I am trying to learn Spanish using Rosetta Stone. I started my column last week this same way. As I can be obsessively focused on projects from time to time, this might be a recurring theme for a while.
Rosetta Stone teaches language by the immersion method. You have the language thrown at you. It comes in audio recordings and in written words and sentences; sometimes the two are mixed and sometimes not. You will never be told that the word "perro" means dog. You will be shown pictures of dogs paired with the written and spoken word and gradually you get the idea.
The danger here, depending upon how carefully the pictures are chosen, is that you might discern that the word "perro" means ball or cute little sweater or hiked leg or whatever.
Sentences are even harder than words.
At first when you are listening to sentences, it all sounds like babel. It’s jibber-jabber between pauses. But after a while--hours and hours of listening--something begins to happen. You begin to hear differences. You begin to be able to pick out a word or two in the sentences and then you can guess what the sentence means.
Sometimes I even get it right.
It started off pretty quickly. I’ve learned a bit of Spanish along the way by watching cowboy movies, eating at El Charro, going to Paraguay, and shopping at JC Penny’s.
But there came a point where everything was new and the going got tougher. Instead of getting the 98 percent on the lesson, I was getting 55 or lower. It would be easy to get discouraged, but I decided it was these lessons I was learning the most from.
These lessons I had to go back over. I had to do it again and again, sometimes a letter at a time. It was here that I not only learned more of the language, but I learned more about the process of learning.
In these, the speaker says a sentence, sometimes two. I am supposed to type what is said into the computer. The spelling has to be perfect. You get an unlimited number of times to try it over, but you don’t get credit for getting it right if you don’t get it right the first time. You can try it again and again until you do get it right. Then you can go to the end of the lesson and start over.
Persistence is rewarded, but you have to be more than persistent. You have to care. You have to want to do it for some reason.
I want to do it because I’ve wanted to learn Spanish since I was in grade school.
As English was the only foreign language I learned when I went two McLish public schools in Fittstown, Oklahoma, I tried to teach myself with a dictionary. Since then, the stars have never aligned themselves correctly for it to happen. But now I have the opportunity and I am trying to make the most of it.
Every successful student finds a reason to learn. Sometimes it is just a love of learning. Sometimes it is associated with wanting to get a degree and get a job. Sometimes the student wants to please his parents. Sometimes they want to please the teacher. Sometimes they are using the teacher as a surrogate for the parents. I’ve even seen those who simply have learned discipline, but that, in some sense, is just taking the reasons above to a higher level.
However this reason is found, it is the fuel for the necessary repetition. All learning is essentially the same. We are learning a map of what was previously terra incognita. Effective teaching consists of organization, yes, but also something more. One has to help the student to care.
One of the ways this particular software does it is subtle.It’s through the pictures. The people in these conversations are some of the most attractive people I’ve seen. They are fit, well-groomed, and well-dressed. The young men are athletic and the young women are beautiful. The older men are distinguished and the older women are motherly.
The creators of this software have realized that at base learning is still a human activity. It must be humanized as much as possible. I’ve been told that if a man wants to learn a language, the best way is for him to get a girlfriend that only speaks the language. That is not possible for me nor is taking a class. I am too happily married to an English speaker for the first and too busy for the second.
That leaves me and the computer. Oh, well.
(Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, is Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at Pittsburg State University. He blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)