Sprechen Sie Deutsch, baby?

I have taken three foreign languages in my life.

I took one half of a semester of French in college.  Unfortunately, being a visual person, I couldn’t reconcile the last half of printed words that were dropped in the spoken form.  The class was a complete disaster for me.  I felt like Joey Tribbiani when he was trying to learn French for an audition.

Yeah, that’s about how it went.

In eighth grade I took Spanish.  Our Spanish class was taught by an old man who also taught driver’s ed at the high school.  He was there for the first quarter, then disappeared shortly before Thanksgiving.  We never saw him again.  The rumor was that he had a heart attack when some kid in the driver’s seat made an illegal right turn at a red light.  The second and third quarters, the class was “taught” by substitutes, most of whom knew nothing of the Spanish language.  We used the period to play MASH and make paper footballs.  Finally, in the fourth quarter, the school decided to give us a teacher who could actually teach the class.  I forget his name, but he was one of the seventh grade geography teachers, and he was gorgeous.  His wife, of whom all the girls in class were jealous, was a tall, devastatingly beautiful woman from Argentina, and so he was completely fluent in Spanish.  To win our trust the first day of his tenure in our presence, he taught us to conjugate verbs by using the F-word.  We also learned the noun form.  Handsome with a sense of humor and a touch of daring: how I loved that man…

My most successful stint at a foreign language, though, was when I took German in high school.  For four years I spouted harsh, guttural love poetry and perfectly shaped umlauts, translated Grimm’s fairy tales from the original sources, watched Werner Herzog films and threw birthday parties for Johann Goethe.  Since most of the rest of the school chose to take Spanish, French or Italian, our class was small and so we got more personal attention from our teacher, who was fantastic.  We even got to take a trip to Germany and Switzerland for a couple weeks during my junior year.  Those were some good times.

Let’s jump forward a bit now.  At a Halloween party this past year, I met Thomas.  Although Thomas is living in the states for a couple years to study, he is 100% German.  He knew through a mutual friend that I had at one time spoken his language, and became excited at the prospect of talking to someone in something other than English.  When confronted with this revelation, however, I suddenly found myself unable to say a single word in his native tongue.  Needless to say, both Thomas and I were disappointed.

In my own defense, it has been over a decade since I regularly spoke the German language.  I wasn’t great with vocabulary, and I could never remember the articles, but I knew sentence structure, like the grammar Nazi I am.  Although so many years have passed since my semi-fluent days, I was terribly embarrassed to have forgotten so much.  Almost everything, in fact.

Last year I made a New Year’s resolution to relearn German.  I went so far as to buy a couple CDs and pull out my old textbooks.  I listened to a few lessons a read a few chapters, but nothing really sank in.  This is why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore, folks.  I never follow through with them.  Anyway, I need something a little more interactive, with a teacher nagging me to do my best, not letting me move on until I do just that.  I need Rosetta Stone.

I started seeing the commercials for Rosetta Stone a couple years ago, and after conferring with a number of people with more authority than I, learned that it really is the best method of learning a new language.  I was so intrigued by its popularity and the success stories I had heard that I checked out the website.  Then I almost had a stroke.

This course is unbelievably expensive!  Each level costs close to $300, and there are three comprehensive levels.  I’m sad to say that this is a little out of my price range.  If I had $300 to blow on a language course, well… let’s just say that things would be a bit different.  Sighing with despair, I closed the browser and resigned myself to sporadically listening to the CDs I bought on sale at Barnes and Noble for $30.

Fast forward to last night, to a crowded table in a restaurant/bar where my coworkers and I tried to unwind over a couple bottles of cheap wine and a plate of cheese fries.  We are a fairly eclectic group, hailing from all over the states and all over the world.  Naturally, the topic of language came up.  My manager, whose husband is in the military and who has subsequently lived in several countries overseas, couldn’t praise Rosetta Stone enough.  When I moaned about the cost, she told me that as staff, I could take Rosetta Stone language courses for free through the university’s web site.  All I needed was my university email username and password.

Say what?  Free Rosetta Stone?  A few hours later, half drunk and giddy with excitement, I logged in to the site and found myself face to face with the fabled Rosetta Stone.

After completing the first unit of Lesson 1, I can say with some authority that Rosetta Stone is definitely one of the best language learning systems I’ve ever used, apart from walking into a konditerei in Leipzig and forcing myself to converse with the little old lady who was trying to sell me a lemon tart.  (It was delicious, by the way.)  They use an immersion technique, forcing me to rely on my own intuition, because there are no translations.

There are some really neat things about this program.  It doesn’t move ahead to the next section until you have mastered the previous one, so it’s impossible to get lost.  The coolest part, though, is that in each section of the unit I have to speak into my laptop’s microphone to repeat the words they give me, and the program can tell when I’m pronouncing them correctly. And, I love that I can take the course in the comfort of my own home.  Heck, I completed the first unit in my pajamas!

It was quite comforting to feel like I wasn’t jumping into the deep end; I still remember the pronunciation and basic grammar, so at the moment I’m beginning to rebuild my vocabulary.  I feel fairly confident that I’ll actually finish the course and, should I run into Thomas again, be able to hold my own in a German conversation.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll take advantage of the many other languages available to me through my work.  Maybe I’ll learn Tagalog or Farsi.

Do you speak a language other than English?  Do you speak it well?  Was English your first language?


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. natalie
    Feb 28, 2009 @ 10:29:57

    i want the rosetta stone!! waaa!

    i took italian lessons at parliamo italiano in new york. they were great, but i only did a 10 week course and kept mixing up my spanish and italian.

    i do speak passable spanish–like drop me off in mexico and i could get a room, find a hamburger, and buy a plane ticket to cabo.


  2. Joy
    Feb 28, 2009 @ 11:54:03

    OMG, I’m LMAO at Joey. God how I love him. I wish I knew another language. Good for you for taking this time to learn so many.


  3. In10Words aka "Galileo"
    Feb 28, 2009 @ 14:08:05

    You just keep giving me more reasons to like you. I took German through all of High school and I remember a few things, but never enough to carry a conversation. German was the 3rd most popular language class to take, after Spanish & Italian. French was dead last, to the point where I don’t even know if there even was a French class being taught.

    I, too, translated Grimm fairy tales, mostly their version of Little Red Riding Hood.


  4. that girl
    Mar 01, 2009 @ 22:13:22

    Oooh! I love learning new languages. I wonder if our school has free Rosetta Stone access! That would be sooo awesome!

    When I was in high school, I took Spanish for 5 years. When I finally made it to Spain, I had some trouble since it had been years since I took classes. The good news is when it is spoken in a movie, I don’t always need the subtitles.

    Growing up, my parents spoke Tagalog in the house, so I know that by listening to it, but I can’t actually speak it. Similar to Natalie, when I learned Spanish, I forgot a lot of Tagalog.

    In a few weeks, I’m going to re-take a basic Italian class. Hopefully it will stick this time since I’ll need it when I travel this summer.


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