Over four weeks, three of our editors used different means to try to learn Italian. Jeffrey Contray used Rosetta Stone Online, Louis Ramirez used Pimsleur audio CDs, and Jeff Somogyi used any means he could find that were free (mostly relying on the podcast "MyDailyPhrase Italian").
Rosetta Stone Online purports to be "the #1 language-learning software in the world". By blending together language immersion (throwing the language at you, and forcing you to cope, right out of the gate, without an English translation), interactivity, and voice-recognition, this method of language instruction does not torture a user with rote memorization, translations, or word-lists. (You know, all those things that made high-school language courses so much fun!) Most learning units confront you with four pictures and a spoken word in your language of choice; you must then select the image which best fits that word. Over time, you learn which word / sentence relates best to the different situations presented. It's learning through association, essentially.
Pimsleur audio lessons take a more classic approach to learning. An instructor talks at you for about 30 minutes. Words or phrases in Italian are spouted at you, then translated for you. You are then asked to repeat them, aloud. (Something that I can't really see most people ever doing ... especially if they're trying to learn during their commute and don't want to appear crazy to the other people on the train.) This one relies heavily on rote memorization, translation, and word-lists to build a vocabulary and set of phrases.
The free podcasts that are available on iTunes and elsewhere on the Internet also take the rote-learning approach. They hammer away at you with phrases and words, asking you to repeat them aloud, until you gradually build a vocabulary. Unlike Pimsleur, the free methods of audio-based learning are shorter units, often consuming only five minutes at a time, rather than 30.
After a month of rigorous learning via these three methods, we decided to test our knowledge by taking the 2008 Italian Regents Exam — a standardized test used by the New York State school board to gauge students' proficiency in learning various subjects.
Since the test is normally 3 hours long, we took an abridged version of the test, focusing on "Part 2" of the exam which consisted of 15 multiple choice questions. All of them required reading a paragraph in Italian (this part of the test, in the real situation, would have been read by a proctor, but for our purposes, each person just read the text on his own), then choosing the best answer to a question related to what was just read. Nine of the questions and answers were in English, the other six were entirely in Italian.
On a side note, to make us feel more relaxed (and more Italian?), I was sent out to buy a bottle of Italian wine. Each of the test-takers then consumed one plastic cup-full of a delightful unfiltered 2005 Castellare di Tonda Chianti. (Our crystal stemware were all dirty.)
Upon conclusion (and all #2 pencils having been put down) the answer key was printed out, the tests were passed one person to the left (just like in high school!), and the correct answers were read aloud by Contray.