Personal Journeys with Gramma

Life adventures, inspiration and insight; shared in articles, advice, personal chats and pictures.

Do You Want a Toilet or a Bath? Learning A New Language Online



Why learn a new language?  We can all guess that being able to communicate with people from cultures not our own would be helpful.  “Where is the ladies’ room, please?” is one of my favorite phrases to memorize in the local language before I travel.  When you need a restroom, you don’t want to waste time with confusion.  In fact, in that circumstance, most of us don’t want to waste time with anything.

You can use an app like Google Translate, of course, but you’re trusting the app to get your meaning correct.  You don’t want to end up standing before a bathtub when that isn’t the kind of bathroom you need.  Then again, you may find yourself in a situation where your trusty apps don’t work and no one volunteers to translate for you.  Major difficulty.  It can happen.

I’ve never had anyone approach me with a computerized voice or a printed message before, but I can guess that I wouldn’t feel a warm, gooey connection with the person who is thrusting the electronics in my face.  Human relationships are warmest and most respectful when they link human beings.  Besides, apart from escorting the person to her required destination, if she doesn’t understand my language, how do I reply except to type?  I suppose I would do my best to accommodate, but I can’t imagine a sophisticated Parisian being impressed that someone thought to bring a crutch like Siri (I-Phone’s computerized assistant) along.  (How do you say, “We get no respect” in French?)

Learning a new language provides many advantages beyond respectful, easy travel.  The language of a culture contains hints about its history, its priorities, and even its perspective.  Most of us think in words, so knowing more words for more ideas or concepts gives us a chance to think in more ways, to understand more points of view.  In addition, we might one day be able to read books or news or listen to a foreign diplomat without wondering if the translator changed the meaning.

Finally, playing with language-learning online is fun–a practical use for odd blobs of time.  If someone comes up and asks what you’re doing, your reply sounds more intellectual and defensible than if you have to say you’re playing a game.

Most of us have heard of Rosetta Stone, the language software that can be purchased in levels or in one huge edition.  I’ve toyed with samples, and it was fun, but too based on pictures for my brain.  In addition, the whole set is pricey.  You don’t want to buy it if you don’t have a serious use for the language.

Recently, a friend suggested a free online instruction that I’ve since spent several hours using.  It’s called and after you set up your username and a password, a little owl takes you through many orbs of focus in any one of several languages–the main ones being French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and German.  You can opt to share your journey with others online, if you wish.  I’m a loner as a student; however, I have consulted “discussion” which is a chat room of other students sharing information about the lesson.  It helps.

If you’re hoping to polish rusty skills or move higher from a strong base you might have established in school or at home, you can take a placement test at the beginning to skip to an advanced level.  I’ve heard that the levels become very sophisticated.  I wasn’t in any danger of needing advanced skills so I began at the beginning.

You can use a microphone, if you wish, and have the software correct your pronunciation, but after repeating, “I am a woman” in Spanish several times without being understood, I decided to simply repeat after the soothing female voice and trust my own ears to critique.  You can work without any sound at all, too, if you prefer.

The lessons ask you to translate back and forth from what you hear as well as what you read or write and supply missing words in sentences and phrases.  They’re varied and repetitious enough to make you feel smart.  You can practice as many times as you like or even re-do any old level you like, but when you’ve gotten enough answers correct, you have the option of moving on to the next focus (such as verbs, animals, family, etc.).  A line graph charts your progress between practice sessions.  The sessions are brief and engaging.  In a single week, I was typing and saying proper sentences such as “If I see a spider, I run.”  I thought the content was realistic.  I don’t play well with others when the others are arachnids.

I’m still stumbling over masculine and feminine articles, accent marks, and remembering so many unfamiliar words.  The software helps you, if you want it to, and even repeats at either of two speeds upon request.  In a couple of weeks, I’ve arrived at level 9, which isn’t astronomical, but I can guarantee I’ve gone farther faster than I did in class.  I haven’t explored all the possibilities available on the site, but I leave that to you, if you’re interested.  When I’ve learned enough, I’m going to call one of my friends who’s fluent in Spanish to see how I’m doing.  She’ll be impressed that I’m prepared to get directions to someplace other than a restroom next time I travel.

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