Finally, five years ago, after feeling frustrated that I couldn’t communicate on family holidays, I enrolled on an evening class at my local secondary school. To balance the numbers, I was bumped again, this time into the improvers’ class, which wasn’t ideal: after a year, I might have been able to understand more complex written Italian, but at least the beginners could confidently ask the way to the station. Still, willpower (and paying in advance) motivated me to go out every Monday night for a couple of years until the school decided the classes weren’t financially viable.
By then, I could speak Italian well enough to get by on holiday, even if I did drift into Spanish when winging it in restaurants. I tried to maintain it by dabbling with the free language-learning website and app Duolingo, but by last summer, on a trip to southern Italy where fewer locals speak English, I realised that even the limited vocabulary I once had was dwindling.
With evening classes both inconvenient and expensive – my nearest is £23 a time – I looked into other options online. I considered one-to-one lessons via Skype, but they cost around £40 an hour, and still wouldn’t allow me to study when it suited me. After some free taster lessons, I opted for Rocket Languages, which was set up in New Zealand in 2004 and has 1.2m users worldwide. It offers three levels in 12 languages, online, via an app or on DVD, and costs from around £80 a level.
Will swapping a real-life teacher for a virtual one work for me? I skip through the early lessons until I come across things I don’t know, which I’m surprised to find is only a third of the way through the first level. Rocket Italian uses a more challenging combination of listening, writing and speaking than Duolingo, and the extra effort is rewarded with quantifiable progress.
There are (only slightly cheesy) audio lessons you can download to listen to on the go, written tests, flashcards and lots of speaking using voice-recognition software, which really helps with pronunciation. Like Duolingo, Rocket Italian uses gamification to boost motivation: you set yourself a daily points target and work towards it; you win badges; a streak counter shows how many consecutive days you’ve been studying; and a leaderboard ranks the top scorers in each language in the last 24 hours.
At times I miss being able to discuss grammar points with a teacher, but I should probably venture into the forum, where you can post questions for tutors and other users. I also find it frustrating that the algorithm will accept only one way of saying a phrase. But, conversely, a teacher with 15 students couldn’t possibly match the way it picks up on things I don’t know and makes me repeat them. And though I have to shout certain phrases over and over to get the software to recognise my answer, at least I remember them.
I try to practise every day, and setting my points target high encourages me to spend an hour or two completing a full lesson. But when I get home late, I sometimes cheat and just do 10 minutes of flashcards to avoid going back to zero on the streak counter. And while earning badges or a place on the leaderboard might spur on competitive types, I’m more motivated by wanting to be able to ask for things in the local Spar this summer.
I have a long way to go; studies suggest that it takes at least 600 hours to become fluent, even in a language closely related to English. After six weeks of Rocket Languages, I feel more fluent than when the evening classes finished, and I’m determined to persevere – even if my family are sick of me shouting Italian at my laptop.
- Try to think in the language you’re learning – start by describing things you see and do in the course of your day
- Plan when you will study and think of it as a diary commitment that you have to make time for
- Watch movies or read newspapers, magazines or websites in your chosen language
- Get a pocket dictionary or an app on your phone so conversations don’t stop every time you get to a word you don’t know
Original story - https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jan/07/how-to-learn-language-this-year-will-virtual-teacher-work