Kathleen Savino

Carpe Diem–Learn a New Language for free and use speech technology

In the past, I have been unsuccessful in my attempts to learn another language. From age 10, I was taught Spanish. However, my knowledge of Spanish today basically allows me to identify myself, wish people happy Christmases and birthdays, and ask someone’s name or the time. I can also say “I’m sorry,” which is very helpful when you’re constantly massacring someone else’s language. Then there was Latin (yes, of the dead language variety). What made me think learning Latin was a good idea? I was fresh out of high school and probably dazed from watching Dead Poet’s Society too many times. After two years of taking Latin all I really remember is carpe diem (it helped that this was the slogan of my undergrad alma mater, Montclair State University). Anyhow, I decided recently that I’d like to try to learn Spanish, at least more functionally, and I think when one learns languages, it’s so important to be able to speak and practice with others.

I read about the new language learning Web site, LiveMocha in– guess where (the NYT. I know. I love The Times). Not only is this site free, but it allows you to connect with other users so you can help others learn your native language–which gains you more points to access more lessons for yourself. At first, I balked at this possibility–“but I really, REALLY can’t speak Spanish,” I said. The site however, neatly sets up small lessons for you to learn and then gives you exercises you can write and record so other users can tell you if you speak, write and even spell words correctly. Users can also tell you how to not sound all text-bookish and overly formal. For instance, I told a user trying to learn English the other day that most people don’t  say they’re buying a “little car” unless that car is a toy. Instead, we say, “small car.” Also, I love the ability to record, and hear recordings of the language. While you learn the words and phrases, you hear a voice saying them. You can even turn off the ability to see the translation, and I imagine this feature has come from other language programs (like Rosetta Stone, which I’ve only heard about and never tried). Anyhow, these programs really teach you to learn contextually, and the speech element here really shows itself to be a crucial element, not just a fun extra (though I have no problem with fun extras!).

My only issues so far have been some navigational and aesthetic (or perhaps it is more accurate to say philosophical) ones. I find that it’s sometimes hard to tell where you left off, and the site will improve dramatically if it were structured a bit more intuitively. Also, I was annoyed that the gorda mujer (fat woman) had a weird expression and looked sad while the delgada mujer (skinny woman) was all sexified. Why not sexy fat and skinny ladies. We’re teaching languague, not making judgments,  LiveMocha, come on! I admit too that it was funny (but unrealistic) that someone would look at an old person and say “You are old.” Also, I felt the images didn’t always correspond as easily to the words. For instance an image that’s supposed to be matched with “you are tall” is of a short boy and a man standing back to back. Sure, one is taller than the other, but one is also shorter. As a short person, I always see the short part first I think. Anyhow, most of these issues are somewhat minor, and I hope that I will be able to improve my Spanish enough to hold an actual conversation with someone. I’ll follow with more updates if and when I get to more advanced levels. Adios for now, cabezas de discurso.

(p.s. translation from google. You can let me know if the comments if that’s totally wrong or not)