Language training benefits speak volumes for Panda Restaurants

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In the hectic restaurant world — where patrons want delicious food that is served quickly and doesn’t bust the bank — the last thing managers, servers and diners want is a communication breakdown. But what happens when a restaurant that is famous for serving Asian food is staffed with Chinese-speaking managers who work with a primarily Spanish-speaking workforce? During lunch hour? Now throw in the fact that management wants them to speak English, the primary language of their customers.

This was the challenge for the management of Panda Restaurant Group, the parent company of Panda Express, Panda Inn and Hibachi San establishments, which serve Asian cuisine in more than 2,000 restaurants across the nation. To keep the lines of communication open among its 30,000 employees, Panda recently upgraded to Catalyst, the latest version of the popular language education software program Rosetta Stone.

Once a staple at computer stores, where its ubiquitous bulky yellow boxes came packed with an armful of CD-ROMS, Rosetta Stone has evolved for the digital age. Catalyst works as an online and mobile application designed to determine a user’s language skillset faster than the previous incarnation of the software, Rosetta Stone Foundations. Designed for global businesses, Catalyst offers lessons in 24 languages, including Italian, Spanish and German.

Global businesses appear to be paying attention. Rosetta Stone says its software is being used by nearly 50 firms globally and is offered as an employee benefit by such global firms as Citi, Experian and Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, Chemistry giant BASF has signed on to provide Catalyst to its employees.

According to Kevin Kwan, technology manager, learning & development, for Panda Restaurant Group, offering Rosetta Stone as a benefit is one example of how the restaurant invests in its 30,000 employees who work in its 2,000 restaurants.

“Panda is very invested in our associates, so we see Rosetta Stone as another resource and tool to elevate them,” Kwan says. “We don’t want language — English-speaking in particular — to be an obstacle for an associate to do his or her best. We don’t want that to be something that will deter them from achieving greater things at our store and also in their lives.”

He adds that Rosetta Stone is “one of those tools that just helps us invest more in our associates and it helps them feel that we care about their growth and not just see them as an asset.”

Panda employees use the online-based software to solve certain problems when dealing in a workplace with three languages: English, Spanish and Chinese. Panda management primarily wants employees to speak English. “Most of our users have a Hispanic or Chinese background,” Kwan says.

This echoes what Rosetta Stone is hearing from its clients. While U.S. businesses appear to be primarily interested in English and Spanish tutorials, the demand for the popular Chinese dialect Mandarin is growing in popularity, according to Shari Hofer, Rosetta Stone’s vice president of marketing.

Alvin Tang, learning and development coordinator at Panda Restaurant Group, says the company is thinking of urging employees to learn other languages in the near future. “With Rosetta Stone being so versatile with so many languages, as our company expands, we also expect them to learn languages other than English,” he says. “That’s an opportunity that we can have later on in the future.”

How it works

Instead of loading a dozen Rosetta Stone CD-ROMS, as users did in 1998, Panda Restaurant employees sign onto the Rosetta Stone software with their personal email accounts from their home computers, laptops, tablets or smartphones. Panda pays for the licenses, but employees are expected to use the software on their free time away from the restaurant.

“We definitely encourage all of our associates to take advantage of the mobile access that Rosetta Stone offers,” Tang says. “That is a huge benefit, not being required to sit in front of a computer to do their learning.”

Catalyst features visual and audio tutorials, and the company even offers the option of using Skype for in-person classes. “Businesses may want their employees to have the experience because that’s where people technically have the hardest time -- actually speaking to someone who is a native speaker,” Hofer says. “Having that experience with a native speaker can also help them, for example, if they were delivering a PowerPoint presentation and wanted to make sure that their language and their confidence level was high enough so that they could do it in a very eloquent and professional manner.”

Rosetta Stone is pushing to make the software experience as interactive and fun as possible. Instead of asking them to sit in a classroom and conjugate verbs, Rosetta Stone tries to get students speaking right away. “I studied German when I was younger, and it was a program where you sat in the classroom and you memorized,” Hofer says. “Given the different way that people learn now, there’s some immersion, speaking, games and apps, and there’s writing and grammar. The goal is as soon as possible to get people speaking, because that’s the hardest part.”

Tang says employee feedback on Rosetta Stone has been positive. Workers see it as a tool for improving their English speaking, writing and overall language skills—in and outside of the workplace. “It’s something where you get out what you put in,” he says. “Panda does its part by providing this resource, covering the cost, handling the registration — that’s the part that we control.” After that, he says, it is up to the employee to put in the work.

“We’ve had some “superstar” learners who we’ve been tracking and (who have been) communicating with as well,” he says. “We have our own Facebook page that we just launched, so we’re trying to use that to leverage high-performance learners, to encourage our other learners, and also to recognize those who are very inspired to participate in this program.”

According to Rosetta Stone’s 2015 Business Language Impact Study, which surveyed roughly 1,900 employees from more than 300 companies across six continents, learning a new language was a high priority for employees. Three-quarters of workers in the survey responded that language training helps them be more effective in their daily jobs, and that learning a language has made them more confident in their work with international counterparts. It’s helping them to work more efficiently, too. More than half of survey respondents said they saved a minimum of three hours per week on work-related tasks thank to their newly acquired language skills.

Offering language classes also helps when it comes to recruiting the newest and most eager members of the workforce. “When we do surveys to get a sense of what millennials want from companies, language learning always is one of the higher ranked items because they want more from their companies,” Hofer says.

Tang says moving to Rosetta Stone Catalyst has been a smooth transition. He adds that Panda was impressed with the improvements that were made to the software based on its feedback and suggestions from other firms. Rosetta Stone made “enormous changes to innovate their program to make it much more immersive and a little bit revolutionary in terms of their approach to capturing learners’ attention, and also placing them in the right spot so they can accelerate their learning and their learning trajectory,” he says.

The original Rosetta Stone Foundations seemed “very general,” Tang says. “It felt very one-size-fits-all, where everyone starts at the same place and goes forward.” To evaluate the update, Kwan and Tang both signed up and were impressed with the new features. “We both agree that it’s quite intensive in terms of evaluating exactly what the learner’s needs are, and it also includes a survey for the user to specify why they want to improve their English overall skills,” Kwan says.

After taking Catalyst’s online surveys and placement test, Panda employees are placed in a lesson plan based on their skills and experience with the language.

“They don’t have to start at the very beginner level, as it was with Foundations,” Kwan says. “Users are able to accelerate their learning because they’re placed where they were supposed to be since the beginning. That was the biggest difference with the program.”

Tang admits there were some bumps along the road, but he feels the move to Catalyst went relatively smoothly. “We’re lucky to have [Rosetta Stone] representatives who have been able to help us along the way, to help us feel more comfortable with the migration,” he says, “and we’re willing to work with them to help them be aware of some of these obstacles so that other companies will be able to cut the time looking through them.”

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