In addition to the program discs, each Berlitz Premier language package comes with four 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 PDA. Taking into account the various ways people may prefer to learn, Berlitz provides 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.
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, such as 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 ads 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 ads.
The software keeps the conversation fairly 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’ for a beer instead of the Latin American ‘una cerveza’.
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 take a more measured and progressive 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 didn’t work for us, as we were sometimes overwhelmed by the combination of new vocabulary and an unfamiliar grammatical structure.
Thus, while trying to learn German, a completely new language (we knew bits and pieces of both Spanish and French), we found that the equivalent 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 us, all that should come well after learning basic words and phrases so you 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.
In addition to the videos and grammar basics, Berlitz adds two additional features: games and voice recognition, but neither of these were especially useful. The games, such as a crossword puzzle or fill-in-the-blank, were reminiscent of 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. And being able to record your own voice to compare against the Berlitz’ software may be useful for some learners, but we didn’t feel compelled to compare the company’s audio waveforms to our own.
While the inclusion of a CD full of MP3 files that you can listen to on an 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, we’d rather see Berlitz provide additional dialogue or at least the existing program dialogues, so you can hear them on your iPod while you’re out and about.
While Berlitz Premier offers several different ways of learning a new language, none of them quite came together in a productive manner. We found the total immersion technique too difficult to follow, while the flash cards and games were too easy and disjointed. The car and iPod-based exercises had the right idea but the wrong implementation.
However, learning languages is totally subjective, and if the techniques in this program sound good to you, give Berlitz a try. If like us, you prefer a more structured, step-by-step approach, we’d suggest Rosetta Stone. That said, Berlitz’s £30 price tag makes it more attractive, compared to Rosetta Stone’s £139 product.