REVIEW: learn Italian for free

Image: Google Images

Many of us dream of speaking a language fluently, but can it be done for free? Laura Parr reviews three free ways that you can learn Italian.

For most of us, our Italian vocab is limited to the words: spaghetti, pizza, gelato and cappuccino (spot a theme yet? Who knew words could cause an obesity crisis…). It’s likely you’ll also know ‘ciao’, but that doesn’t count – you probably only know it because of the Italian-wannabe who made your cappuccino in your local corner coffee shop.

It’s the same for me, despite having spent a recent holiday living “la dolce vita” whilst road tripping from Milan to Rome – though I can sing the occasional verse from Dean Martin’s “On An Evening in Roma”. Always a useful party trick.

While many community and private colleges offer adult language classes, this can be time consuming and expensive. And that language CD set you have in the car? Let’s face it – no one willingly wants to look like a looney reciting words to themselves in the traffic.

With this in mind, I wondered if it were possible to successfully learn Italian from the comfort of my own home… for free. Can you learn the language of love from a website, a video simulation or even an iPhone app?

1. Learn Italian (Mindsnacks) – the iPhone App

Screenshot from Mindsnack’s “Mystery Crates” game

Users are required to setup a new account or login via their Facebook account, and are then prompted to select their level: non-existent, jumbled up words without structure, or intermediate. Going by the vocabulary I listed earlier, it was safe to say I chose the first option.

Level one was learning numbers from zero to twenty, and users are given a visual and audio overview of the numerals, before being able to play interactive games in order to earn points and boost their progress bar. These include “Fish Tank”, in which the water level of the tank lowers and only fills back up once the correct spelling for each numeral shown is selected (you can probably guess the outcome for the fish if you weren’t quick enough), as well as similar games “Word Birds” and “Mystery Crate”.

Believe it or not, these games (complete with accompanying merry-go-round-esque music) are quite addictive, and after a week of not playing, I still can count to 20 in Italian. Excellent… but that keyword ‘free’ will only get you so far. The fun stops there, and will only continue for a $5.49 upgrade. Perhaps this one doesn’t succeed in the ‘free’ aspect, but for those actually wanting to interact and remember vocabulary, I’d suggest you upgrade like I plan to.

Where is Learn Italian by Mindsnacks? Type in “Italian” to your iPhone’s App Store.

Content covered for free: 1 out of 5

Fun factor: 4 out of 5

Ease of use: 5 out of 5

Total score: 10 out of 15

Final comment: Easy to use and guaranteed addiction – appearing free was too good to be true.

2. La Mappa Misteriosa (BBC Languages Online) – the video simulation

BBC Languages’s La Mappa Misteriosa

The BBC’s Languages site actually offers a wide variety of resources for over 30 languages, and while you are required to create an account with them, the content isn’t just limited to UK residents as I thought it might have been. I chose to focus on their video simulation La Mappa Misteriosa because it was different from the generic dictionary list of phrases that appear on most language websites (including the BBC Languages website itself).

The simulation is designed to be completed over 12 weeks, but even after the first lesson, it’s difficult to even pinpoint what exactly you’re meant to do in this simulation. For a moment, I felt like I was watching an Italian soap opera until the camera turned, and all of a sudden, I was the guilty suspect. The protagonist was asking me questions (to which I was completely baffled and she couldn’t even see my confused expression through the screen), before her ex-husband shows up (she’s evidently ticked off), and then her handsome nephew. I imagine this is what real culture shock feels like – clever, but useless if you’re alienated without any idea as a beginner of what is going on. Without remembering a single word from this lesson, it’s safe to assume that the supposed mystery will remain unsolved.

Where is La Mappa Misteriosa?

Content covered for free: 3 out of 5

Fun factor: 2 out of 5

Ease of use: 3 out of 5

Total score: 8 out of 15

Final comment: I’m sure there was a lot of content in there, but it doesn’t mean I understood it. Admittedly, the soap-opera aspect of the game was quite entertaining, even if I was a little lost for words.

3. Italian 101 (Live Mocha) – the website

Live Mocha’s Italian 101

After creating a profile for yourself, Live Mocha users are asked three questions to know what level they’re at and what sort of method they practice well with. The Italian 101 course is based on four processes – Learn, Review, Write and Speak. First lesson is introductions, and with “Learn”, 16 sayings are accompanied by cheesy photos (the sort you’d find in your grade 7 French textbook), and an audio reading of the word. But I’m already stumped at greeting nine – “Piacere di conoscerti” – and knowing that this is harder than I thought it would be, I become somewhat addicted to repeatedly pressing the audio button. They make it sound so easy but it’s not sinking in at all.

Surprisingly, I manage to correctly match up most of the photos with their relevant greetings in the “Review” stage – even ironically guessing “Non capisco” correctly as “I don’t understand.” It’s when I get to the next step – “Writing” – and I’m prompted to type out my name, how I’m doing, where I’m from, where I live and where I work, that I realise guesswork won’t take me far. It doesn’t help that prompting me to provide all this information is slightly standoffish when I’m simultaneously encouraged to “chat online” in Italian to profiles of random men on the right of the screen. While I don’t think I’ll be providing any personal information on this dating-website-lookalike, if consistently practiced, it’s probably the most comprehensive way to learn Italian.

Where is Live Mocha?

Content covered for free: 4 out of 5

Fun factor: 1 out of 5

Ease of use: 4 out of 5

Total score: 9 out of 15

Final comment: Comprehensive coverage of topics but fairly generic method… and those online-dating-esque profiles on the side don’t help!

Comparing these three learning methods, I’m now confident that learning the language of love comes at a price. While sites like Live Mocha and the BBC’s video simulation La Mappa Misteriosa do provide a fair amount of content for free (unlike Mindsnack’s iPhone app, which while fun, doesn’t remain free of charge), there’s probably nothing like the real-life interaction of a community college class, and the added bonus of making friends… real ones, outside a chatroom!

Laura Parr


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