UF’s Gillian Lord conducts the first study comparing learning Spanish in the classroom and from the popular language program.

By Rachel Wayne
If you want to learn a foreign language, high school and college can provide an excellent opportunity to do so. However, even in an increasingly global society, enrollment in college language courses is declining nationwide, while the marketing of the popular language software Rosetta Stone, and others like it, is increasing. Rosetta Stone launched in 1992, but until UF Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Studies Gillian Lord conducted a study of the effectiveness of Rosetta Stone comparing it to in-classroom experience in 2013, no such evaluation had been carried out. So, to continue the question that Lord says she gets a lot, “Does Rosetta Stone work?”

Between Rosetta Stone — named after an ancient Egyptian artifact that delivered a decree from Ptolemy V in three languages — and the recent release of Waverly Labs’ The Pilot, a “real life Babelfish in your ear,” instant gratification for communicating between languages is clearly desirable. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that any standalone language program can meaningfully contribute to second language acquisition — or, people argue, there’s no need to learn other languages if it can be instantly translated. Of course, anyone who’s played with Google Translate has seen how ill-equipped computer algorithms are to render comprehensible speech — or art. Try entering a Shakespearean sonnet into it.

Yet the appeal of a computer program to replace human teaching of languages is very strong for some decision-makers. “K-12 school districts are literally disbanding their language departments and purchasing [Rosetta Stone] licenses,” says Lord. “And even some universities are tempted to try to reach the same outcomes with a computer program as they would get with teaching classes.”

They’ve certainly fallen for Rosetta Stone’s multimillion-dollar advertising campaign: Rosetta Stone promises to be the “fastest way to learn a language — guaranteed.” Yet anyone who’s traveled to a foreign country after learning a handful of words and phrases can attest to how limiting vocabulary-based learning is. For example, one could look up the Spanish words for “how much does it cost” and end up saying, “cuanto es lo costo.” Yet the appropriate phrase is, “¿cuánto vale?” Of course, Rosetta Stone helps second-language learners with the major hurdle of memorizing a large amount of vocabulary that native speakers pick up as children, when their sponge-like brains pick up the words they hear every day.

“We, as a country, do not tend to value the early instruction of language,” says Lord. Indeed, early childhood language education is often limited to numbers and the phrases for “hello” and “goodbye,” if they even get that. Most public schools in Alachua County, for example, do not begin world language instruction in public schools until the 8th grade. So, unless children are raised in multilingual households or are able to attend dual-language immersion schools, they are at an immense disadvantage when they attempt to learn a new language later on in life, after what most linguists accept as the “critical” or “sensitive” period for language learning ends around puberty.

closeup of Gillian Lord Gillian Lord

“If you asked speakers of different languages to bring up a mental image of ‘bread,’ the results would likely be very different from culture to culture, ranging from Wonder Bread loaves to a French baguette.”

It’s understandable to want to catch up if you’ve missed that short window. However, memorization of vocabulary is just that. Observes Lord, “Everyone has heard of Rosetta Stone, and their marketing is so powerful and omnipresent that everyone has come to just assume that they are indeed as effective as they say they are.” According to Lord, Rosetta Stone relies on a fallacy: that one language simply translates to another. Monolingual speakers tend to assume that words have an inherent meaning; learning a second language seems to be a process of translating the “real” words into a “foreign” word. As many pundits demonstrate, there is a tendency to think that there is a “real” language that stands above others. This illusion stems from the brain’s wiring of words, which are symbols, to perception of objects, feelings, and experiences. A large part of language education is to get students to reconsider why they use the words they do. “Think of a word like ‘bread,’” advises Lord. “If you asked speakers of different languages to bring up a mental image of ‘bread,’ the results would likely be very different from speaker to speaker and culture to culture, ranging from Wonder Bread loaves to a French baguette.”

In her study, which was published in 2015 in the Modern Language Journal, Lord focused on acquisition of the Spanish language. She compared the perceived benefits, language proficiency, and conversational fluency of native English-speaking students in three groups: a typical Beginning Spanish class on campus, a class that also used Rosetta Stone instead of their regular textbook, and a group of students only using Rosetta Stone, with no required class attendance. She found that although many students liked the “self-teaching” aspect of Rosetta Stone, students using Rosetta Stone were less able to communicate at the end of the semester, having to ask for more clarification or explanation and needing to resort to English to get their point across.

Remarking on these preliminary findings, Lord says, “What language instructors know, but standalone companies fail to realize, is that in our classes, regardless of delivery medium, we teach our students much more than the simple words and phrases offered by a self-paced standalone experience. Not only do we teach culture and pragmatics, which Rosetta Stone does not even attempt to include, but we also provide our students with an understanding of the elements of successful negotiation of meaning, with strategies to assist in real-life communication and breakdowns thereof, and, crucially, how to put all those words and phrases together to create new meaning. Language is so much more than isolated words, and the ability to put them together, to know how to use language — and how to learn language — are invaluable aspects of the learning process.”

The Rosetta Stone website’s FAQ includes the question “Does it work?” Their response is that it does, and that they have helped people discover a new language. Based on Lord’s findings, it seems that discovering, rather than learning language, may be a more accurate assessment of the program’s abilities.