For reasons I won't go into, I've recently decided to give learning a foreign language another whirl. I had always sort of wanted to resurrect my French and try to breathe some life into it, but this time around I'm trying to learn Italian. And no, it's not because I saw "Under the Tuscan Sun" one too many times, although I have seen it way too often.
Learning a language may well be easier now than ever before. The software that is available is mind-blowing. When I took French, the height of listening to native French speakers was to watch Robert et Mireille on PBS. Robert et Mireille had conversations about shopping. Mireille never wore a bra. You can see that the important stuff really sank in. It was fine, but it wasn't exactly a unique and varied tapestry of native speech. Plus, unless you deliberately recorded every episode, you wouldn't have the opportunity to run it back and listen to something again.
I'm using software from my library, called "Tell Me More," by a company called Auralog. The principle is somewhat like Rosetta Stone, in that it's a multimedia program, but I've never used Rosetta Stone. I went with this partly because I could get it from the library (although I ended up buying my own copy to get some added features) and partly because I anticipate needing extra help with pronunciation, and this program seemed to offer a lot of opportunities to practice and compare your pronunciation with that of "native speakers." (I say that in quotes because I can only imagine what you'd learn comparing your pronunciation to a random native speaker of English.)
It's fantastic. On almost all the screens, you have the opportunity to pause and point at any Italian word. You can hear someone say it, you can attempt to pronounce it, and if it's a verb, you can access the conjugation for it. It's great for trying to figure out how to say new things, and it's a good way to try to intensify the language learning experience by focusing on the things you don't understand. So far the biggest barrier to correct pronunciation seems to be the reluctance to move my face in the ways that will produce the sound. In many cases it seems like the only way to produce a particular phoneme is by moving my mouth in a way that feels like I'm making a funny face. Looking back, this was my biggest problem with French, as well, because the minute I started pronouncing things clearly, I had the Monty Python Holy Grail knights in my head. ("Silly English kuuuuuuneeggits") But having the immediate feedback helps a lot. I'm hoping that I'll do better with Italian than I did with French because there's so much more opportunity to do things outside of "class exercises."
Now if I could just train my computer to understand that if I plug the headset in, I want to use it, that would be awesome.