Learning languages

I’ve mentioned before that one of my sabbatical goals was to learn a new language (Hindi). I am not fluent, but I think I came a fair way with it, and I want to comment on the role of different technologies and approaches in our successes (and failures) as a family to learn the three languages that we tackled on this trip.

One of the most useful technologies we employed was the Rosetta Stone software. The kids loved Rosetta Stone, which we started using almost as soon as the sabbatical was approved to get them familiar with Hindi. They spent about 30 minutes at a time on it at the beginning. At our peak, this happened almost daily (after we left Pittsburgh but before we were settled in India. Eventually we hired a tutor (a wonderful friend now) to come for about an hour most days instead. The kids were far more resistant to being tutored than they were to using the software, but I feel we covered much more ground in those hours. We made up all sorts of games, retold fairy tales, played shop, and generally did our best to make it child friendly.

Hindi was a relatively hard language to learn (new alphabet, different sentence structures, and so on). Once we got past the vocabulary phase,  progress was slowish. Still, by the end of the fall we could have whole conversations in Hindi as a family. The kids were not alone in learning the language: Anind and I were trying very hard to learn it as well and we tried to speak it at meals, with our Indian driver, and so on. So between the tutoring and the daily practice opportunities, they used Rosetta Stone less and less.

The Rosetta Stone was not a pure success. It required the right context to be used — enough motivation, and not too much other support. We almost never used the German Rosetta Stone I bought, and of course the kids are far more fluent (they are immersed, unlike with Hindi, and it is a much easier language for them to learn). Use of Rosetta Stone is rare at this point, and mostly me.

You get free tutoring through the online package with Rosetta Stone, along with access to online games. The games are a fun way to practice but slow. When possible, I sign up and have a session with an online tutor. It is based on the material I’m currently covering in the software. However, they only let the kids do it when there’s no other remote participants, which is sometimes hard to find at popular times in the early stages of learning a language.

As a computer scientist, I cannot help but be impressed by the software. It is dedicated to learning language through immersion, and the authors have done an excellent job of maintaining that throughout the software and the tutoring sessions. It uses speech recognition to check pronunciation, and provides multi-media support for learning. And it works, if you put the time in with it, you learn. To my mind, it’s a success as an educational tool and an interactive tool. It supposedly has a social side as well, though as a Hindi learner I was one of few and could not take advantage of it. I’d be curious to see what it’s like.

It has always seemed such a shame to me, that learning multiple languages is not a norm in the United States. During our travels we met 10 year olds who spoke 5 or 6 languages, all with fluent ease. They never needed to touch a piece of software or a tutor. The world has become so small, yet so many of us in the United States fail to give our children the gift of understanding and the mastery of complexity that comes with learning multiple languages. Most of my swiss cousins have raised children who are bi- or tri- lingual, and without the errors that plague even my immersed children.  There is no substitute for that level of early exposure.