I’m just returning from the annual CALICO Conference (Computer-aided language instructional consortium) where I gave a presentation on the creation and use of e-books in language learning. The most interesting presentation I attended was a study on the use of Rosetta Stone in learning Spanish at the elementary level. The session, “Online and Massive, but NOT the Future of Language Learning: Further Evidence in the Case Against Rosetta Stone” by Gillian Lord of the University of Florida, presented the findings from a study in which the results of three different groups of beginning Spanish were compared. One group used Rosetta Stone exclusively, the second used the software but also had some class meetings, and the third was a traditional face-to-face class. Lord has not yet completed the analysis of data from the study, and the sample size in the study was small, but the preliminary findings are revealing. In some areas, student outcomes were comparable, particularly in the area of vocabulary acquisition. Where the outcomes differed significantly is in the area most touted in Rosetta Stone’s massive marketing, namely the ability to conduct a conversation in the target language. Lord showed transcripts of the conversations in Spanish she had with students from each of the groups several times during the semester. They showed that the students in the Rosetta Stone groups had acquired a good amount of vocabulary, and had gained some proficiency in listening comprehension, but had great difficulty in coming up with anything to say in Spanish, often using English in place of Spanish. They were particularly weak in the area of strategic competence in Spanish, that is, the ability to express a lack of understanding, to ask for assistance, or to find work-arounds for missing vocabulary or structures. Using language requires the ability to go beyond learned words and phrases, to be able to negotiate meaning with your conversation partner, through asking for help or re-stating in another way what you meant to say. Rosetta Stone’s software does not provide practice in that area.
Lord’s study did not address what I find to be an additional shortcoming in Rosetta Stone – the lack of cultural context. I experienced this myself several years ago when I was taking courses in both intermediate Russian and intermediate Chinese. As part of the Russian course, we were assigned to use Rosetta Stone in our language lab. I was curious how the program differed from language to language, so I also used the Chinese version, at the same proficiency level. I was surprised to find that the images, situations, sentences, and even vocabulary were exactly the same in the two languages. Language in Rosetta Stone is decontextualized, disembodied from the culture it represents. This not only provides little insight into the target culture, it also suggests that language can be divorced from culture and that learning a language is a simple process of substituting words and phrases in the target language for those in your mother tongue. No need to adjust culturally. This may, in fact, be the key to Rosetta Stone’s popularity: it takes away the messy complexity of language learning. The linear approach, along with the feel-good positive feedback the program provides, as you progress from level to level, gives users the impression that they are indeed becoming proficient in the language. In fact, in this way the Rosetta Stone ad I just read in my in-flight magazine is right on target: “The success you feel when you learn the Rosetta Stone way can change the way you feel about yourself”. That’s a much more accurate statement about the program than the company’s tag line: “Language learning that works”. Anyone having struggled to become proficient in a second language has experienced personally that language learning is not the simple, linear process suggested by Rosetta Stone’s approach and marketing, but rather more of a lurching experience, with lots of frustration, punctuated by occasional triumphs. The image that calls to mind is not a straight line, but at best a spiral, in which we go round and round, re-learning and perfecting material already encountered.