There are a variety of ways to learn a language which include taking classes, using websites, using learning software, or getting a pen pal to practice writing or speaking with. Despite these options, they say that the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it by spending some time in a place that only speaks that language. This would force you to learn the language or perish.
Asa, Matt and I all took Spanish classes during high school which taught us some basic vocabulary and how to conjugate verbs. As these experiences were about 10 years ago, we quickly found that we had forgotten a substantial amount of what we learned. Really learning a language requires constant exposure to it.
When we decided to move to Uruguay, the first thing I did was start working on learning Spanish again. The first place I turned was the internet. There are several free “learn Spanish” websites of varying degrees of helpfulness. My favorite is: http://www.spanishdict.com/learn. It has a variety of really cool learning tools including: flashcards, matching, spelling, and speaking exercises, and videos describing language concepts and vocabulary. The website also tracks your progress through four different levels and you always have access to their dictionary and phrasebooks. I really enjoy the website, but it’s a bit difficult to watch the videos and do the exercises when the internet connection is slow.
A very new website (set to go public June 19) designed to help people learn languages is http://duolingo.com. It is designed by the same group that created the reCAPTCHA system that helps digitize old books by having consumers decipher text that computers cannot. Duolingo is an internet program that helps people learn languages (just Spanish and German currently) through exercises and translations. The text available for translation is actually real snippets of text taken from the internet. One goal of the inventors is to make the internet more accessible to the world-wide population via translation into a variety of languages. Studies have shown that their design is equally effective in teaching language as other well-tested software products (like Rosetta Stone). Another highlight of Duolingo is that they have gamified their product, allowing people to gain points and compete against their friends while they learn. Here is a TED talk describing the creation and purpose of Duolingo and reCAPTCHAs. I really like Duolingo. It is fun and I feel like I am doing something good while I am learning!
The second place I turned was more traditional language learning software, specifically, Rosetta Stone. My mother had purchased level 1 Spanish years ago which I promptly borrowed. Rosetta stone uses a visual recognition system to help people learn languages. For example it will show you a picture of an apple and tell you what the word for apple is in Spanish. The program then builds on your knowledge of the word for apple to teach other words. For example it will show a photo of 5 apples and 3 oranges. In this way a person can also learn the number 5 because they already know the word for apple. The program uses a variety of exercises including matching photos to written words, matching spoken words to photos, practicing pronunciation, practicing spelling, and requiring participants to verbally describe photos. Rosetta does a great job with its voice processing software. I really like using Rosetta stone for its work on verbal skills which are often ignored in other beginner classes. It also does a good job with reinforcing concepts and vocabulary by requiring review and learning concepts through a variety of the exercises.
The biggest downside to using Rosetta Stone is the cost. The company does not allow consumers to purchase individual levels besides level 1 (there are 5 levels available). Rosetta Stone offers packages that include the first three levels or all five levels. The cost for all 5 levels is normally $500 US (P.S. they are having a Father’s Day special right now and all 5 levels only cost $400 US). The first level by itself costs an insane $179 US. Sometimes these packages are a little cheaper from Amazon, but not all the time.
There are other language learning software programs that are much cheaper and claim to have the same results as Rosetta Stone. One such program is called Instant Immersion and I haven’t tried it. The only reason I know about it is that they sell it at Costco and online in a yellow box deceptively similar to Rosetta Stone.
The third place I turned to explore Spanish learning was by utilizing a pen pal. I started writing letters in Spanish to a friend who speaks Spanish fluently. It was wonderful until I got busy and stopped writing. There are numerous websites that specialize in connecting people that want to practice their language skills. One such website can be found here. One of the benefits of these websites is that they can connect you with a native speaker in the language you want to learn, where that native speaker reciprocally wants to learn your native language. During verbal practice, they recommend splitting the time speaking in each language so that each person gets practice. Some websites/services will even provide speaking prompts so that you don’t even have to think of topics to talk about. Other services such as SKYPE can be used as a free way to contact people once you have found them. You can even video chat if you have the equipment. I haven’t actually used any of these internet services (besides Skype), but I really like the idea!
The last thing to do was to actually move to a Spanish speaking country. Check!
I currently go to an hour long spanish lesson once a week. It is a one-on-one session with a native speaker and it costs me $10US an hour. The whole lesson is in spanish unless I have specific questions about vocabulary translations. The lessons are arranged such that we spend about half the time chatting about life and practice using specific words, tenses, or grammar. The rest of the time is spent doing exercises that practice vocabulary, verb conjugation, or speaking skills. I am thoroughly enjoying myself!
Stay tuned later in the week for our spanish speaking experiences here in Uruguay.