Classical singers need to be at least competent at singing in any of several languages, but many classical singers make do with “Singer’s German” or “Singer’s Italian” and the like. To achieve this level of proficiency, singers study the rules of pronunciation and listen to recordings. They use coachings to make sure their pronunciation is idiomatic and they copy translations word by word. Add to that a semester or two of study, or perhaps a crash course of traveler’s vocabulary for a trip, and that’s it. Singers, unless they are working abroad or planning to work abroad, do not always value or seek to achieve fluency.
This is one way, at least, in which singers are typically American. Fewer than 10 percent of Americans speak anything but their mother tongue, whereas about half of Europeans speak another language and eight out of 10 European students are conversational in at least one other language.
Things are changing, however. Language enrollments in U.S. universities have grown steadily since 1998, says a 2006 study by the Modern Language Association. Global trends have increased the popularity of Asian languages and Arabic, but the study of European languages has risen as well. The marketplace has responded and made a dominant, even ubiquitous product available: Rosetta Stone language software.
Rosetta Stone is a computer software program for Mac or Windows. Available for 30 languages, the program employs what it calls a “Dynamic Immersion” method, which uses pictures and sounds in its attempts to recreate the way we first learn a language as children. It also includes a written component.
Rosetta Stone uses a headset with a microphone (sometimes the mic is available separately for around $30, but try to get a deal with the headset included). The microphone is for practicing speaking—and here is the major downside for a singer. Rosetta Stone lets you speak into the microphone, and theoretically, the program corrects your pronunciation. In my experience, however (based on German levels 1 & 2, Version 3), the program is much too forgiving. The only way to fail pronunciation is to actually say the wrong word. You’ll get no corrections for wrong vowels, or often even wrong syllables, much less a request for a double consonant, so you have to do that sort of learning elsewhere. The program is repetitious, however, so you’ll have many opportunities to correct yourself based on what you hear.
I used Rosetta Stone on a Mac. Some programs are less friendly on the Mac than the PC, but I found this usable. It does seem to freeze occasionally, forcing me to restart, and product updates take almost half an hour (depending on connection and processing speeds), but the program generally runs well on my not so new computer. (For PCs, the program requires Windows 2000, XP, or Vista; for Mac it needs OS 10.4. For both platforms, Rosetta Stone needs 512 megabytes of RAM and 600 megabytes of free hard-drive space per level.) Setup is easy, though for me the program remains buggy about the microphone setup and often takes a few tries. The toll-free tech support by phone is reasonably fast and efficient.
Tho cost for the program varies, depending on the language. You can shop around for deals or used versions. Here are the current prices for Version 3. Level 1: $209, Level 2: $239, Level 3: $259, levels 1 and 2 together: $339, all three levels: $499. Rosetta Stone comes with a six-month, money-back guarantee, and as I recommend for expensive recording equipment, you might want to find a few singer friends to buy it together and share.
If Rosetta Stone isn’t in your budget, consider the online version. This allows one user full access to all three levels of one language for three months for $109, or six months for $159, or one year for $259. This is a great option if you are planning to burn through the material quickly and want to spend less. (Rosetta Stone isn’t the only game in town. If you want online help and immersion without the expense, see the sidebar of online resources.)
The Rosetta Stone process is engaging and entertaining. Review is somewhat built in once you’ve listened, written, and spoken the exercises. A right answer gets you the satisfying strum of a major chord on the harp. A wrong answer gets you a not-too-obnoxious, minor, two-tone “un-uh.” The program grades you as you go. If you didn’t do as well as you’d like, it gives you a chance to repeat the exercise.
As I mentioned earlier, Rosetta Stone is not a reliable way to learn correct pronunciation. The usage can be a bit formal or off topic for how people really converse, but the conversational vocabulary is a step up for the average singer (who can describe a blooming rosebud, a babbling brook, or a tragic love triangle in great detail, but may have difficulty talking about going on a train ride or meeting for coffee next Thursday). The photos are fairly generic with just four categories to cover all the languages: Western, Latin, Swahili, and Asian. This explains why people studying German won’t see pictures of the Rhine or Berlin.
This brings up an important point. The software is great. It is fun, easy, accessible, and will definitely get you talking. It won’t, however, give you a richer sense of the culture behind the language. I’m glad it’s available, and I intend to make use of it—but I wouldn’t trade having gotten to know my elderly German tutor and her gracious way of being in the world. I wouldn’t trade hearing about how her mother used to sing in the chorus and drink a glass of milk with an egg yolk in it before performances. Nor would I willingly miss out on getting to know my Italian tutor, who was Roman and drilled me on vocabulary with the alacrity of a Vespa zipping in and out of cobblestone alleyways.
There is something hopeful, if generic, about using Rosetta Stone. With so much polarization between different groups, seeing photo after photo of smiling, multiracial families bicycling together, eating apples, or cooking dinner, I am constantly reminded of what we have in common as human beings. When I’m using the software, sometimes I’m not sure if I’m learning German, or learning how simple and easy it could be for us to all live peacefully together.
Fear of things and people that are different doesn’t seems to be the dominant attitude these days, if you look at the statistics on language study. If Rosetta Stone seems to be taking over the world, maybe it’s not a bad thing.
It’s true that singers need to know and feel much about a language and culture that can’t be taught this way—but Rosetta Stone is a great way to get the conversation started.