Rosetta Stone created the world’s first immersive language learning software; a programme that, from the very start, was about using technology to transport users into real-life learning situations. It’s a unique methodology that has helped millions to learn languages more easily. This year the company is celebrating its 25th Birthday.
Bound-up with the development of early personal computing; disruptive and transformative of traditional teaching methods; find out how the Rosetta Stone story all began….
Rosetta Stone was the brainchild of an American called Allen Stoltzfus. Whilst living in Germany in the late 1970s, he found it easy and enjoyable to pick up the local language, learning naturally just by interacting with the people around him.
Allen realised that his success with German came from total immersion in the language, and had little to do with traditional teaching methods. So when got back to the US, he started thinking about how he could recreate this experience for other learners.
As luck would have it, his brother, John Fairfield was a computer scientist and together they worked out that personal computers could deliver immersive-style learning in the home and re-create the experience of living abroad. So it was that in 1992 they created the first prototype of a product that would change the way the world learns languages.
The brilliance of the early software came from constrained circumstances. Allen’s whole family got involved, with his mother as chief investor and his brother, Eugene Stoltzfus, as key-partner.
With a tiny budget and a lot of images and sounds to collect, the Rosetta Stone team hit the streets, cameras in hand, and let real-life events write their scripts.
They went to real places and photographed real activities, then added them to the product. For example, taking pictures of people around them doing everyday activities. ‘He eats’, ‘She drinks’ etc.
In an interview for start-up grind in 2013 Eugene remembers a particular occasion from the early days where he got some great content: ‘I was up there at the zoo and a woman came along with her dog. I asked if I could film her and her dog together. What did I have? I had a woman who was playing with her dog, tying up the lead, patting him on the head. All great simple content for our learning scripts.’
So the product that teaches you intuitively came from an intuitive process. This is exactly what made it such a disruptive technology…
Rosetta Stone was a disruptive technology because it didn’t come from the education industry. There were no linguists in the initial team. So whereas linguists are schooled in learning via grammar, structure and vocabulary lists, the Rosetta team just created something intuitive.
It was intuitively created and it sticks in your head intuitively. ‘When you look at those pictures you immediately get a non-linguistic meaning. You don’t necessarily even put a word on it, then you hear a new word that describes it and it sticks.’
Much of the early marketing was aimed at educational institutions. The team would show the product to a teacher and make them learn a language that was very different from anything they knew (eg a non-Romance language to a Spanish teacher). The teacher would quickly realise how easily they could learn something so unfamiliar, and sales boomed.
Later the Rosetta team took their idea to a wider audience by bundling the software with computer sales, in particular with the Apple Mac, where they hit some lucrative deals: ‘We got $5 for every Mac sold in Japan. Most deals were for 25 cents per computer sale, but we got $5.’
So what is it that makes people stick with Rosetta Stone? What keeps them engaged when other learners so often quit? Here’s what Eugene Stoltzfus believes makes the difference:
‘What worked then, and what still works now, is the feeling of success that you get right from the start. You go into the product and even if you just work through a couple of exercises, you feel that reward of interaction. In this way, the product mimics the experiences of successful interaction in real life. Like if someone asks you when the next bus is coming and you understand them. It’s a happy feeling. You say to yourself, “I’m learning!” – that’s what makes people stick.’
Language learner, teacher and contributing author to the Rosetta Stone magazine
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