I’ve tried learning Italian through books, CDs, DVDs, tapes, and apps with phrase books and translation technology. Nothing stuck.
As a result, I’ve avoided much costlier alternatives that promise to deliver full language courses to mobile phones and tablets.
I shouldn’t have.
In two cases in particular, I found comprehensive language courses for mobile devices that are vastly better in quality than apps that offer a small piece of the language learning experience.
The courses are from Living Language and Rocket Languages, and if you’re serious about bilingualism they are absolutely worth considering.
Of the two, Living Language (free on Apple and Android) offers a more consistently good experience and the more generous trial terms. The French, Spanish, Italian, German, Chinese and Japanese apps include 11 introductory lessons, with another 35 lessons available for $20 on iPad and $15 on iPhone. On Android, the first three lessons are free, and languages include Spanish, French, German and Italian. The full app is $15.
The app’s full 46 lessons are included if you purchase the Living Language Platinum service, which, for $179, includes books, CDs, a personal online tutor and access to a online community, among other elements.
Rocket Languages is a similar Web-based service, and it has no dedicated app, but if you log on from a mobile device the experience is nearly identical to an app. Rocket Languages also offers instruction in Korean, Arabic, Hindi and American Sign Language.
Plus, if you have a spotty network connection, the pages will lag.
Rocket Languages offers free trial versions that include at least 10 of the more than 60 tutorials in the paid versions, which cost between $100-$150.
Prospective students should start with Living Languages, whose lessons in Italian I found nothing short of delightful, even with a few small hiccups.
Regardless of the language you choose, the lessons include a range of surprising and engaging exercises and games that test and build knowledge.
The building blocks of each lesson are virtual flashcards that gracefully flip at your touch, to reveal the English translations of Italian words and phrases. Once you’ve mastered a card, you touch a button to indicate as much, and the app adjusts its exercises to account for your proficiency.
The most challenging of the games is Fill in the Blank, where users complete a sentence by typing the Italian word. The app offers hints, in the form of partly spelled words, to those who are stumped.
On the Sentence Builder page, you drag words from a menu to assemble the Italian version of a given sentence, while another game challenges users to tap the Italian phrase and its English analog as the phrases move about the page in bubbles.
The games are smartly designed. The Sentence Builder, for instance, includes enough variations on words to make users think carefully about their choices. And the app’s developers evidently obsessed over little elements, like the way the software responds to the touch.
Living Language keeps score each time you play a game, and if you score perfectly, a gold ribbon icon appears on that page. It’s a nice enticement, even if the system doesn’t always work as planned.
In the word-finder puzzle, for instance, you must identify Italian phrases in a grid. On two occasions, the Italian phrase for “good evening” (buona sera) did not exist in the grid, which was frustrating.
This is the kind of glitch that’s easy to forgive, though, since everything else works so well. I emerged from Lesson 1 with demonstrably improved knowledge and an eagerness to move onto the next one.
It took me about 45 minutes to complete the lesson, but since I knew a little of the language I got through it slightly faster than a true beginner might. If one assumes roughly one hour per lesson, the app’s 11 lessons offer a huge amount of value at no charge.
It’s a bit of a drop in quality from Living Language to my second-favorite mobile tutor, Rocket Languages, which will appeal to those who respond to audio-based instruction. The level of instruction is high, and the system performs well enough on small-format devices, like an iPhone or Android phone, but it fails to truly exploit the possibilities of mobile devices.
Instead of playing games to test your knowledge, for instance, the mobile version offers quizzes and a space for you to enter your own notes.
The service’s core feature is its audio tutorials, which are effective. In the Italian version, a male and female instructor alternated between instruction and conversation, while pausing at times to let users practice.
Not all of the service’s core features translate well on a mobile device.
On a PC, for instance, you can double-click any word and add it to a notebook of sorts to study and annotate later. But on an iPhone that action simply activates the copy-paste function.
Jason Oxenham, Rocket Languages’ chief executive, said the company would refine its mobile service this year and include “games that are cool.”
One other promising language-related app I tried, Hello-Hello, with free trial versions for multiple languages on iPad and Android and paid upgrades, is also working on improvements.
The app’s most interesting feature is its social network, where students can exchange exercises and feedback. But I found the current version slightly clunky; it took almost a half-hour to download audio files for 39 Italian vocabulary words related to the home, for instance, and 17 other categories awaited.
Sarah Gontijo, the chief executive of Hello-Hello, said an improved version was in the works. Unless Hello-Hello and Rocket Languages make enormous strides quickly, however, it’ll be hard to catch Living Language.
The New York Times