Call Me Rosetta

Today’s Cipher Comes Packaged in a Little Yellow Box

The omniscient “they” say the best age to learn a new language is around 12. Though I am twice as old, words have always come easily to me, no matter the tongue.

The last time I set foot in my high school’s French classroom was more than five years ago, but I still can pronounce all of my colors – mon favori est bleu – order a ham sandwich, ascertain the hour and nearest bathroom location, and recite a love poem about rain that drives the boys mad.

I know how to count to 10 in German, Pig Latin and gibberish, and I was taught to utter the following in a convincing accent: “Hi, how are you? My name is Ashley. I don’t speak much Japanese.” I also can “sing” Bette Midler’s “From a Distance” in American Sign Language.

But for all these relative accomplishments, I have one major blemish in my linguistic library. I can’t speak the fourth most-spoken language in the world – Spanish – other than to request agua con limón at El Jalisco, a tactic I learned from my well-meaning father, guaranteed to exasperate even the most patient server.

Intimidated by the aspirated “s” of the Castilian dialect, I set out to learn Latin-American Spanish using the award-winning Rosetta Stone software. (Thirty-one languages, from Hindi to Welsh, are available for your learning pleasure on CD-ROM or online.) I figured if entrepreneurial CEOs and clandestine government agents had success with the program, this quirky writer could, too.

After you select your language – Pashto, anyone? – you’ll install the software from a disk or the Web site. The software automatically scans your computer to make sure your JavaScript and microphone are compatible and functioning. Though you have the option of proceeding without downloading the speech recognition feature, I wholeheartedly recommend waiting a moment for this invaluable tool.

The Rosetta Stone Dynamic Immersion process is unlike any other educational device I have ever utilized. You don’t realize how swiftly you are learning – or that you are studying at all – because there are no tedious translations.

Instead, a mélange of photographic images, printed words and audible phrases fuse to brand the new language in your mind. You instinctively know what you are seeing and saying without the hassle of rote memorization. The interactive software engages you in every aspect of the natural language progression,
just as children absorb the world and words around them.

You begin with simple subjects such as boy and girl, cup and bowl, apple and bread, sky and moon. Then the people, places and things begin to interact. A woman reads. A horse runs. A cat sleeps. (A stereotype perseveres.)

Each lesson has a reading, writing, listening and speaking component. Most sessions last between five and 30 minutes, the longest being the core lesson that commences every section. Spanish Level 1 covers four units: Language Basics, Greetings & Introductions, Work & School and Shopping.

You’ll never guess which was my favorite. Let’s just say that a chica needs to be able to buy platform zapatos around the globe.

Every time you answer a question correctly, your achievement is reinforced by the sound of a tinkling harp. An incorrect response elicits a descending tone that sounds a whole lot like the musical equivalent of “uh-oh.”

I got sucked into the Rosetta Stone vortex and finished Language Basics in about four hours with a single break for una taza de café – a cup of coffee. After my initial compulsive learning session, it occurred to me I might be better off pacing myself.

One word of advice: Don’t be discouraged if you breeze through a whole unit making straight 98s and 100s and then score a whopping 64 percent on your Milestone Activity. A series of photographs zoom by on your screen, followed by a tone prompting you to speak with no specific direction.

You may see a loaf of bread and say something entirely appropriate like “Can I have a bite?” only to hear the “uh-oh” noise 14 times because the response it’s looking for is more along the lines of “That bread looks old.”

One thing that won’t get stale – your enthusiasm for this intuitive learning experience and the speed with which you acquire a new language.

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