Where Theory Meets Practice: Using Language To Help Make the World a Better Place

Whenever I tell someone I’m a linguist, the inevitable question I get asked is, “So how many languages do you speak?” Similarly, when I tell people I work at Rosetta Stone, a common response is, “So you speak all thirty-three languages that Rosetta Stone offers?” Or when I tell them I helped create the Rosetta Stone Navajo product, they say, “Wow, your Navajo must be really good.”

The truth is, I know only four languages (English, Swahili, Spanish, and Latin), and none of them are languages I helped create products for (Chitimacha, Navajo, and Iñupiaq). “Then how,” you ask, “can you possibly create language software for a language you don’t even speak?”

For starters, I was hardly alone in the effort. A team of expert speakers—teachers, researchers, and elders—worked tirelessly with us for several years to make these products happen. And we leaned on the work of many academics who had gone before us.

Native American languages

A page from Thomas Jefferson’s comparative vocabulary of Native American languages. Chitimacha can be seen on the second-to-last line.

My contributions with these languages and others come from my training as a linguist. I’ve had to become familiar with the ways different languages operate—the common patterns, the rarest features, the diverse ways of expressing the same concept, and the things that are logically possible but that for some reason we never see. All these are interesting to linguists because they hint at how language works generally. Discovering and explaining these cross-language patterns is one of the fundamental goals of linguistics.

At Rosetta Stone, we carefully analyze the details of a language so our learners don’t have to. For example, do you think all languages have subjects and objects? It turns out they don’t! Using subjects and objects is just one way of indicating who’s doing what to whom in an action; there are several others. Here’s an example from Chitimacha of one pattern that a number of languages have:

nuhc-ik qasi        hect-ik gaht-ik guxt-ik qeh-ik
run-I man       watch-I gaht-ik eat-I arrive-I
“I ran” “I watched the man” “I bit (it)” “I ate” “I arrived”
dadiwa-ki qasi        hect-ki gaht-ki paakins-ki qeh-ki
cold-me man       watch-me bite-me tired-me happen-me
“I am cold” “the man watched me” “it bit me” “I am tired” “it happened to me”

What’s going on here? Sometimes -ki is the subject, and sometimes it’s the object! That’s because subject and object are mostly irrelevant in Chitimacha. Instead, the difference between -ik and -ki is that -ik is used when I’m deliberately doing the action, and -ki is used when the action is something I have no control over. Linguists call this agentive-patientive marking or split intransitivity. Once you realize that languages have different ways of indicating the relationship between participants in an action, and you know what those ways are, it becomes (more or less) easy to look at any language and say, “Aha! This language has subjects and objects” or “This language has split intransitivity!”

My role in the process of creating Rosetta Stone products is to recognize these patterns and understand all the complicated grammar. My colleagues and I then design lessons that use Rosetta Stone’s Dynamic Immersion method to teach grammatical concepts through intuition and strategies like pattern recognition. Learners don’t have to wade through a bunch of complicated grammar terms—they just find themselves intuitively using the language correctly and communicating naturally.

The classification of languages according to their different patterns is an area of linguistics known as language typology, and I think it’s one of the most exciting areas of linguistics today. In July, Rosetta Stone sent me to Boulder, Colorado, to attend the Linguistic Institute 2011, sponsored by the Linguistic Society of America. I attended seminars on language typology taught by some of the foremost experts in the world. Since then, I’ve been applying what I learned to exciting new projects here in Rosetta Stone Labs, such as creating products designed to better handle cross-language variation, and finding innovative ways to think about parts of speech. It’s a great example of where theory meets practice in helping to make the world a better place through language learning.

Native American languages

A page from the field notebook of Morris Swadesh, a linguist who documented the language with its last fluent speakers from 1930-1934. Here, Swadesh was taking notes on the –ik v. –ki distinction.

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Danny Hieber

Danny is a linguist who works with speakers of endangered languages to document and revitalize their language, studies cross-linguistic patterns in language, and helps design prototypes of new products with Rosetta Stone Labs. After graduating from the College of William & Mary with a BA in linguistics and philosophy, Danny joined the Rosetta Stone Endangered Language Program in 2008 and has since adapted Rosetta Stone for the Chitimacha, Navajo, and Iñupiaq languages. In his spare time, he does karate, plays piano, and researches cool things about language.
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