computer, and find more ways to learn.
Audio learning turbo-boosted with MP3
Audio language learning has been around for decades in the form of tapes and CDs, but recently it has been given a new lease on life through digitization. I sampled several audio programs, and my favorite is Pimsleur. You can buy it in physical form from Pimsleur Approach or Simon & Schuster, or download it from Audible.
I begin my day by listening on my iPod when I’m making the morning coffee. As I’m still waking up, I don’t bother to respond when prompted, but instead just let the language wash over me. As I go about my morning ritual (bring in the papers, run up the flag, shovel up dog poop), I’ll gradually answer back, as if I were talking to my Spanish-speaking neighbors. (My real neighbors probably wonder why I spend so much time talking to myself.) Whenever I’m by myself doing things that don’t require much thought, I’m listening to Spanish—driving, washing dishes, walking our dog—so it takes no additional time out of my day. (It has cut into my audiobook listening, however, which is a sacrifice.)
MP3 players like Apple’s iPod have magnified the practical power of audio programs like Pimsleur. The iPod’s portability is one of the keys to immersing yourself in your language while you do other things.
I’m also looking forward to the audio program Spanish for Dummies, which has the additional advantage of a well-developed book by the same title. Each audio program will have its own way of teaching, with overlapping vocabulary and grammar to reinforce what you’ve learned.
Little digital tutors conspire to virtually immerse us
The real news in technology for language learning is the multitude of multilingual electronic devices and software that can teach us almost by accident.
For example, not only do I listen to Spanish on my iPod, but I went to Settings and changed its language (idiom) to Spanish. Since I have pressed iPod buttons in English for a couple of years now, the menus are familiar. So it’s no problema clicking Canciones rather than Songs.
I have set my bank’s ATM preferences for Spanish. At first I worried I might accidentally transfer money to an account in Venezuela, but after years of following the instructions in English, it was easy to make the switch—and fun. Each time, I try to pronounce the words and gradually pick up more. (Cash is Efectivo, savings is Ahorros.) The bank remembers my preferences, so when I travel and use an ATM far from home, it still serves me up in Spanish.
My beloved pocket Canon camera, which I use for all the photos in these posts, also serves up its menus in Spanish for me now (it offers an astounding 25 languages to choose from). It’s easy to toggle back to English when I need to check, for example, that Borrar means Erase. (Oops…)
My PDA is my most constant tutor. Our able tech staff here at Levenger downloaded the Spanish-language data for my BlackBerry, so now its familiar little icons are labeled Mensajes rather than Messages and Reloj rather than Clock. Every time I pick it up, which, seems like about 2,000 times a day, I’m getting a bit more virtual immersion.
For those websites I use often, such as Flickr, Facebook, Yahoo and LinkedIn, I’ve also toggled to Spanish. (Buscar means Search.) Right at the bottom of Flickr’s home page you can choose from eight languages.
If you have navigation in your car, you can set that system to your next language, as I did in my mother’s Camry on a recent road trip. Dobla a la derecha, it commanded, and so I turned right. (Part of my duties when I visit my mother is to annoy her enough so she’s glad when I leave.)
I haven’t yet pressed 2 for Spanish on voicemail systems, but can you tell it’s coming soon?
Since I live in South Florida, it’s easy for me to watch Univision and Telemundo, two Spanish-language television stations. At this point, I’m still not getting most of the dialog, but more often now words and phrases come through, especially with the ads, which stress clarity. We all know how repetitive and boring television can be—why not convert it to a teaching machine?
En el cine (at the movies)
Further linguistic marvels await us encoded in DVDs. Since most popular movies these days offer subtitles in various languages, if not audio tracks, movies provide some of the best language learning available. Rub the genie’s lamp, and your movies will magically teach you. You can guess by now that we watch our DVDs with Spanish subtitles.
New musical freedom
Not only can you download music sung in the language you’re learning, but you can find the lyrics, too. That’s what I did for Luz Casual, a glorious, soulful ballad singer from Spain. And thanks to our perfectly bilingual reference librarian at the Delray Beach Public Library, Loanis Menendez-Cuesta, I have those lyrics artfully translated into English. Now when I just want to hear beautiful music, I can learn with my heart and not just my brain.
Electronic books on eReaders promise a new world of learning opportunities. Unabridged editions of Don Quixote in both English and Spanish came loaded on my new and adorable Kindle competitor, the Cool-er Reader from Interead.
Interead founder Neil Jones (a Brit who lives in Spain) told me his device is the first truly international e-reader. It comes ready to accept and display books in eight languages. It’s easy to imagine an eReader that can switch languages, line by line, to help speed comprehension and learning.
Can technology do it all? Not yet. You still have to be willing to embarrass yourself by plunging in and trying to converse with humans, which I do fairly frequently given all the Spanish speakers I encounter. My next step is to hire a tutor who can work with me one-on-one. I should also mention that Lori, seeing that her somewhat obsessive husband is determined to stick with this Spanish stuff, has decided she might as well join me and regain the fluency she had after her college semester in Madrid.
Not all languages are as easy to get wet with as Spanish, of course. And as much help as technology can now provide, learning a language is still time-consuming and hard work and thus requires a real commitment. In my case, I’m deeply interested in literacy and libraries and sense that I can assist those causes in Latin America. Lori and I look forward to the prospect of living for extended periods in Spanish-speaking countries in the years to come. You’ll have to have your own compelling reasons for learning a new language to provide your motivation.
But the delightful thing is that rather suddenly, we have a perfect little storm of technological advances that makes virtual language immersion easy. In trying to make their products usable to a global audience, product designers have inadvertently provided excellent tools for learning new languages. It’s one of the unanticipated blessings of our age.
As CEO of Levenger, I also have to say that old-fashioned paper technology is ever improving. Electronic dictionaries are great, but I also love my durable paper Langenscheidt pocket dictionaries for travel.
Not just the destination, but the journey
And I recently read the National Book Award-winning Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire. In addition to being a marvelous memoir I’d recommend to anyone, the author weaves in Spanish—always translated. On my nightstand are bilingual editions of two Latin American Nobelists, Stories and Poems by Ruben Dario and Odes to Common Things by Pablo Neruda. I also use old-fashioned flash cards—for children and for college students—and make my own with Circa Micro PDAs, which actually work better than loose cards. And my letter-size Circa notebook dedicated to Spanish lives in my briefcase.
It also helps to have realistic goals. Mine are to learn a little every day and to enjoy the journey. It is already providing me joy as the fog gradually lifts and I begin to see a Latino culture unfolding before my eyes. I’m hopeful that my 54-year-old mind, which more and more feels like a leaky bucket, can still, with frequent trips to the well, carry enough water to make my Spanish garden grow.
I’ll give you all an update in a year or so, my friends. And let me hear from you—are you learning a new language, too? I’d love to hear your experiences. Just click on the Comments link below with your submission. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).