Skepticism

Learn Latin in 800 hours

Elyse asked me to comment on Rosetta Stone (the language learning method, that is, not the artifact that enabled us to decipher hieroglyphics).

Rosetta Stone claim they are used by NASA and the US Army, and that their method “unlocks your natural ability to learn a language.”

Having taught Applied Linguistics, teaching linguistics to teachers who teach language, I’d have to say that the claims  made by Rosetta Stone are overstated for the most part, but it’s what they don’t say that consumers need to know.

Rosetta Stone softwareRosetta Stone, Berlitz, etc. are Computer-Assisted Language Learning programs. These companies claim their products can be used as stand-alone methods for learning a second language. However, I would say that they would be most useful as a tool used in conjunction with face-to-face classes. NASA and the US Army might well use Rosetta Stone, but this software would be complementary to classes. The US Military use organizations like the Monterey Institute of International Studies for this purpose.

This is not to say that a student couldn’t develop skills in a second language solely through software, although autonomous learning makes the task considerably more onerous. It’s not comprehensive learning.

Rosetta Stone reviewers Donald McRae and Mark Kaiser see some limited pedagogical value in the software. However, they both encountered linguistic errors in the software, culturally inaccurate information, an English-language bias, and a lack of conversational instruction. Hmm…

Computer assisted learning is all good and well, but Rosetta Stone also claim they offer accelerated learning – and this is utter codswallop… Learning a second language is subject to the student’s effort or lack thereof -  it can take several hundred hours to develop a basic vocabulary, pronunciation and the foundational elements of grammar. It takes many hundreds more to become fluent in a second language. (The saying is ‘about 800 hours’, but this depends on the quality of learning.)

The myriad of “Speak in a Week” books and websites make for catchy titles, but this is marketing, not reality. If you’re parachuted into Russia with one of these books, by the end of the week you’d still only be able to order a vodka, find the Kremlin, and swear at a few people in Ruski.

The claims would be far less amazing if they called the books by the more fitting titles: “Learn how to speak ten words in French, conjugate the copula and make some clumsy attempts to mimic the French accent in a week”, or, “Learn Swahili in 128 weeks”.

Accelerated language-learning courses are a bit like supposed speed-reading. If you ‘speed read’ you’ll only pick up key words and concepts; and if you speed learn you’ll speed forget.another Rosetta Stone

The most important factor in learning a second language is motivation; economic, political or personal factors are likely to influence your drive to learn, and the speed with which you learn. For example, do you need to learn English because you’ve moved to a foreign country, you’re immersed in English, but can’t speak or understand it and won’t find work without it? Do you need to learn French fast because the only language you and your boyfriend speak is the lingua franca of love?

Rosetta Stone’s claim that their product “Unlocks your natural ability to learn language” is a marketing euphemism for ‘humans have the evolved ability to create, learn and produce language – now get off your arse and learn.”

Simply, there’s nothing quick and easy about acquiring a second language.

These (expensive) programs can be somewhat useful, if you do in fact use them… a lot, over time, and only as an aid.

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27 Comments

  1. A friend of mine and I were in the fourth semester of a Japanese language class at our college. This class presents limited vocabulary and does not effectively teach reading until well into the third year. Anyway, this friend’s mother was using Rosetta stone to learn Japanese… Needless to say my friend had a better accent, better understanding of important Japanese phrases and a better understanding of the culture. Of course, she knew more words…

    I may pick up Rosetta stone for Japanese, but only because my vocabulary is severely limited.

  2. I was considering getting a Rosetta Stone program for my children to use. They both tried the sample on the website though, and neither liked it. Could be to do with age though? (10 and 7) Our problem is there are very limited language classes where we live. We probably will have to resort to some sort of computer or correspondence course – and Rosetta does seem to stand out as best bet.

  3. I’ve always loved languages, and picked up a few words here and there in German, French, and Russian. I took Spanish in my first year of High School, and that’s what I remember the most of. I wouldn’t mind learning to understand some Japanese to help with watching some anime.

    Are there any specific methods for building an understanding of a spoken language vocabulary without the accompanying speech aspect? I never really thought about that before.

  4. I’ve tried the Michel Thomas language CDs, and I found them to be a good jumping off point. I listened to his spanish course a couple of times, then started taking immersion classes from a linguist friend in Argentina, and we really got going a lot more quickly than I would have had I started from scratch.

    Then I promptly let it all go thanks to disuse, but I’m listening to the CDs again, and I’m remembering a lot.

    I can’t imagine a set of CDs that will make you fluent in a week, but they can surely be useful. Don’t know about Rosetta Stone, but I do like Michel Thomas.

  5. I think the best way to learn another language is to speak it with another person. I took years of French and didn’t really become fluent till I spent a month in France. I agree that the biggest factor to learning is your motivation.

  6. First, I gotta love a woman that uses words like codswallop!”

    Tiger kitty has is right: Total immersion and talking to a native is the best way. That’s how I learned Spanish, as I was raised overseas.

    Question: I’ve been wanting to polish up my rusty Spanish for quite some time. I was ‘native fluent’ when I came back to the US (I took the National Spanish Exam in 1972 and was #11 in the US in the “Native” category). Would Rosetta Stone software be useful for that, or would I be better off finding a class? Anyone?

  7. @QuestionAuthority:I think the program is best used to “polish up” existing knowledge.

    I was never fluent, but I took two years of German in high school. That was 24 years ago! So I recently borrowed a friend’s copy of the Rosetta Stone for German, and it really did help me to brush up on the language. But the whole time I was going through it, I was thinking that, without a basic knowledge, I would be pretty lost.

    So I borrowed another friend’s copy of Chinese(Mandarin), about which I knew maybe ten words, and sure enough, I had a much harder time learning. (Though I did slowly get a lot better.)

  8. good article. I own a “Learn Japanese” cd set and have tried others when I was younger, funny thing is how easy they claim it to be. No one in real life with their real voice and real vocal chords, talks like an automated android, and for some reason these companies tend to want the consumer to think “Hey this should be super easy because it says so on the box”.

    So after trying it myself, I have already forgotten any of the Japanese the audio-book-lady told me (I am sorry I do not remember how to say that the cat in the tree chases the bird, in your language). Then again, I don’t want to go to Japan and start talking like a mentally-challenged robot anyways.

    So maybe I will take up an actual class with an actual linguistics expert, and learn it the right way. :)

  9. Thank you Karen. This was an excellent analysis. I taught myself french before I went to Paris and spanish before I went to Madrid. As a foundation I had a little french in junior high and a little spanish in high school. My goal was to initiate conversations in the native language, to be polite, to show my interest in the language, to be respectful of the culture, and to learn a little more once there, no matter how brief my stay. I studied for months beforehand, a little each day, reading and using CDs. I had no delusions of fluency and I now remember only the minimum. I thought of getting the Rosetta series , but it seemed to good to be true and since the price was excessive I settled for non boastful substitutes. I accomplished my goals. I had a great time. And I guess I spent my money wisely – on wine, tarte de citron and Hemmingway haunts in Paris and tapas, sangria and Hemingway haunts in Madrid; not on overzealous, overpriced language courses.

  10. As an addendum, regarding your motivation comment; my french in Paris was far superior to my spanish in Madrid even though my spanish was better than my french when I was in school. I have thought the reason I was better in french was because I was motivated by the Parisian’s reputation of eating non french speaking people for dinner. FEAR motivated me. I guess my thought turned out to be true.

  11. Also, let’s not forget that language is easier to learn the more similar it is to the language you know. For example, Japanese has a lot of similiarity to Korean, so I found Japanese easier if I put myself in a Korean mindset. Although I am not making a good attempt at learning it, since the Japanese I pick up are from subtitled animes. ^_^ German, though, it is a different story. While it has similarities to English, I found it to have more rules, and not only that, there are more exceptions than the rules!

  12. I attended an Arabic program that used Rosetta Stone to supplement classroom training and homework. It was good for building vocabulary and demonstrating basic grammar, but that’s about it. I can’t imagine trying to learn a language using ONLY Rosetta Stone.

    Oh, and EVERYBODY in the class hated it. Without exception. There was at least one we-hate-Rosetta-Stone bitch session every week.

  13. The Army has a partnership with Rosetta Stone by which active duty personnel can use the software for free. I’ve tried it a few times and found it boring.

    I took French in high school and college but only became fluent in a language when I lived in it’s country of origin. In this case Turkey. I learned as a baby does by being constantly surrounded by the language and then by using books to supplement my learning.

    I’m starting my master’s in applied linguistics this fall so would love to chat sometime about that Karen.

  14. The ads for these sorts of things rather remind me of ads for really expensive sports equipment and sneakers. There is no shoe in the world that will turn me into a hotshot basketball player merely by me slipping it on my feet, nor is there any tennis racket in the world that will give me any hope of successfully returning a serve.

    But, at the same time, a small tweaking of shoe might well make a noticeable difference to Kobe Bryant, and some minor change in string tension or weight might be that last little edge that Roger Federer needs to beat Rafael Nadal.

    The point is that, when you’re in top form and playing/working at the top levels, everything counts. Bringing this back to language, if you are really motivated, then it’s possible that Rosetta Stone might be a better option than something else. But if you’re not motivated, (or if you’re afraid to take opportunities to use the language you’re learning), no amount of books or flashcards or language learning tricks will help you.

    tl;dr: Motivation, discipline and native ability are the most important things. Everything else is just accessorizing.

  15. When I saw that the Army was giving free access to Rosetta Stone, I immediately asked if the Defense Language Institute had started using it. Apparently not. DLI uses it as it formerly used their own internally produced “head start” materials. That is, it’s given to soldiers who aren’t going to be able to attend a full language training class at DLI in order to give them a start at the language.
    FYI, DLI takes 63 weeks of 8-hour days to train people to be Korean or Arabic or Chinese linguists. And by “linguist” the Army means “functionally illiterate” in my opinion. In 12 years as a military linguist, I never did get to the point where I was anything but a laughingstock to the natives.

  16. Totally agree, it only worked for me by being completely immersed in some other culture and had to assemble the meanings in the logics of the new language in order to survive. Learning a foreign language while still being in your own group (country, military base, school) never worked so well for me, I would always fall back to the language and logic of group around me.

    Back in the old days, an adventure game in English allowed me to use my vocabulary because somehow I needed to grasp that in order to progress. To a youngster the game was some stimulation of the survival instinct.

    But with those rather annoying automated teaching programs just don’t feel like you need to adapt/evolve/survive. No thrills in it at all.

    Anyhoo, great post and great comments.

  17. Thanks for this. I’m having to take a third semester of Russian this fall to complete my bachelor’s degree…the problem is that the other two semesters were about 15 years ago. I’d been debating about investing in Rosetta Stone or something cheaper plus a tutor. Definitely thinking the latter choice will be better for me, now.

  18. I learned German in high school from a woman who was perhaps the best teacher I’ve ever had in any subject. We even visited the Monterey Institute of Int’l Studies on a field trip!

    One of the most important aspects of learning the language was the human interaction involved. We conversed only in German from year two on, and all lectures were in German (even the ones on the culture, which were fascinating and motivating).

    I’ve found over the decades since then that, although I’ve kept a good deal of the vocabulary, it’s the conversational skill I’ve lost. That’s because I never practice it with another human. I think these computerized adjuncts might be missing that key component, and that would be their weakness. Glad to have some facts from Karen to back up my argument.

  19. Thanks, briarking. I’ll take a look at it. I may just get a tutor, too. I’ve found that a lot of it comes back when I start trying to speak it. I can still read Spanish fairly well.

    I agree that learning a language is easier if it is similar to one you already know. I had little trouble with German in high school, as it is very similar in many ways to Old English. Spanish, Italian and Portuguese are similar, too. Once I used Spanish to communicate with an Italian-only passenger. With a note pad for sketching when words didn’t work, we did quite well.

  20. After four years of high school German and three years of college German, I spent a year studying at the Albert-Ludwig university in Freiburg, West Germany (back in the day when there was a West Germany).
    My roomie at the time was from the Bonn area and spoke a dialect which was very different from anything I had learned in school. I attempted to mimic his accent in order to sound more authentic.
    It took about six weeks before anyone bothered to mention that my room mate had a speech impediment.
    Immersion is not only the best way to learn to speak a language, it is also the best way to learn to speak a language badly. Who knew?

  21. I’ve actually found traditional classes to work very well for me, although I know I’m in the minority. It’s easier for me to learn a language by taking a class than by immersing myself in it. I need to learn the phonetics first and then read it from my brain to pronounce it correctly. One thing I noticed is that after learning one foreign language, it became even easier to learn other languages. My French teacher insisted that it would be too confusing to take French after starting to learn Spanish (and taking both classes at the same time), but taking two of them actually made both of them easier and I never got confused. I haven’t yet tried to learn a language that doesn’t use the English alphabet, so I don’t know if that would be as easy for me.

  22. I’ve used Rosetta Stone ver 2 and 3 a fair bit, and I’ve found that it works *beautifully* for the following situations:

    – As a companion, or a refresher, to classroom instruction.
    – If you have a substantial grasp of the structure/syntax of the language you’re learning, but need help memorizing vocabulary.
    – The language you are trying to learn has a Latin alphabet, or you’re already familiar with the writing system.

    Beyond that, I don’t think it’s very useful. It doesn’t do a very good job of teaching grammar, or helping you to understand the more subtle meanings behind different words. It doesn’t do much of anything to teach you how to read a non-Latin character set. It’ll show you the words in Cyrillic (or Arabic, or Hebrew), but doesn’t teach you how the letters are pronounced, or how they fit together.

    As far as learning a language from scratch…Well, call me skeptical.

  23. My husband and daughter use these sorts of programs (and hey there are WAY cheaper ones out there) to keep up on the second languages they do know (and in my husbands case several languages). They actually do interact and use their language skills with native speakers, but not everyday. So a cheaper program just keeps it fresh. Also netflix has great foreign films that can help you keep up. But no need to blow the big bucks I’m sure rosetta stone charges.

  24. @MiddleMan:

    Academic linguistics is not necessarily about learning multiple foreign languages. Karen might not be really fluent in any language other than English (but probably knows lots about many different languages and language groups). There are differences between the academic and popular senses of the term. Linguists, depending on their temperament — because they get the question so frequently — tend to find the question “so, how many languages do you speak?” either amusing, or a little irritating.

    In the US, “linguistics” is generally concerned with the study of aspects of natural language, including structure, sound, meaning, usage and intent, acquisition and learning, and change over time — also sometimes including the psychology or cognitive science of language, its evolutionary origins, etc. Approaches range from a focus on formal modelling, to more empirical, functional analyses. Some departments emphasize the documentation of rare or little-known languages.

    The meaning of “Applied Linguistics” has broadened over time (now especially including language policy), but typically remains centered around the teaching of foreign and second languages.

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