Berlitz Premier

Learning a foreign language can be tough. To help you get started, Berlitz, one of the better-known names in language instruction, has introduced Berlitz Premier, a new software series with packages in French, German, Italian, and Spanish, as well as English. I tested the French, Spanish, and German language versions.

In addition to the program disc, each Berlitz Premier language package comes with audio CDs for learning while you drive, a CD with MP3s to play on your iPod or other portable media player, and software for your Palm or PIM (personal information manager) device. Taking into account the various ways people may prefer to learn, Berlitz gives you various points of entry into the languages—listening to fluent conversations, word games, electronic flash cards, and speech analysis, and ties them together into a package that lets you learn wherever you are.

Operation

All Berlitz Premier language programs have the same interface. The opening screen presents four different options: a short film with many scenes of dialogue; short video clips of people using the language in everyday conversation; grammar basics; and survival phrases. Each language has a different video with different characters, but usually focuses on similar themes: going to a new place, meeting new people, and handling a new environment.

The Spanish film, for example, focuses on the adventures of a fictional character named Andrés González, from San Antonio, Texas. He directs, produces, and stars in his own commercials for a travel agency called TravelTur. He first heads to Madrid to meet his aunt and uncle and later turns up in Bogotá, Colombia and San Juan, Puerto Rico to film more commercials.

The software keeps the conversation relatively simple, and makes a point of alerting the viewer to different dialects of Spanish. González learns, along with the viewer, for example, that Spaniards often use the word una caña (a beer) instead of the Latin American word una cerveza.

Immersion

Berlitz’s immersion style of learning, in which normal speech patterns, complex sentences, and new words are constantly introduced, differs from other language learning programs, such as Fairfield Language Technologies’ Rosetta Stone (   ), which takes a more measured, step-by-step approach. Rosetta Stone presents new words incrementally and progresses gradually from an initial vocabulary of four words, to simple phrases, and later, sentences. Berlitz’s instruction begins with strings of complex sentences in a dialogue format.

While the total immersion technique may be fine for some learners, generally, it doesn’t work for me, as I tend to get overwhelmed by the combination of new vocabulary and an unfamiliar grammatical structure.

Thus, while trying to learn German, a completely foreign language to me (I don’t know Spanish either, but as a French speaker, it was easier to pick up), I found that the analog to the González video—a German girl meeting friends at a university—was difficult to follow without the subtitles.

It’s clear that Berlitz believes users should accustom themselves to how a language sounds, and to hear the language spoken aloud in realistic situations, but for me, all that should come well after I learn basic words and phrases so I don’t feel lost.

Berlitz does introduce such language fundamentals in another section of the program, called Reference Tools, located in a tab next to the immersion lessons. This section includes grammar and pronunciation basics. The program also includes the Berlitz Before You Know It flash cards, which focus on vocabulary and phrases you’d use in specific situations such as greetings, booking a hotel, and asking for directions. Curiously, there are also selections of words that a beginner probably wouldn’t need to learn, such as animals and grains.

More features

In addition to the videos and grammar basics, Berlitz adds two additional features: games and voice recognition, but neither of these were especially useful to me. The games, such as a crossword puzzle or fill-in-the-blank, reminded me of high school exercises. When learning a language, you want to practice speaking first and foremost, and a crossword puzzle won’t help you do that.

The voice recognition feature may help those who like hearing isolated sound patterns, instead of vocabulary in the context of a phrase or sentence. Being able to record your own voice to compare against the Berlitz’ software may be useful for some learners, but I did not feel compelled to compare the company’s audio waveforms to my own.

While the inclusion of a CD full of MP3s that you can listen to on your iPod is an innovative idea, it falls short in Berlitz’s implementation. Instead of providing an audio version of flash cards for animals and other isolated vocabulary words, I’d rather see Berlitz provide additional dialogue, or at least the existing program dialogues, so I can hear them on my iPod.

Macworld’s buying advice

While Berlitz Premier offers several different ways of learning a new language, none of them quite came together in a productive manner for me. I found the total immersion technique too difficult to follow, and the flash cards and games too easy and disjointed. The car- and iPod-based exercises had the right idea but the wrong implementation. But, learning languages is totally subjective, and if the techniques in this program sound good to you, give Berlitz a try. If you, like me, prefer a more structured, step-by-step approach, I’d suggest Rosetta Stone. That said, Berlitz’s $40 price tag makes it much more attractive, compared to Rosetta Stone’s $195 product.

[ Cyrus Farivar, a former assistant editor at Macworld , is now the senior associate editor at Engadget. He speaks fluent French and is learning Spanish. ]

In the Spanish video, Andrés González is greeted by his aunt and uncle upon his arrival in Spain. Berlitz shows the conversation transcript in Spanish, and once a line is highlighted, it will also show an English translation.Each language comes with a set of computer-based flash cards. However, they often show words that beginners probably wouldn’t need to learn right away.

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