“You Were Born Ready”

10-15-2010

I think most people have heard of or come across Rosetta Stone. It’s a software that “approach[es] language learning the same way that you first learned a language — using a natural method that teaches new language directly, without translation” (Rosetta Stone website).

Sounds innovative and fancy enough. If I understand their philosophy correctly, I believe the textbook our American Sign Language class currently uses also has the same motto. For example, the writers of our ASL textbook do not like to define what certain signs means. For the sign “Hello”, the textbook would not write “Hello” under the picture that depicts the sign. Rather, the writer explains the sign by writing “Used when greeting people”. For Rosetta Stone, the customer service representative gave me a demonstration of how the software works. I chose to view the Chinese program and noticed that for a word like “boy”, the software would not define the word “nan ren” as “boy”. Rather, the software shows the Chinese word “nan ren”, recites it out loud in Chinese, and shows you a picture of a boy. While I think that this an interesting method to go about structuring a language learning system, I think that by not giving specific definitions, a language learner can get confused, as I have often experienced using the ASL textbook. For example, in Rosetta Stone, when the software introduced the Chinese word “ni hao”, which roughly means “Hello”, they showed a picture of a woman waving. I understood the relation between the Chinese phrase and the picture because I know Chinese. However, how is a new learner supposed to know what to look at in the picture? Is it the woman? Her hand? Her hat? I can imagine learners getting confused and having to refer to a dictionary anyways in order to clarify meaning. I think it may be most effective to give a specific, concrete definition/translation to learners first, but cautioning them that translations aren’t always 100% accurate and clarifying the true meaning of the word by providing context.

I couldn’t resist going up to the booth and asking the customer service representative for more information about the program. She went through the program right there on their computer, and though I never had the intention to buy their product in the first place, I quickly figured out that even if I were having trouble learning a foreign language and needed help, I’d probably never end up using Rosetta Stone. Why?

  1. It costs $249.00. And that’s for the basic package (ex: Chinese Level 1). If you want Level 2 & 3, which you probably will need if you really do want to learn the language, the price can go up to $579.00. Maybe cost shouldn’t be the first reason as to why I would never use Rosetta Stone, but you have to admit, for a college student, $250 is quite an investment for something that many people never have to commitment to follow through with.
  2. It’s a computer software. I like learning with physical material in front of me (notecards, books, worksheets). I know this is the age of e-books and Kindle but when it comes to language learning, I’d much rather read from a book than stare at a computer screen .
  3. It’s a computer software. Sorry Rosetta, this one counts as double negative points for me. I can’t imagine learning a foreign language by sitting at my desk at home and interacting with a computer. One of the slogans that appears on the Rosetta Stone website is “New Version. More Immersion”. Immersion into what? The culture of the language… on the computer? I don’t mean to imply that one must immerse themselves in the actual culture or country where the language is used but at least when one takes a class, he/she has the opportunity to interact with the teacher, other students, and maybe even native speakers. To me, the interaction, not with the computer, but with other live language learners is crucial. After all, isn’t that the point of learning a language?
  4. No translation system is confusing. As explained in the second paragraph above.

I will conclude this post by saying that even though I would never use Rosetta Stone myself for my personal language learning experience, I’m sure there are people and situations out there where the Rosetta system fits to their needs. I have to give props to their catchy slogan as well, which was actually what first caught my eye and made me stop to look twice. As a student taking a class on Second Language Acquisition, the idea that “You were born ready” for language learning and it’s “Your natural ability. Awakened.” is fascinating. I’m sure SLA linguists would challenge how comprehensive that statement is as an explanation for how humans learn languages. After all, many other factors come into play when one is actually in the process of learning a new language, such as the linguistic environment, levels of motivation, and overall learning experiences. But surely, as a marketing technique, it’s certainly nice to think that we have all the tools necessary to learn a foreign language within us, well all the tools except Rosetta Stone of course.

And to end with a positive note, for students like me, pursuing a degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages or more broadly the field of Applied Linguistics, Rosetta Stone offers jobs where even though we wouldn’t be teaching, we may be able to actually apply our linguistic knowledge, even if it is for the ultimate goal of achieving corporate profits.

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