On Language Courses

Last time we were in Italy, my wife and I vowed that we would try to learn some Italian before we return (she has some high school French and I have a fair amount of Spanish).   Well, we never did much about it.  I will confess that despite being often skeptical of the paradox of choice, it may actually explain my lack of action.  I could not make up my mind between the various courses.

Then along came my son, who has decided with his roommate that they want to do a semester abroad in Italy next year.  I am not sure why he chose Italy -- I can only assume it had something to do with my euphoric descriptions of finding myself in Milan on Vogue fashion night and being surrounded by Italian models.  You know that language course ad with the guy picking up the Italian course so he can have his one chance at the Italian supermodel?  It's a funny ad, but I fear it may actually hit kind of close to home in my household.

Anyway, my son pushed me over the top to buy a course.  The conflicting online reviews can leave your head spinning, but the general conclusions I came to were:

  • Rosetta Stone is all marketing, but not the best course
  • Pimsleur got the most positive ratings.

So I went with the Pimsleur course.  It is PC-based, which fits how my family works.  It allows four installations, so each family member got one.  And it allows its lessons to be downloaded to mp3 files so you can listen in the car or on your iPod (though you lose out on the other parts of the lesson which are non-audio).

So far, 20 days into the thing, I have been happy.  I have never thought of myself as good at languages but I have decided to trust the process.  So far, I feel like I am learning and retaining a lot.  My son reports that he thinks it is better than Rosetta Stone, which his roommate is using.

The weird part for me, who learned Spanish from a grammar nazi, is to work with verbs without first learning all the conjugation rules.   In fact, the course seems to work this way -- you learn examples and phrases first, then over time go back and learn the grammar behind what you are doing.  It seems to work, for a few reasons.  One is that a lot of the verbs you need early on to say basic things (is, go, like) have non-standard conjugations anyway, so memorizing them is what you would have had to do with any approach.  A second reason is that it is a hell of a lot more fun to say useful things than to spend what I remember to be years farting around with conjugation and use rules for the subjunctive.  After all, I am not trying to write an academic paper in Italian, I am trying to enjoy my tourist experience.  The third reason this is working for me is that I do remember a lot of my old Spanish verb conjugations, and it turns out Italian conjugates (at least in the present tense) very similarly to Spanish.

Postscript:  To the early joke about learning Italian to meet women, I will say we were all laughing through about the first 7 lessons of Pimsleur.  If you had designed a course solely to pick up people of the opposite sex, I am not sure one bit of the first few lessons would have been different.  Seriously, we were repeating phases like "do you want to have a drink at your place or mine?"


  1. slocum:

    We found the Michel Thomas Italian course to be really good and surprisingly enjoyable -- you might give that a try as well. This is a pretty reasonable comparison between the two methods (but there are lots of them out there):


  2. lelnet:

    "the early joke about learning Italian to meet women"

    You assume it's a joke merely because you intended it as a joke. This is an error, for no matter how funny it might be, it's not actually a joke at all. :)

  3. Colin77:

    I've been using Duolingo lately, which is a free online program, to help with Spanish and have found it very useful: http://www.duolingo.com/

  4. obloodyhell:

    }}} After all, I am not trying to write an academic paper in Italian, I am trying to enjoy my tourist experience.

    I have no personal direct experience, but, outside of France, where they'll sneer at you anyway, no matter how good your French is, most people of most nations appreciate that you took the EFFORT to learn at least a haltingly useful amount of their language... and, being an American, you'll be sending a good message about Americans to others around the world, since they think Americans never learn any other languages (which is true, but hardly fair, since we really have no NEED to do so, at least not until we really have the same problems with hispanics that the canucks have with their french.

  5. Joe:

    If you eventually want to memorize a lot of vocabulary or verb conjugations I highly recommend Anki. It's a flashcard program that uses spaced repetition so that words are tested only around the time you start to forget them. It's pretty efficient.

  6. Andrew Weiler:

    The key in learning a language is using it, not retaining it. If you use it, what you use will be retained. The issue is how to use language in a way which is natural and spontaneous but at the same time controlled- which it has to be in the early stages. Rote memorisation is counter intuitive even though it is recommended and used world wide. I will mention a post here that mentions ways to learn a language in a more "natural" way: http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/how-to-learn-a-language/

  7. kidmugsy:

    Be sure to master the two different ways of stressing "casino" and their two different meanings.

  8. jimcraq:

    I'm using Duolingo for Spanish together with the FSI Language Courses http://www.fsi-language-courses.org (a little dated, but also free). I like 'em both. Did I say they were free?

  9. NL7:

    I took five semesters of high school Spanish and four semesters of college German, but abandoned both well before being intermediate. I used a halting bit of German when I spent a day there back this March, so I've been trying to get back into it since then. Lucky for me, the Germans have Deutsche Welle, basically a cross between BBC and Voice of America; it promotes German and International news to the English-speaking world, including free online German lessons for speakers of English or Russian.

    Combined with the free android app from Babbel (vocab only; the full course costs money), I've gotten back into the swing of it. The DW course is cheap looking but it's online, reasonably effective, and free. Babbel is pretty great looking, with pictures and phrases. I also extensively use Google Translate and read news stories online auf deutsch (Spiegel, Tagesspiel, and DW langsam nachrichten). So far, the best thing for learning a language is trying to use it. So I challenge myself to describe my daily activities auf deutsch, which forces me to expand my vocab with google translate. It's a very rough-hewn process, but I think creating my own system (which I'll grant is certainly suboptimal) enrolls me more fully into the process and keeps me from getting terribly distracted or disinterested.

    I'm considering what language to learn next (in a couple years). I suppose Spanish is practical and I have some basis in it. But Dutch and Swedish/Danish/Norwegian are more appealing to me, and Dutch is similar to German and English, as languages go.

  10. johncunningham:

    this is a bit hokey, but it does help. take post-it notes and label everything in your house, office, car, etc in the language you are working on. and listen to tv shows or movies in the language whenever possible.

  11. Tim:

    Not just free, but a pretty brilliant value exchange program where the
    users are trained to functionally use a language and then set loose
    translating Web documents into that language, benefiting all readers of
    that language while practicing your individual skills.

  12. NL7:

    Wow, actually that sounds like a decent idea. My girlfriend might appreciate it if I did it more discreetly, say keeping a small list or notepad. That would keep home clean, but I'd have to force myself to check the list a lot to get anything like the same effect.

    For German, which stupidly assigns three genders to every object, it would be helpful in memorizing the gender of things.

  13. johncunningham:

    get her studying it also, and point out that post-it notes are preferable to spray paint. sounds also as though she needs to be taken down a peg or two, and German has 3 genders for nouns, but only one gender per noun. just takes some brute memorization.
    and don't forget,

    Der groesste Feind der Menschheits Wohl
    is sicherlich der Alkohol
    Doch in dem Bibel steht geschrieben
    Du sollst auch deine Feinde lieben.

  14. NL7:

    No peg movement necessary, since she's great; this is me trying to be considerate.

    I knew basically all of that passage except Wohl. Never read a German limerick before.