March 2008 Archives

March 11, 2008

Tools and Resources for Learning Spanish pt. 2: The Rosetta Stone

I'd been curious about the Rosetta Stone software for a while before I decided to try it with Spanish. Their ads make some bold claims about "dynamic immersion" but don't give much detail about how it works.

It turns out that what they've done is quite clever. By using only pictures and words in the target language, the learner's native language is irrelevant. Instead of having to make separate versions of the software for an English speaker learning Spanish and an Italian speaker learning Spanish, as is the case with most any book out there, anyone can use their software for any language. Think about how much money that saves them!

So how does it work? The software's courses have a multi-level hierarchy. For each language, there are levels 1, 2, and 3 in some cases, which are all separate products. Within a level there are about 8 units, and within each unit, 10 chapters. A chapter has a set of words or phrases and pictures that match them. The software essentially gives you many different ways of learning these phrases, which correspond to the language skills of reading, listening, writing and speaking. First you can see the phrase written out while hearing it spoken, and match it to a picture. Next you can see the phrase without hearing it spoken, or hear it without seeing it, and again match it to the picture. Next you speak the phrase into a microphone after hearing it, and the software will actually grade your pronunciation. Finally you hear the phrase and then type it out. Within this sequence the software offers several variations, so that you have nearly a dozen different exercises you can do in the course of learning the chapter. It's entirely up to you which ones you actually do, and there is a gradual curve of difficulty within each chapter.

The material starts with basic nouns for physical objects, like girl and boy and ball and car. Soon adjectives are introduced, and then whole phrases and sentences that describe something going on in the picture, like "The man is putting on a shirt" or "The girl catches the ball." There are chapters on numerals and all the basic segments of vocabulary that you would expect. And that's really all there is to the structure of the Rosetta Stone's courses.

At first I really liked the software for two reasons. First, for learning pronunciation, I think it is unparalleled. Listening to a native speaker over and over and then having your own pronunciation graded is the best way I've ever experienced to learn to truly pronounce the language correctly. In a class setting, I realized, there is often the way the students speak and the way the teacher speaks, and the students tend not to speak like the teacher due to an ironic embarrassment at appearing too eager. The good students get to a certain level and stop there. Even if you know a native speaker, they may not have the patience or the desire to help you perfect your pronunciation. With the Rosetta Stone you're in an isolated environment where you can really concentrate on the sounds with no embarrassment factor. (The grading of your pronunciation by the software isn't perfect, and is quite sensitive to background noise, but it's still pretty darn good.) Second, the multitude of exercises gives you many ways to experience the words, and I found this extremely helpful for retention.

After a while though, I started to see the downsides. First, the repetitiveness. You're just clicking the same images over and over, and eventually I found it unbearable to pay much attention. This is clearly not so good for retention.

Second: you might be asking yourself how the software handles complex grammatical issues such as the difference between ser and estar. Well the answer is, it doesn't, at least not as far as I went with it. There are no grammatical explanations of any kind; only a limited set of examples, from which the student is expected to pick up the pattern. If I hadn't already studied many topics in other places, I would have had no idea what was going on with anything but the simplest elements of the grammar.

Third, again as far as I went, there were absolutely zero examples using the first or second person. If the Rosetta Stone were my only source, then months into my study I would have had no idea how to say my name, or say that I or you or we were doing anything. The words "yo" or "tu" simply did not appear. This seems insane to me.

Fourth, the software gives you no opportunity to ever construct your own sentences. I don't think any more really needs to be said about that.

One of the tenets of the philosophy behind this software is that you're learning a language the same way you learned your first language as a child. You simply absorb by seeing and hearing. But there's a few flaws to this. For one, our brains as infants and toddlers are very different from our adult brains. They are not as developed, but they absorb like sponges. Second, it takes us many years to learn our first language! Most people in the Rosetta Stone's target market are probably not willing to wait that long. It's just really not an appropriate analogy to make, though it seems attractive before you try it.

March 25, 2008

Tools and Resources for Learning Catalan

When it comes to Catalan and books, Teach Yourself Catalan is pretty much it. You can choose between the new edition with 2 CDs and a used copy of the 1993 edition. The word on the review street seemed to be that the newer version was more conversational, perhaps dumbed down, and the older one was more linguistic and technical but also more complete.

The CDs and apparent lack of other options for hearing the language spoken put me on the fence for a while, but I eventually went with the old edition, and was happy with that choice. The explanations were clear, the vocabulary extensive, and it uses the International Phonetic Alphabet, which might be a stumbling block for anyone who has never taken a linguistics class, but is hands down the most universal and objective system for accurately specifying pronunciation.

IPA or no, it's still pretty important to hear the language spoken by a native in order to get the rhythm right and work out the inevitable kinks and misconceptions you develop when you have no one to correct you. At one point I tried searching IMDb for movies in Catalan and then seeing which ones Netflix had. It was difficult to tell how much Catalan any of them contained because Netflix listed them all as being in Spanish, and IMDb often indicated both Spanish and Catalan. I got about 5 movies, but the only one I ended up watching was the wacky Teté and the Moon, directed by the prolific Bigas Luna. It was reasonably entertaining but not very edifying; the language sounded like Spanish to me.

Fortunately I ended up finding several web sites that were quite helpful in my endeavor. This page, part of a language site called Orbis Latinus, has a primitive design but a surprisingly thorough linguistic overview of the language and descriptive grammar, including extensive notes on pronunciation.

This wiki page is a brief summary of pronunciation, but it solved the mystery of how to pronounce final ch, as in the name of the architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch.

From the University of Barcelona comes an unbelievably extensive audio phrase book intended for students. There must be well over a thousand words and phrases here. The only trouble is the use of real audio files, but it's well worth it.

Catradió.cat, a web radio site with plenty of shows available. I only listened to it a handful of times, but it was helpful.

Moving out of pronunciation specifically, DACCO is a pretty good Catalan-English dictionary. LEARNING CATALAN ON THE INTERNET is incomplete as a web textbook, but has a good list of resources from which many of these were drawn. El Periódico de Catalunya and AVUI+ are good newspapers to read. Baixa Gastronomia is a food blog in Catalan, with a bunch of links to other blogs in the language.

As I indicated in a previous post, even for those reluctant to learn this language, I think it's well worth getting the pronunciation down if you are traveling to Catalonia.

March 26, 2008

Just in time for me to have just gotten back from a trip to Europe, the open-skies agreement is about to make getting there easier and cheaper. The article focuses on likely new direct flights to London from places other than New York, but I hope other destinations benefit too. The worst thing about our recent trip to Paris was the layover in London that, combined with two flights delayed and two not as delayed, resulted in two sprints through Heathrow and our luggage being lost in both directions.

Also, why do they make you go back through security for a connecting flight? Are we meant to have picked up something dangerous in the grim warren of hallways we're inevitable shuffled through? Ah, security theater.

I just stepped outside and saw a truck on Broadway carrying an entire, brand new subway car, mechanically complete but lacking decals. The one time I don't have my camera with me.

March 28, 2008

Worth Every Penny

The recent Times article about cooking with ingredients from 99-cent stores, and kottke's comments and assorted links, reminds me of my own experiences with 99 cent stores in my neighborhood. I thought I had written about this, but it turns out I never did, except for a brief mention.

For me it's not so much about trying to make the food seem fancy, though at one point I did sometimes buy food at the 99-cent store. (Their imitation Strawberry Newtons are not too good.) The store I frequent, "99 Cent World," is simply huge, probably a lot like the Jack's mentioned in the article, and has an amazing selection of housewares, hardware, kitchen supplies, and so on. The only catch is that anything you buy there is pretty likely to fail in some way. But because you only paid 99 cents for it, there's not much harm done other than the physical waste, and it actually becomes fun to try to guess what's going to happen. A few reviews of past purchases:

  • A plastic plate and soup bowl. For at least a year, the only vessels I ate from at home. I'm still using the plate, but the bowl eventually developed some cracks.
  • Sponges. The spongy part separated from the more abrasive scrubbing layer after not very long.
  • A level, allen wrenches, sandpaper, screwdrivers, and many other hardware items, most of which worked out just fine, although one jeweler's screwdriver had a tip mysteriously break off.
  • A couple of cocktail and martini glasses for my old-timey cocktails project. A connoisseur might sniff at them but I have no complaints.
  • A shower curtain set that lasted maybe seven months before a couple of the holes tore through.

Pretty positive overall, though I'm probably forgetting some of the items that didn't work out. PS: the store has the great neon sign "Everything 99 cents and up."

March 30, 2008

Ammon Shea: Reading the OED

Ammon Shea gets my respect for reading the Oxford English Dictionary and then writing a book with that title. In my own project I read through only the words marked as obscure, archaic, or one of the other labels like that, and picked out the ones I liked. His recent article about absurd entries is fun, and the comments show something that I also experienced: no matter how hard you try to pick out something funny for being esoteric, there will be someone to tell you they learned about it in third grade. I do agree with some of the comments about disghibelline though; the definition "To distinguish, as a Guelph from a Ghibelline" shows that there is nothing special about the meaning, and even if you haven't heard of Guelphs and Ghibellines, it kind of explains why anyone used such a fancy word just to mean "distinguish." (One can presume that particular distinction was very common and/or important at some time and place, and the word then spread to a broader meaning.)

The discussion also rapidly drags out the old chestnut of map-makers inserting fake roads and rivers to detect copycats. If true, this strikes me as a worse form of copy protection than anything the RIAA or the MPAA can dream up. Worse for the consumer, that is. Can you imagine every time you miss a turn, having to wonder in the back of your mind if the road you meant to take is real?

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