My Linguistic Laziness Is Finally In The Past

My school’s dusty, disinfectant scented corridors don’t invoke positive memories. Neither does the Tricolore text book, with its bent corners and cheesy photographs that I was tortured with for three years. It belonged in Marquis De Sade’s novels.

School also felt like a production line, robots programmed to insert knowledge. That strategy may have worked if I was studios, but I wasn’t; indolence was my default behaviour. Combine that attitude with a teacher who could have put NYC to sleep, and you’ll understand why I dropped French. I regret it now, but I wasn’t inspired by tales of Paris’ literary scene and the authors’ life experiences while living there. Instead, the teachers blathered on about a piece of paper and how wonderful the letter ‘A’ was.

Luckily, my parents instilled a sense of wanderlust every summer. We’d listen to language tapes in the car – a welcome break from Abba during a long road trip through France – where, with a map on my lap in the front seat, I’d shout my pronunciation when instructed. It helped me learn basic vocabulary, but I wasn’t confident speaking, at all. I also found it impossible to digest a list of grammatical structures from my dad’s Berlitz phrase book.

On The Road, Post School Days
As an adult the same is true, but I’m more aware of my learning profile – only retaining information when I either use it in context, such as using a word in a piece of writing, or study repetitively. The latter worked in China and Russia where I managed to learn enough phrases to (just) survive buying food and train tickets. However, I don’t find reciting a vocabulary mantra particularly meditative. Also, I admit, shamefully, that I’ve found English to be well spoken on my travels and my habitual, lazy mind-set was easier. Wrong, I know, but it was comforting.

In the summer of 2009 my attitude changed. I was travelling around the Mongolian countryside in a grey, Soviet van with two brothers from Quebec, and a couple from Romandie, Switzerland. Our guide was a university student, twenty, and spoke good English. The driver was a middle-aged Mongolian from a nomadic tradition who hadn’t had the advantages of a modernised education system. But he still spoke more English than I spoke Mongolian. Whilst English was the common denominator, the guide’s youthful naiveté would occasionally annoy us, and my companions would moan in French. Wedged into the tight corner of that van, I listened to their emotionally charged French while I stared into the vast, dusty landscapes, and let my self-consciousness melt into the scenery as I turned the volume up on my iPod.

After Mongolia I was heading to Vietnam to study for a CELTA and work as an English teacher. After my experience in Mongolia I was determined to learn Vietnamese while living there. I was tired of feeling both lazy and ignorant. Before Vietnam, I spent three months on a Thai island writing a draft of a novel (now in bits and filed under ‘bad’). The Norwegian who owned the guesthouse had some Rosetta Stone courses on his laptop – including Vietnamese – which he let me borrow.

Using Rosetta Stone For The First Time
The laptop was old, the microphone unresponsive, and my pronunciation was even worse. Frustrated, I turned the pronunciation part of the course off, and was soon learning basic vocabulary and grammar. A tonal language wasn’t the wisest choice for my first language, but, as I’ll explain later, Rosetta Stone’s course structure suited my learning profile perfectly. Once in Saigon, I was too busy studying and preparing lesson plans to try and learn any more from my phrase book. Once I’d passed my CELTA, I enjoyed Saigon’s nightlife with the vigour that my teachers craved, but left Vietnam to start a job in Indonesia. It was one of the shortest careers ever, but that’s another story. As I took off from Jakarta, leaving another set of dreams on the beaches of Asia, I wasn’t thinking about learning a language.

Finally Learning A Language
Five years later and life is very different. I’m settled and spend more time playing Lego, watching Harry Potter, and relearning the art of long hand division than I do planning an escape from the pages of a guidebook (that’s not a complaint by the way).

Isaac, my partner’s 8 year old son, is learning basic French at school, and my partner studied Spanish at high school (she’s from the US). The number of times she’s corrected my pronunciation of paella is in double figures. And whilst I may have a paella fetish, I’m hardly Del Boy, but I do acknowledge my language faux pas.

When we’re not playing Lego or sucking paella juice from our fingers, we’re talking about travelling in South America and our dream of retiring on Italy’s Almafi coast. Learning Italian should, in theory, be easier if we can speak Spanish. We’ve talked about it, but that’s all we’ve done. Family and work life always presents an excuse when I’m looking for it. Then an opportunity arose to ‘learn a language as the ultimate New Year’s resolution’ – via Rosetta Stone’s Spanish course.

The Journey Begins
With the hangovers from Christmas, New Year and my 40th birthday finally receding, my subscription began. Technology has progressed a lot since I was shouting incomprehensible gobbledegook at an old lap top in a tiled, echoic room.  We’ve installed it on both our iPad and Nexus 7. Isaac and I can sit on the sofa and learn together in a comfortable, informal way. The microphone on the iPad is more responsive – more a reflection on hardware than the software – so that’s  what we use.

At first, Isaac was having problems with his pronunciation, similar to my hotel room experience, and repetitively pronouncing incorrectly was causing clenched fists and loud sighs. Not what I wanted. I found the settings, planning to turn the pronunciation part of the course off, but found a child’s voice setting with the ability to reduce the precision of the pronunciation. Peace was restored on our sofa, and my iPad didn’t learn how to fly.

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We’ve been impressed by how much he’s retaining. My partner came home after a school run smiling with pride after he’d proudly informed her that periódico meant newspaper. It’s not surprising, one Sunday he quite happily spent 90 minutes going through the lessons, only the dreaded instruction for ‘bed-time’ interrupting his concentration. We’ve managed to avoid a gaming console (so far) so he plays games on the iPad. The app suits him because it’s visual and he treats it just like any other game, happy progressing and feeling satisfied as he gets fewer answers wrong.

The Course Structure
The lessons are interactive, you associate the image with the written form, and the course begins by introducing basic language constructs such as common nouns (both countable and uncountable), verbs, pronouns, articles, numbers and the troublesome masculine and feminine forms – something I always struggled with at school.

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We’ve been lucky though. Isaac isn’t the type to demand a detailed explanation for why some English verbs are irregular and have to be learned. He doesn’t demand to know why some Spanish nouns are masculine, and others are feminine, either. He just accepts it. And if an 8 year old can do that, then a 40 year old can too. I never truly appreciated the innocent wisdom of a child’s mind until we started learning together. It’s a beautiful thing.

Course Progression
Whilst the course begins gently, the ascent into advanced learning is more of a Nepalese Sherpa’s interpretation of a gentle incline. Don’t be put off though, whilst we were conscious of the accelerated progression, it’s not like trying to balance a skip on a matchstick. The foundations have been put in place, and whilst Isaac’s finger may pause and hover over images for longer, he works it out, and we both find the challenge rewarding anyway.

I don’t interrupt his flow or concentration either, muttering the answer under my breath, and only help when he’s stuck or struggling with pronunciation.

As well as the increase in difficulty, the app’s behaviour also adapts. In the fourth lesson on the first level, the picture order changes after each correct answer, preventing muscle memory from recognising any areas that haven’t been pressed. This caught Isaac out a few times, each time laughing as he recognised what the app was doing. We’ve had a lot of fun together in the process. I’m just jealous of his absorbent memory. Very jealous.

My Learning Profile
As I mentioned earlier, I respond well when I learn through repetition and/or context. The course does both; the context is visual and the repetition is the reuse of the same language constructs in different, and more complex, situations. Learning feels both intuitive and passive, absorbing grammatical structures without too much thought, even when the lesson isn’t necessarily easy.

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Learning Spanish hasn’t felt as daunting as my lame attempt at Vietnamese. I’m no longer being slapped for pronouncing paella incorrectly, either. This is an added bonus. One I’m grateful for.

All I know is that Rosetta Stone suits my family perfectly. My partner will start learning with us when we’ve progressed to the level she’s already at. We made good progress at the beginning of the year, but we’re in the process of moving house, so, unfortunately, Spanish is temporarily replaced with an expletive ridden version of English. The madness will settle soon, and we’ll settle on the couch in our new home and resume learning.

And we can’t wait.

Try a free demo of Rosetta Stone today to get you started on your language journey!



Damien Fletcher is a freelance copywriter and his spare time involves travel, literature, poetry and satirising the clowns that run the UK’s government. He’s just as happy exploring the cafes of Paris as he is trekking in Northern Pakistan. He’s currently learning Spanish. Website: www.damienfletcher.co.uk

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