For this Christmas, I got my first, truly powerful mobile device in the form of a Kindle Fire HD. At last, I was moving in the modern world, where I could properly ignore people around me by playing games, updating Facebook, and watching movies. Up until now, I could only do that so completely on my computer. I have an ancient (2002) Pocket PC which allows me to read ebooks while travelling, but not with this much power.
I went to the App Store to see what was offered for languages and language learning, naturally. There was quite a variety, including Kindle version of Memrise and DuoLingo. I decided to see how good some single language teaching systems were, so I searched for “Italian” (a language I have been studying on and off for a few years) to see what came up. Among the free applications was “Italian in a Month”, so I downloaded that one.
I know I’m not going to learn Italian in a month. We all know those promises are never really valid unless we spend every waking moment studying, but this had a nice colourful icon, with a waving Italian flag, and I am a sucker for waving flags.
It also had the subtitle and promise of “Learn Like Kids”. That should have been my first warning.
One of the biggest claims that has been circulating the language resources arena for a number of years now is the promise that, by using a certain product, we will be learning like we did as children. What that has come to really mean is that we are going to be shown some pictures, most likely with an audio recording, to match with written text. By being drilled in this way – picture to word – over and over, we should eventually absorb the meaning, like we did “as kids”.
Of course, as kids, we didn’t get single pictures and words. We had multiple instances of items and concepts given, along with context and well meaning non-children to correct our errors. I have ranted many times in many places the problems with this system, but something really set me off with this version.
I started the application once it was installed. Only then did it tell me this just had three lessons – one beginner, one immediate, one advanced – to let me know how the not-free version of the program would be. Lesson 1 was for “General words”, such as man, girl, drink, run, etc.; Lesson 15 was for food; Lesson 30 was “summary”, which was composed of full sentences.
I started the first lesson, and patiently repeated each word as it showed it to me along with a picture. After that, the drilling began.
For those who, for some impossible reason, have not yet encountered this kind of language learning, used in software packages like Rosetta Stone and web sites like LiveMocha, the method is almost too simple. You are presented with a group of pictures then given a word in the new language (Italian, in this case). You must then properly select the picture which best matches the word. If you get it wrong, you guess again, and keep guessing until you get it correct. It then gives you the same set of images, in a different order, with the next word. No words are repeated and no words match two pictures, so as long as you don’t select any pictures that were not already used as answers, the guessing gets easier. Finally, when you have completed that block of images, it starts over with a new group of images and words.
I worked through the first group of six: l’uomo, il bambino, la bambina, la donna, la scimmia, la giraffa. Those are, respectively, “the man”, “the boy”, “the girl”, “the woman”, “the monkey”, and “the giraffe”. Not hard at all. I easily guess those all and move to the next group.
The ones in this group are “è in piedi”, “cammina”, “è seduta”, “corre”, “mangia”, “beve”. I know three of these, can guess two, and have no clue on one of them. The first is really a phrase, which breaks down to “è” = “he/she is”, “in” = “in, on”, “piedi” = feet. I know I’m not supposed to break these things apart and think about them, but I did. The image I am given for this phrase is of a man standing in front of a car in a field.
Now, if I am a learner, I might recognize “in” as similar to English “in”, which then confuses me. I can guess that “piedi” has something to do with feet, but I have no concept of what “in feet” means. He is in a field, not a foot, after all.
This is the reason why, in my view, this kind of learning completely fails. Since we are getting just one version of the word or concept and no translation (as kids, we never got translations), we have to grasp some kind of meaning from the picture to associate to the words or phrases we are given. So now, I know that a man with a car has something to do with “piedi”.
The next image and word pairing isn’t much better. “Cammina” is shown with a man walking along a sidewalk, carrying a sports bag. Since I learned last lesson that “man” is “l’uomo”, I know it isn’t about the man. Must be the bag. So now, I know that the word for “sports bag” is “cammina”. I’m doing great so far!
A woman sitting in an empty eating area, wearing a lovely blue dress, is the image for “è seduta”. Again, I learned that “woman” is “la donna”, so this has to be something else. My mind connects “sedu” with the English word “seduce” and “seduction”, so I figure this is telling me she is a seducer. Wow! Learning some great concepts for the first lesson!
We have another woman in the fourth picture. This is a woman wearing a tank top and shorts running along a beach at sunset with a flock of birds flying up. So “corre” must mean jogging. Or sunset. Or birds. Or athlete. Or beach. My mind can’t decide which of those is correct.
The last two images are of a man eating what appears to be a piece of pasta from a fork for “mangia”, so now I know the term for “diner”, and “beve” shows a little boy wearing a yamaka while drinking from a can of soda, so now I know the word for “Jewish boy”.
I can memorise phrases and image pairings easily enough in short bursts, so I naturally get all of these correct as well. A few groups later, I get to see a gorilla sitting, with the phrase “la scimmia è seduta”, so I know this monkey is a seducer. Cheeky monkey! There is a also a boy who is a seducer (“il bambino è seduta”). Then I see there is a monkey in a field with no car (“la scimmia “è in piedi). Later on, there is the Jewish boy (“beve”) holding an empty fork, but it reads “il bambino mangia”. Wait… what? I can guess it is saying that the boy is a diner, but it doesn’t say “beve”, even though he has the yamaka on. There is a picture of a girl drinking but it calls her a “beve” despite her not having a yamaka.
This program is all wrong!
Obviously, I am exaggerating somewhat to make my point, which is that we CAN’T learn this way – “like kids” – because our mind already has a full language and understanding of the world around us. The pictures are always going to be confusing enough to allow our minds to make the wrong connections.
Don’t misunderstand me. I could keep going through these exercises, getting a nearly perfect score as I constantly memorise the phrase-picture pairs long enough to correctly match each group of six. But what am I really leaning? Should my first words really be “monkey”, “giraffe”, “sports bag” and “Jewish boy”?
However, we are NOT children any more. We don’t learn as children, and even if we were, I doubt a child could correctly learn a language using this method.
So why do people still produce learning materials for adults using this method? Well, first of all, it looks easy. Pictures and words! So simple! So show people how simple it is to learn this way, and they will buy your product!
Second of all, it will work… for a while. You will feel you are learning so much because you are getting such great scores, rarely making a mistake. But this is a false sense of accomplishment, aided by the trick that each matching of pairs in a group gets easier because you are eliminating possible answers.
A survey I saw done in a blog once showed how many thought they were learning a language using this method while using Rosetta Stone. It was an incredibly high number that thought they were learning. A slightly different survey was given, asking how many had actually learned a language doing this, and the numbers on that were very low.
Lastly, this kind of exercise is very easy to make. You only need to make one version for each language, since there is no “source” language – the language of the learner – necessary for the training. The same lessons can also be easily translated into other languages just by changing the words. Of course, not everyone will view the pictures in the same way, since they will come from a variety of different cultures. For example, how is the boy with a yamaka interpreted by an African as opposed to an Israeli. How about the sports bag?
I am sure that some of you will defend this type of “like kids” approach to learning with just pictures. I think I speak for the rest of you when I beg:
Stop the insanity!