Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Review of Rosetta Stone

There are any number of online reviews of the popular language learning program, Rosetta Stone. Reviews are mixed. Some reviewers love the product, other loathe it. At around $500, nearly everyone complains about its high cost.

Most reviewers evaluate software as consumers, and their input is valuable. But they generally have no linguistic training or foreign language teaching experience to inform their reviews. I would like to contribute to rectifying the lack of professional review.

Using the demo available on the Rosetta website, I evaluated the software in several second languages that I speak with varying fluency from barely familiar to highly proficient. I also tried a couple languages from scratch.

Learning through Immersion

Most reviewers really want to learn to speak a foreign language and hope that Rosetta Stone lives up to its implied promise, that you can learn a foreign language though immersion just as easily as a child learns his native language.

The company literature exploits a common popular misunderstanding of the process of second language acquisition. Babies did not learn their native language “easily.” They typically spend a whole year or more collecting linguistic data and testing hypotheses before they even venture to try single words. Eventually, they progress to two-word utterances. It takes five years to attain the child-level fluency. Most adults want to progress a whole lot faster.

The consumer should be very happy the company has no intention of recreating a “fully immersive environment” comparable to that experienced by the totally naive child. Instead, the software begins as it should, given the premise, with single nouns. Furthermore, a linguistic adult (age 10+) brings a ton of previous understandings about language and its construction. The linguistic adult knows how language works.

Elimination of Translation and Grammar Rules

In fact, many of the negative reviews hinge on the fact that Rosetta Stone purposely avoids exploiting the learner's present knowledge. The advantage adults learners possess is the ability to cut to the chase. Babies and toddlers have to encounter a bazillion instances of “add -ed to make past tense” before they can work out both the rule and the exceptions. Adults do not have the patience for a bazillion examples while they flounder.

Another major problem, once the learner proceeds beyond simple nouns to phrases and sentences is that it is not always clear what the pictures intend to convey. The sentences make sense if you already know the language. Did they say “the boy is above (or over) (or on) the airplane?” Or did they say “the boy is below (or beneath) (or under) the airplane?” In English at least, on, over, and above mean different things. Is the girl “reading” or “holding” a book? Did they say “there are three flowers (or did they mean roses)?” Or did they say “the flowers (or maybe roses) are red?”

Carefully Designed Learning Sequence

As a curriculum designer, I found serious flaws with the sequence of learning. The design is a one size fits all languages, cookie cutter model. It does not matter which language, the course presents the learner with the exact same series of pictures and sentences. An appropriate sequence in one language will very likely be inappropriate in another. Of course, the advantage of this approach is that one Rosetta Stone course can serve as an translation key for any other Rosetta Stone course. Once I had gone through the Japanese demo, I “understood” the Turkish demo.

One thing second language learners discover quickly is that languages are equal only in the most rudimentary way. For example, the word the Japanese would use for a cookie is also applied to other treats English speakers would never call a cookie. Chinese has a word for “comfortable” but Japanese does not. What is a simple conjugation in one language may be multi-syllabic or non-existent in another. Did you know that Japanese conjugates its adjectives?

Another flaw with the sequence is the worthlessness of some of the sentences. The language learner who ever has a reason to say “the boy is under the airplane” would more likely be screaming and pointing, and would have forgotten that sentence entirely. Just speaking for myself, in my whole life, I have never seen “the woman is jumping off the ladder.”

Rosetta Stone has a terrible customer service reputation. I had originally composed this post with links and blockquotes. The reports of some of Rosetta Stone's draconian practices alarmed me. After reading their terms of agreement, I decided the terms were not reviewer friendly. I removed all links and blockquotes. I cannot recommend Rosetta Stone.

*Gratuitous disclosure: No one has paid me to review Rosetta Stone.

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