Learning from Home

Lifelong learning opportunities are no further away than your smartphone or computer and can be as inexpensive as free. One such opportunity is language learning software. It has been around since at least the early-1990s with the introduction of Rosetta Stone. Smartphone apps like Duolingo have cropped up in recent years.

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, the number of people in the United States that speak a foreign language at home has almost tripled between 1980 and 2016. Overall, 44 percent of those were native-born citizens and accounted for nearly half the growth since 2010.

Graphic from CIS

Reasons for wanting to learn a new, or brush up on an old, language are many. It may be needed for a job or even a vacation. It could even be for fun. The reason isn’t as important as the method chosen to achieve the goal and the expected result.

For those who need human interaction, a software program alone will probably not be worth the time, effort or money if this is a brand-new language. While each edition of Rosetta Stone has built upon the functionality of the versions before, it still cannot duplicate the human interactions required for fluency for those who learn better from others rather than on their own.

The current version of the program is cloud-based and includes a phrase book, games and other resource materials as well as a smartphone application but also comes with a hefty price tag. The user also has the option of paying extra for things such as a private lesson with a native speaker. Alina Clough of New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, sees some value in using software to get started with a new language.

Clough said, “It’s really difficult to learn a language without speaking with someone. Rosetta Stone is great for getting the basics.”

Rosetta Stone Screenshot

As a Rosetta Stone user myself, I have learned a variety of nouns and some verbs while using this software and can point at the corresponding image on the screen, yet I have difficulty responding to a phrase or question in the language that is spoken to me. I can use English to respond to a variety of prompts, but given the amount I paid for the program, I fully expected to be fluent enough to speak the language, not just to point at pictures.

Duolingo is a free app that you can use on your smartphone and your computer. It contains quite a few advertisements, but for a smaller price tag than Rosetta Stone, the user can buy a subscription which will remove the advertisements and add a bit more functionality to the app.

For those wanting to brush up on their foreign language skills for work or travel, Duolingo seems to be a good choice. It is for this reason that Pittsburgh resident Dan Larson uses it.

Larson said, “I’ve used Duolingo quite a bit to refresh my Spanish for traveling. It works great for that purpose, it’s just about the daily repetition. I can’t speak to trying a new language but it’s going to be my first option when I get my Spanish to where I need it to be.”

Clough said, “Duolingo is great if you already had a base and want to review. I wouldn’t expect to get to a super high level on either, but Rosetta Stone would definitely be better if you’re brand-new.”

Duolingo screenshot

Both Rosetta Stone and Duolingo offer options of their software for institutional use, but French instructor Samantha Zeigler of Richmond, Virginia, wasn’t so sure about its value in that setting.

Zeigler said, “It was great for review for my students on things they had already been taught, but since it didn’t explain anything, it didn’t really help them learn if they didn’t do rote memorization.”

There are numerous other options out there for learning a new language from home, but these two represent a large part of the current market. Both allow the user to try the program for free so there is nothing to lose by trying them.

South Hills, Pennsylvania, native Jackson Gastmeyer has a suggestion for those wishing to learn a new language.

“I’d recommend taking a class or speaking with someone directly. If you want to learn mechanics and all that, Duolingo is a good start.”


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