03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Aladdin's Lamp of Language Learning Is In Your Hands

It’s common knowledge that to really learn another language
you need an immersion experience. But since most of us can’t pack our
bags and move to Florence or Barcelona or Kyoto, we sadly store away
our dreams and think…someday.

What isn’t common knowledge is that you don’t have to leave home to get a virtual immersion experience, and thus learn a new language faster than ever before.

I hold up as proof one student I know who, despite having no
discernable talent for learning language (in fact, he is still trying
to master English after living in the U.S. all his life) is
nevertheless making impressive progress in his second language of
Spanish. Enough progress, in fact, to delight himself and be a source
of fine amusement for his Spanish-speaking friends.

That student is me.

Y si yo puedo, Usted puede. (And if I can, you can.)

The secret is technology, but not the technology you may think.

Sit-in-front-of-the-computer learning

First, let me talk about the most obvious way to use
technology—learning at your computer. You may have seen those bright
yellow boxes from Rosetta Stone in magazine ads and in
airports. I bought the Latin American Spanish package and am halfway
through its three levels. The software has you listen, read, speak and
type. It’s fun, and the glorious photography makes it all the more

I found Rosetta Stone a good way to begin, but soon I was ready to
venture farther afield, untethered to my computer, and find more ways
to learn.

Audio learning turbo-boosted with MP3

Audio language learning has been around for decades in the form of
tapes and CDs, but recently it has been given a new lease on life
through digitization. I sampled several audio programs, and my favorite
is Pimsleur.  

I begin my day by listening on my iPod when I’m making the morning
coffee. As I’m still waking up, I don’t bother to respond when
prompted, but instead just let the language wash over me. As I go about
my morning ritual (bring in the papers, run up the flag, shovel up dog
poop), I’ll gradually answer back, as if I were talking to my
Spanish-speaking neighbors. (My real neighbors probably wonder why I
spend so much time talking to myself.) Whenever I’m by myself doing
things that don’t require much thought, I’m listening to
Spanish—driving, washing dishes, walking our dog—so it takes no
additional time out of my day. (It has cut into my audiobook listening,
however, which is a sacrifice.)

MP3 players like Apple’s iPod have magnified the practical power of
audio programs like Pimsleur. The iPod’s portability is one of the keys
to immersing yourself in your language while you do other things.

Little digital tutors conspire to virtually immerse us

The real news in technology for language learning is the multitude
of multilingual electronic devices and software that can teach us
almost by accident.

iPod in spanish
For example, not only do I listen to Spanish on my iPod, but I went to
Settings and changed its language (idiom) to Spanish. Since I have
pressed iPod buttons in English for a couple of years now, the menus
are familiar. So it’s no problema clicking Canciones rather than Songs.

I have set my bank’s ATM preferences for Spanish. At first I worried
I might accidentally transfer money to an account in Venezuela, but
after years of following the instructions in English, it was easy to
make the switch.

Canon camera in spanish
My pocket Canon camera also serves up its menus in Spanish for me now (it offers an
astounding 25 languages to choose from). It’s easy to toggle back to
English when I need to check, for example, that Borrar means Erase.

Blackberry in spanish My
PDA is my most constant tutor. Now its
familiar little icons are labeled Mensajes rather than Messages and
Reloj rather than Clock. Every time I pick it up, which, seems like
about 2,000 times a day, I’m getting a bit more virtual immersion.

Facebook in spanish
For those websites I use often, such as Flickr, Facebook, Yahoo and
LinkedIn, I’ve also toggled to Spanish. (Buscar means Search.) Right at
the bottom of Flickr’s home page you can choose from eight languages.

If you have navigation in your car, you can set that system to your
next language, as I did in my mother’s Camry on a recent road trip. Dobla a la derecha,
it commanded, and so I turned right. (Part of my duties when I visit my
mother is to annoy her enough so she’s glad when I leave.)

En el cine (at the movies)

Further linguistic marvels await us encoded in DVDs. Since most
popular movies these days offer subtitles in various languages, if not
audio tracks, movies provide some of the best language learning
available.  Rub the genie’s lamp, and your movies will magically teach
you. We now watch our DVDs with Spanish subtitles.

New musical freedom

Not only can you download music sung in the language you’re
learning, but you can find the lyrics, too. That’s what I did for Luz
Casual, a glorious, soulful ballad singer from Spain.

Electronic books

Don Quixote in both print and electronic formElectronic books on eReaders promise a new world of learning opportunities. Unabridged editions of Don Quixote in both English and Spanish came loaded on my new and adorable Kindle competitor, the Cool-er Reader from Interead.

Immersible you

Can technology do it all? Not yet. You still have to be willing to
embarrass yourself by plunging in and trying to converse with humans. My next step is to hire a tutor who can work with me

Not all languages are as easy to get wet with as Spanish, of course.
And as much help as technology can now provide, learning a language is
still time-consuming and hard work and thus requires a real commitment.
In my case, I’m deeply interested in literacy and libraries and sense
that I can assist those causes in Latin America. You’ll have to have
your own compelling reasons for learning a new language to provide your

But the delightful thing is that rather suddenly, we have a perfect
little storm of technological advances that makes virtual language
immersion easy. In trying to make their products usable to a global
audience, product designers have inadvertently provided excellent tools for learning new languages. It’s one of the unanticipated blessings of our age.

How about you, dear reader—are you learning a new language, too? Tell me what you've learned about learning it—I'd love to get your comments.

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