Sunday, January 08, 2012

Learning Languages as a puzzle game

I am interested in languages. I tried learning some Japanese when I was young. I gave up rather quickly. It might have been due to the lack of good books, or the lack of teachers. It might have been the lack of native Japanese speakers with whom I could practice my skills. My experience with Japanese instilled a love for learning new languages, and understanding a culture from their perspective, through their language.

A few months ago I started learning Mandarin Chinese. We found ourselves in Beijing, and we came across some great Chinese books lesson books for English speakers. These were useful in teaching characters and sentence construction in a very academic setting. Learning a language in this way is difficult. For one: your pronunciation is all wrong. For another, it is difficult to apply such academic learning to everyday speech.

Next, I tried using audio lessons only. These were a bit more helpful. They had correct pronunciation and useful everyday phrases. I did find that the lessons were geared more towards scoring women rather than real everyday phrases. Early lessons started with, "Where do you want to go to drink?", "Would you like to come to my place?" Useful stuff I'm sure, but not for a boring family man like me. A person like me needs directions to the hospital and the rest room. Further, the audio lessons made it difficult to distinguish between close syllables like 'ga' and 'ka'. You could easily mispronounce words and not realize it. Finally, you have no idea of written Chinese. This is a real limitation. Chinese is written in a strange and confusing way. Starting out with characters is much better than trying to learn them later. Building an initial comfort level helps if you travel.

Finally, we settled on Rosetta Stone (RS for short). RS teaches language in an interesting way. You don't see any of your native language written down. Concepts are introduced entirely through pictures, and you see Chinese to go along with the concepts. It is a strange feeling. You see a big ball and a small ball, and there are strange words. With time, you form the connection between the word and the concept. All without relying on the equivalent word in your native language. I was skeptical of this idea when a friend explained it to me. And RS costs an arm and a leg, which made me even more skeptical.

Luckily for me, I seem to learn Chinese with RS. I use RS as a puzzle game rather than language learning. It is fun to try to understand the game and get better. Now I'm on the final unit in Level One, I am surprised at how much Chinese I can understand. We have a few Chinese friends and I can understand bits of their conversation with their children. It is a great feeling.

Chinese is a devilishly hard language to learn. Right at the beginning, you start out learning pictographs (characters), tones in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. If RS works for Chinese, I suspect it will work for Japanese too. Once I go through RS Mandarin lessons, I might just look at the RS Japanese lessons.

Fun fact for the day: The original rosetta stone was a stone which had three languages inscribed on it. The three languages had the same message. The discovery of this stone led to a breakthrough in deciphering Ancient Egyptian. It is ironic that the Rosetta Stone software teaches you a language by only showing you the language you wish to learn. Rosetta Stone never shows you a rosetta stone.