At first, it seemed another simple product test.
Rosetta Stone — touted as the world's No. 1 foreign language learning program — offered me a chance to try out its latest software.
Intriguing, I thought.
Most have heard of Rosetta Stone. Heck, the U.S. Army uses it. So do international companies like Clearwater-based Tech Data. But can it really take foreign language neophytes and have them conversing with native speakers in a matter of weeks?
I accepted the challenge. But questions abounded.
Most important: What language should I choose? I turned to Consumer's Edge Facebook fans:
Erin Mitchell: French — because there are more exceptions than rules so it's a good test :)
Consumer's Edge: Okay, so one vote for French … Maybe French.
Michael Weber: Spanish. It will be easier to find Spanish speakers to test out your skills.
Consumer's Edge: I thought about Spanish, but I studied Spanish, so it wouldn't really be a fair test …
Talibah Z Chikwendu: Pick something exotic, like Singhalese or Mandarin.
Mandarin Chinese, hmmm?
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy handed me a list from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks languages spoken by county to ensure first responders are adequately prepared for an emergency.
More than 70 languages popped up in the Tampa Bay area. English, Spanish, French, German, Greek and Italian generally filled the top of each county list.
While any of them would serve well for a test, another idea emerged: How about a language that would help better tell the story of a community within the Tampa Bay area?
There was Serbo-Croatian in Pinellas County's top 10, but it's not available through Rosetta Stone.
Tagalog? That's Filipino. Interesting.
And there was Chinese, high on the list of each of the Tampa Bay area counties.
With the announcement earlier this month that China overtook Japan as the world's second-largest economy, Chinese seemed timely.
"Chinese and Arabic are beginning to vie for membership in the most popular category," said Duane Sider, director of learning at Rosetta Stone.
Mandarin Chinese it is.
• • •
I'm testing Rosetta Stone 's program, TOTALe (pronounced toe-tal-ee), which launched in July 2009.
Over the next 12 weeks, I'll test Rosetta Stone's supposition that after 200 hours of training in TOTALe, I will be able to speak conservational Chinese. (For the Romance languages, it's 150 hours.)
TOTALe, which costs about $999, combines Rosetta Stone's coursework software with an online studio, where learners train with a live native speaker, and "Rosetta World," where users interact through games and activities with others around the world who are studying the same language.
You are given a headset with a microphone that allows you to communicate with the program. The package also includes a series of CDs to use in your car to reinforce what you are learning.
Your coursework is individual and at your own pace, unlike in a classroom where you study as a group and then sometimes struggle to find a native speaker who will practice with you.
"What we really wanted to do was invert the traditional model," Sider said. "TOTALe kind of flips that around."
• • •
Ni hao, says the voice on the screen with a picture of a woman waving. I wait for the voice to give the English translation. But it doesn't come. TOTALe doesn't translate. Not like that. No English at all, actually.
Then the computer cursor flashes in a popup window over a man tipping his hat.
Nee-how, I respond into the headset, nailing the pronunciation of "hello" perfectly. The screen lights up green.
So far, so good. The screen changes to exercise No. 2. This one is a matching exercise.
Four pictures appear, two of men, two of women. Over one picture of three men, the phrase nan ren appears and the voice speaks the words.
The same phrase appears at the top of the screen and I match it with another picture of three men around a campfire.
A green check appears and a bell rings, "Ding!" (Get it wrong and an orange "X" appears with the sound like you just lost a battle in a video game.)
I finish the first lesson with a 93 percent grade and lesson two at 92 percent. Feeling confident, I decide to test my new skills against another Chinese learner, Alice, in Rosetta World.
We pick "Tingo," a timed game, where we match pictures with the phrases the computer flashes and speaks on the screen.
I get the first one wrong and I'm negative 50 points to start. Alice already is in the hundreds. I choke under the pressure, mustering a little better than 700. Alice finishes with several thousand.
I'll need to get better. I am attending the Tampabay Chinese Baptist Church. Some members speak little or no English.
There's a lunch, too. And unless they serve apples (ping guo) and water (shui), I will go hungry.
As I'm set to log off from my session, a picture flashes on the screen with a person waving goodbye.
Zai jian, says the voice.
Sigh-e chee-an, I repeat.
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.