Best ways to learn a language
(Photo: Andrea Wyner)
The book made it sound so easy. “Teach Yourself Italian,” it was called, and for two years it sat on my desk, silently mocking my inability to do just that. I’m not sure why I thought an obscure book from 1947 would do the trick; still, I dutifully studied its archaic instructions on railroad etiquette and talking to porters and boatmen. But after two years of halting, ineffective study, I could barely even remember how to say “porter,” let alone command one to carry my steamer trunk. Thanks for nothing, “Teach Yourself Italian.”
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From audio courses that eschew tests and memorization to comprehensive online lessons that incorporate games and hilariously stilted chat sessions with bona fide native speakers, there have never been more options for the aspiring polyglot. But do any of them actually work?
I decided to see for myself. I gathered several of the most prominent language-learning programs and tested them out, evaluating them on how well I remembered the lessons and how engaging I found the teaching methods. I followed their instructions, force-feeding my brain verbs, nouns, and unfamiliar accent marks, in hopes of fulfilling my long-deferred dream of learning the Italian language.
Then I traveled to Italy and did my best to go native. I practiced for a month before the trip, which I figured would be enough time to get a sense of how these programs work (and whether they work) and to learn enough Italian to hold my own. If not, I could always fall back on enthusiastic grunts and hand gestures.
The grunts came in handy. Basically, you shouldn’t trust any system that claims you can actually learn a language in a week, or a month, or any other ludicrously short time span. I had studied very hard before my trip, and my first day in Milan was still a wreck. I was unable to find my way out of a railroad station, was too intimidated to ask for change for a 50 note, and flubbed my first real conversational gambit so badly that my interlocutor switched to English out of pity. Needless to say, in the short term, these programs won’t give you fluency unless you have some experience with the language already.
What these programs will do, with varying degrees of efficacy, is give you a baseline familiarity with the Italian language. Each program approaches this task differently. I had the least success with those courses that emphasized situational vocabulary—phrases and words that might prove handy in a restaurant or hotel, for instance. With these, it felt less like I was learning a language and more like I was just memorizing foreign phrases that I would inevitably forget when it came time to use them.
Click here for a sampling of language-learning programs.