dealnews Learns Italian: The results

October 15 saw the conclusion of our 1-month-long experiment to evaluate which method of learning a new language was most cost-effective for the consumer.

Over four weeks, three of our editors used different means to try to learn Italian. Jeffrey Contray used Rosetta Stone Online, Louis Ramirez used Pimsleur audio CDs, and Jeff Somogyi used any means he could find that were free (mostly relying on the podcast "MyDailyPhrase Italian").

Rosetta Stone Online purports to be "the #1 language-learning software in the world". By blending together language immersion (throwing the language at you, and forcing you to cope, right out of the gate, without an English translation), interactivity, and voice-recognition, this method of language instruction does not torture a user with rote memorization, translations, or word-lists. (You know, all those things that made high-school language courses so much fun!) Most learning units confront you with four pictures and a spoken word in your language of choice; you must then select the image which best fits that word. Over time, you learn which word / sentence relates best to the different situations presented. It's learning through association, essentially.

Pimsleur audio lessons take a more classic approach to learning. An instructor talks at you for about 30 minutes. Words or phrases in Italian are spouted at you, then translated for you. You are then asked to repeat them, aloud. (Something that I can't really see most people ever doing ... especially if they're trying to learn during their commute and don't want to appear crazy to the other people on the train.) This one relies heavily on rote memorization, translation, and word-lists to build a vocabulary and set of phrases.

The free podcasts that are available on iTunes and elsewhere on the Internet also take the rote-learning approach. They hammer away at you with phrases and words, asking you to repeat them aloud, until you gradually build a vocabulary. Unlike Pimsleur, the free methods of audio-based learning are shorter units, often consuming only five minutes at a time, rather than 30.

After a month of rigorous learning via these three methods, we decided to test our knowledge by taking the 2008 Italian Regents Exam — a standardized test used by the New York State school board to gauge students' proficiency in learning various subjects.

Since the test is normally 3 hours long, we took an abridged version of the test, focusing on "Part 2" of the exam which consisted of 15 multiple choice questions. All of them required reading a paragraph in Italian (this part of the test, in the real situation, would have been read by a proctor, but for our purposes, each person just read the text on his own), then choosing the best answer to a question related to what was just read. Nine of the questions and answers were in English, the other six were entirely in Italian.

On a side note, to make us feel more relaxed (and more Italian?), I was sent out to buy a bottle of Italian wine. Each of the test-takers then consumed one plastic cup-full of a delightful unfiltered 2005 Castellare di Tonda Chianti. (Our crystal stemware were all dirty.)

Upon conclusion (and all #2 pencils having been put down) the answer key was printed out, the tests were passed one person to the left (just like in high school!), and the correct answers were read aloud by Contray. In the end, here's how it broke down:

Jeff Contray
Louis Ramirez
Jeff Somogyi
Rosetta Stone Online
Pimsleur audio CDs
Anything Free
$199.95 per
6 months
Exam Score

What's the best bet, price-wise? Well, if you think of our results in terms of "price-per-correct-answer", you'll see that Pimsleur cost us $27.40/correct answer; Rosetta Stone Online cost $14.28/correct answer; and, of course, the free method set us back $0/correct answer. Free is quite an attractive price to pay to yield "OK" results in my book, so perhaps I'd recommend that route.

Of course, if you don't have the willpower — when left to your own devices — to force yourself to learn, Rosetta Stone is the clear winner in the pay-to-learn category. The thought that you are wasting money by not learning the language might just be the motivation you need. However, you'll have to remember to learn all you need to in the six month period of the subscription, otherwise, the flat-fee of the Pimsleur CDs starts to become a bargain.

Some additional thoughts: Each of the editors that participated had prior knowledge of other languages. Jeffrey Contray studied French (and knows how to order a beer in dozens more), Louis is fluent in Spanish, and Jeff Somogyi took many years of French throughout his academic career. This may have aided each of them, when reading the Italian portions of the test, to be able to pick out Latin roots and muddle through better than someone without any prior knowledge of another language could have. In future experiments (although we are not doing this again) it would be ideal to have participants who know no language other than their native English.

That being said, we stand behind our conclusion that it looks like you can't go wrong with the free versions.

Of course, if you REALLY want to be cheap, and not put in ANY time, but are still planning a trip to Italy, just learn to say this phonetic phrase: BEH pee-eh-CHER-eh. Non PAR-lo ih-tal-ya-noh. SO-no ah-mare-ih-cah-no. PAR-lah in-glay-zay?

Jeff Somogyi is dealnews's Media Editor. Allorah, a tutto per oggi!

For a more detailed look at each of the editor's thoughts on the experiement, head on over to their blogs, where you'll hear all SORTS of excuses about their performances!
The Somogyi Perspective; LouieVille Tech; Contray's Dictions.

DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).


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