Immersion Perversion

Good teachers are aware that not all students have identical learning styles. Visual vs. auditory, for instance.

For the past ten days or so I’ve been starting to learn French using a free online system called duolingo. It has some good features, but I find that I’m becoming impatient.

On the good side, it’s free. There are ads, but as I’m using a desktop computer, the ads are off to the side; they don’t interrupt the flow of the lessons.

On the bad side, duolingo teaches entirely by immersion. There are no conceptual explanations. None.

To a great extent, we all learn our first language by immersion. It’s very unlikely that your mom is going to pause to explain to you that “went” is the past tense of “go.” She’ll just correct your usage and leave you to figure it out. This works when you’re three years old, or six, or even nine, because the brain is set up in advance to learn a language. But it’s not the only way to learn, and for older learners it may not be the preferred way. I happen to be what I call a “top-down” learner. I find it much easier to remember stuff when I have a conceptual framework into which to insert the new bits.

Nonetheless, duolingo is a fun way to start out. You get little fanfare sounds telling you you’ve answered ten ultra-simple questions correctly. There are progress wheels, so you can feel that you’re getting somewhere. And they have audio.

French vocabulary is fairly easy, because a lot of it is close or even identical to English vocabulary. Other aspects of the language are quite different. French nouns are either masculine or feminine, and the adjective must always match the gender and number of the noun. This is a simple concept; once you grasp it, duolingo won’t get in your way. But if the concept is foreign to you, you’re screwed, because duolingo is not going to explain it to you. They’re just going to tell you that “gentils” is incorrect; the correct word is “gentilles.”

French verbs are far worse than that. There are more irregular verbs than there are in English, and more distinct endings to remember even within present tense. French verbs are found in three regular conjugations, with infinitives ending in -er, -ir, and -re. You will not find this basic and essential fact explained on the duolingo site: They just start throwing verbs at you. At first all the verbs are in present tense, but before long the infinitives start to pop up — and there’s no explanation of the fact that “travailler” is the infinitive form for which you’ve already learned “travaille” and “travaillons” (1st singular and 1st plural).

Duolingo invites you to listen to French sentences and then transcribe them, sometimes in French and sometimes in English. This is an essential feature, because French pronunciation is really very strange. But here again, duolingo falls short. In their (probably very compressed) audio recordings, the words “piece” and “chaise” are nearly indistinguishable, as are “ma” and “la.”

Their system lets you listen to a sentence spoken at natural speed, or listen to the words separately. This is very helpful, as a lot of French words get partially swallowed on their way from the brain to the tongue. But consider the simple sentence, “Nous aimons la pizza.” In English, this is rendered as “We like the pizza.” In a natural sentence, the ‘s’ at the end of “nous” is pronounced: “noo-saivon.” (The ‘s’ at the end of “aimons” is silent, like most terminal consonants in French.) However, when you listen to the words one at a time, the speaker says, “noo,” not “noos.” The ‘s’ is not pronounced. This makes the single-word audio different from the sentence audio — and once again, duolingo is not going to explain this to you.

My third complaint (thanks ever so much for listening!) is that as you go on through the material, the duolingo examples become very, very, very repetitive. To sum up, their course is not informative, and it’s boring.

So this morning I started looking around for another option. The biggest online language-learning service is probably Rosetta Stone. (It’s not free.) On glancing at their website, I got the impression that they’re mostly teaching by immersion too. They have an 800 number, so I called to find out if they have lessons that provide some sort of conceptual framework.

I spoke to three different phone support people. None of them was a native English speaker. Now, I hope I’m not a racist. I’m happy that these young men have jobs, and I’m delighted that they’ve learned English well enough to communicate on the phone. Nonetheless, they spoke with audible accents (two almost certainly Spanish and one who introduced himself as Mohammed, native language unknown), which when combined with the distortion caused by their phone system made them a bit difficult to understand. More to the point, none of them understood what I meant when I said “conceptual framework.” I tried to explain by giving more detail, but the flow of my English apparently overwhelmed their capacity for comprehension. They reverted to their standard sales pitch, or tried to talk over me.

So I asked if I could speak to a native English speaker. And they couldn’t do that. Their phone sales-and-support system doesn’t have any native English speakers.

Not gonna subscribe to Rosetta Stone, thank you.

My next option was a site called babbel. Again, it appears to be immersion-based, but hey, maybe that’s just a sales pitch to make stupid people feel all comfy. Maybe they have a whole set of conceptual lessons that they’re hiding so as not to intimidate anybody. Inquiry warranted. So I found the 800 number for babbel and called it. Oops. Their offices are in Germany, and though I was calling at 11 in the morning California time, I wasn’t calling during their business hours, so nobody was there to answer the phone.

I’m not prejudiced against Germans either. But I can’t help feeling that an online service that proposes to teach other languages to English speakers in the U.S. really ought to have some form of sales support in the U.S., staffed by native English speakers. Failure to provide such a thing can only suggest a certain lack of seriousness.

My local community college does offer French 1A this summer, but I rather suspect I need a self-paced course. Sitting there while a bunch of earnest young people recite “Je veux habitere a Paris” with a variety of odd accents is not likely to be real useful. Still, I could be wrong about that. Time to phone the college. Wish me luck.


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