When my nephew emailed me for advice on learning Finnish (Ojala is a Finnish surname), I had three immediate reactions:
* See what your public library can lend you. That saves the price of buying a language course you might not finish (pun intended). I later discovered that my local public library owned one cassette-tape-based course for Finnish, but it had gone missing. Given that cassette tapes are no longer state of the art, it might have been permanently "borrowed" by the last owner of a device that could play the tape.
* Look into an immersion language course in Finland. Since my nephew holds down a responsible job, has a wife and small children, and lives in the U.S., this was not an option.
* Investigate language-learning software programs. My nephew had already thought of this. He had discovered that the "Big Cheese" (his phrase) of language learning, Rosetta Stone Ltd., does not offer Finnish. Latin, yes. Finnish, no. Plus, Rosetta Stone recently discontinued offering Danish, Thai, and Welsh.
In fact, it was the latter disappointment that prompted his email to me.
STARTING MY LANGUAGE QUEST
My quest, then, was to find what is available through libraries, what you can acquire on your own, and how various language-learning software products compare. The first portion of this quest depends on the type of library. Public libraries have long included language learning as part of their collections. This frequently attracts the casual learner, possibly prior to a trip outside the country, either as a holiday or on business.
Academic libraries add language-learning materials to their collections to support courses offered by their parent institutions. In the corporate world, language learning should precede a work assignment in another country. Companies vary on policies about whether they provide language-learning tools for employees or whether the incipient ex-pats are on their own.
I was helped in starting my language quest by the fact that my nephew's plea arrived as I was heading off to several library conferences. That gave me the opportunity to cruise the exhibit floors and investigate possibilities, particularly those with a library bent. I quickly discovered that although Rosetta Stone exhibited at earlier library conferences, it decided a few years ago to pull out of the library market. Some libraries that purchased Rosetta Stone language products retain these in their collections--you can generally find them listed in WorldCat--but most have moved on to other sources.
Companies now targeting the library market include Livemocha, Mango Languages, and Rocket Languages. In addition to the library, there are language-learning icons, Pimsleur Approach and Berlitz Languages, Inc., as well as Rosetta Stone. Additionally, Transparent Language's Byki has a library program, although it did not exhibit at any of the library conferences I attended. Even library stalwart Gale, part of Cengage Learning, has a foot in the door with its Powerspeak Languages, but the target market for Powerspeak is K-12 schools.
ROCKETING TO LANGUAGE LEARNING
Coincidentally, as I was embarking on my quest for sources to learn another language, I received an email from my local public library announcing it was adding Rocket Languages (www.rocketlanguages.com) as a service to its card-carrying populace, so I could start my investigations without leaving home. Rocket Languages is somewhat limited in the languages it offers. It has Arabic, Chinese, English as a second language (for Spanish speakers), French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, and American Sign Language.
Access to the language-learning packages is authenticated with your library card and any other information determined necessary by the subscribing library. It has the obvious advantage of being available 24/7; it's not restricted to the opening hours of the library. …