Wednesday, 29 May 2013
A few weeks ago I got a press release from Rosetta Stone, announcing their new language-learning blog, #milestones. I had a look around the site, replied to say hi, and before I knew it I'd been invited to try out their product with a free six month subscription, and to join their European blogging team.
I know, I know. I was trying not to start any new projects. But free language courses? I can't turn that down.
I hadn't used Rosetta Stone before, so I was intrigued to see how it worked. I thought I'd share my first impressions for the benefit of anyone else who might be considering it. I'm mostly using the Android app, which has most (though not quite all) of the course content. The home screen presents a set of colourful buttons which show an overview of the course, along with your current progress (synched across your devices).
The different icons represent different types of module. "Core" lessons introduce vocabulary and syntax, which are then reinforced with a collection of shorter exercises in reading, writing, speaking, pronunciation, listening, and grammar. (If you have time to do several in one sitting, the software will send you from one module to the next without going back to the home screen.)
The most important thing to note if you're considering a subscription is that this isn't a holiday crash course. The first lesson does teach you to say "merhaba" (hello), but the course doesn't start with what you might consider practical phrases such as "what time is it?" and "where's the post office?", and you have to wait a little while just to get to "what's your name?". On the other hand there's early coverage of colours, clothing, family members, furniture, and numbers. This basic vocabulary allows you to build up your understanding of the language and its structures, using very simple sentences at first, before getting to more complex (and useful!) phrases.
The Rosetta Stone philosophy is one of immersion, with no English used, just information presented in the target language - something I've long dreamed of finding in a language course. But it's very carefully controlled immersion, with building blocks of vocabulary and syntax introduced gradually. The lack of translations does sometimes mean you might guess wrongly at what the pictures represent, and I've personally found it helpful to cross-check some vocabulary on Google Translate (which is cheating, I guess, but it has helped me out of a couple of sticky corners).
It's a bit of an "all or nothing" affair, though. You always need headphones and a microphone, so you can't really do some quick exercises on the train. And it's hard to go back and revise any vocabulary you've forgotten, because there's no straightforward index into the different chapters of the course.
I do really enjoy using the software, which is a definite plus, as I'm happy to spend a few minutes on it even at the end of a tiring day. I find the exercises fun and the vocabulary is definitely sticking: I've been reinforcing the lessons by labelling the yellow flowers and red cars in my mind as I walk through the streets, and hanging out the washing was a particularly good way to practise clothes and colours alike.
The course requires a combination of speaking (with voice recognition software to tell whether you're doing it right - something I had some issues with on my laptop) and writing, along with lots of exercises in selecting the appropriate label for a picture, as shown in the following screenshot.
My first post over at the Rosetta Stone blog was all about my reasons for choosing Turkish. Part of it is due to my dad recently buying a house in Turkey - but there are also aspects of Turkish which are particularly fascinating to me as a linguist, so I was especially looking forwards to seeing how these are taught.
Take, for example, the phenomenon of vowel harmony, which is highlighted in the very first grammar module. Vowel harmony in Turkish means that the vowel(s) in a suffix are dictated by (typically) the last vowel of the root. For example, look at the following four verb forms:
The vowel in the suffix has a four-way alternation (u, ü, ı, i) which might not be obvious to those of us whose native language doesn't even feature all these vowels. But if you didn't already know about vowel harmony before starting the course, there are exercises to show exactly how it works, in which you're required to select the appropriate ending for a given word:
The thing about phonetics is that this sort of thing happens naturally, in all languages: your mouth is naturally lazy, and tries to change shape as little as possible from one sound to the next. In that sense, getting it right "by accident" is quite easy. But in Turkish, spelling changes along with pronunciation, meaning you do have to exercise a little more care.
For me, this way of learning seems to work well. It's nice to see new forms introduced in context, and only then start to think about the detail of how the morphology of the words change. It makes each new lesson a bit like a puzzle, so you can start to figure it out for yourself as you go along, and then find out whether you were right in the more detailed exercises.
I'll be blogging regularly over at the #milestones blog, so do drop by to see how I get on. I'll probably write a more thorough review of the Rosetta Stone software here when I get towards the end of the program.
Course content is copyright Rosetta Stone. Screenshots used with permission.