DennisBeaverMay 3, 2019 • By Dennis Beaver

You have no doubt heard commercials for Babbel, Rosetta Stone or other computer assisted language learning programs which make claims along the lines of “You can learn a new language in three weeks.”

In fact, both Rosetta Stone and Babbel have earned awards for their television and radio commercials, putting on display people who claim to have studied a new language briefly and appear to carry on a conversation in that language.

Are these claims true? Have these companies found the Holy Grail of making language learning a breeze, “Without spending hours studying grammar rules,” which is a main sales point?

That was “Todd’s” question: “I tried Rosetta Stone for months, followed their instructions, and candidly, after honestly trying, was unable to get beyond very simple stuff, like introductions, asking how someone was, that kind of a thing.

“Then I heard a radio ad for Babbel which stated something like, ‘Do you know why Europeans know so many languages? Perhaps it is because they use Babbel.’ Well, that convinced me to subscribe and after really trying, I am no better off and just gave up.

“Was I duped by their claims, or am I just stupid when it comes to learning a language?

I heard that same Babbel commercial on Sirius XM Radio. When I ran it by Professor Susan Gass, who is deeply involved in the area of second language acquisition at Michigan State University in Lansing, she laughed.

“What do they mean by learning a language?”

“Some of these ads talk about ‘Thriving in real world conversations.’ Yes, you could say such things as “How are you? Where is the bathroom?” but if the response that you get is not exactly as it was presented in the material, you just will not have the background, and you’ll be lost immediately.

“That is a major problem with these programs. They are confining – they do not reflect language use in the real world.

“These advertisements don’t explain what they mean by learning a language. If I say to you that I speak Italian, then you would expect me to be able to carry on a conversation on a wide range of topics, and not merely introduce myself or tell you that I am a teacher.

“With online or computerized lessons, over several weeks or even months, you may be able to parrot statements very well, but this is not what most people mean by learning a language,” Gass points out.

High Dropout Rate

“Todd is an example of what a great deal of research shows with many of these types of language programs. People think it is going to be really easy to learn a new language.

“But learning a language requires time, intensity and study in a regular way. Customers often don’t follow through. They quit because it isn’t enough to look at a computer screen and speak into a microphone. You need real interaction—and feedback– with people who can actually speak the language, such as in a classroom.”

A Stunning Admission – “We Would Never Sell Anything!”

“It takes a lot of time and effort for adult learners to learn a second language to a high degree of proficiency. Children spend thousands of hours learning a language at home and in school, but adults simply do not have the time,” observes Professor “X,” who also studies second language acquisition, at a major Midwest university.

X related a stunning admission from staff at one of the largest foreign language-app-companies.

“We spoke about the impression their ads make that you will be able to hold a conversation spending ten minutes a day, and that’s ludicrous. They replied, ‘How do you market something if you tell people it is going to take two years of your life and you still aren’t going to be very good. We would never sell anything!”

I asked, “Are they beneficial if used in conjunction with a more formal language study course, such as in a college class?”
“Yes they do have value in terms of building vocabulary, some grammar knowledge, but most fail in providing communication with people who speak the language.”

Be Kind to Yourself

“Your reader’s frustration is common,” X points out. “It takes time and dedication. The more you study, the more you learn. Patience and being forgiving of yourself when making mistakes is important.”

What does Babbel Say?

So, how confident is Babbel of its results?

We contacted Christian Hillemeyer, Director of Communications in Berlin, Germany.

“As you know the identity of Babbel subscribers, why not ask a few of them studying French or Swedish to give me a call so that I can see how well they can speak these languages.”

My request was politely declined.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.