Unused NordicTracks and Babies: Thoughts about Rosetta Stone

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Resurrected Draft Posts

Alternative uses for the Nordic Track

Alternative Uses For A NordicTrack (Photo by ChuckP on Flickr)

I receive at least one call every month from people asking me, as a language technology specialist,  about ways to learn a language without taking a class.  Could I recommend a CD program that they could listen to in the car and learn (name of language) while they drive?  And in almost the same breath they ask:  “And what do you think about Rosetta Stone?”

Thanks to the media blitz that is Rosetta Stone, it is the ONLY tool that people think about when they think of language learning software. (In my generation it was Berlitz, and maybe even Pimsler) They are everywhere…magazines, pop-up ads, SkyMall catalogues, airport kiosks.  (There is a reason for that…check out the big bucks spent in marketing in this NYTimes article)

The answer I usually give is one that I stole from a colleague: Rosetta Stone, or any packaged learning tool is like an expensive exercise machine you buy in the dead of winter and when you feel the post-holiday extra pounds creeping onto your frame. You have the best of intentions, and you have the DVD on how to use it, and you swear you will have the motivation to do it daily,  but the reality is that without a series of checks and balances (provided by an external set of eyes, like a trainer in the case of the exercise machine) you have no idea if you are using the machine to the fullest of its potential. You might sweat up a storm and your muscles may ache and you may  feel full of virtue, but are you using the machine in a way that truly challenges YOUR limits and pushes you to new levels?  And if you stop doing it or were doing it wrong…who would know?

Without a way  for the learner to engage with real people and real situations where language can be used in a real life context, who is to know if you are skipping through the topics or just really good at repeating sounds (but not connecting those sounds to meaning)?

I know that RS purchased LiveMocha as a way to add much needed real people interactivity to its program.  But there are some disconnects there too, many of which were outlined in this post by Tyler Muse of LingoLive (full disclosure: it looks like LingoLive is a competitor of LiveMocha. That being said some of the points he brings up are still good ones)

Most recently, RS’s core belief that people learn second or third languages via the natural approach (i.e. like a child learning her first language) was challenged in an article by Lisa DeWaard, published in the ADFL (not an open publication, alas, so I can’t get to it and have to rely upon what the Chronicle tells me about it).

Below is an advertisement from a newspaper I found in Japan.  I am not seeing the connection to adult language learning. Do you?

Rosetta Stone newspaper advertisement, Japan, 2010

Rosetta Stone newspaper advertisement, Japan, 2010
(click to enlarge)


So, here’s a question: Would anyone think about trying to learn math or science or economics by just listening to audio while driving the car?  Why do people assume that this can be done effectively with languages?

For the amount of money RS charges for their programs, I tell people, you would be just as well served to find some free audio “Let’s Learn (name of language)” podcasts via iTunes to get a general sense of the language…and then travel in the country where the language is spoken and take a course there.  Sadly, people don’t like that response.

The bottom line  is this: Adults don’t learn like babies: they have lots of other contexts to weave into the learning of a language (not to mention their first language) and that needs to addressed as they learn… as messy and chaotic as that sounds.  Adults are also impatient and throw money at things to get “results”: learning a language takes time.

Am I against language learning software in general? No, not at all.  There are good tools out there that are free and open and portable and available to be shared.  And I hope to find some time to write about them soon.

Have a suggestion for an open, free, flexible tool for language learning? Leave a comment here!





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Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for 18 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and watch the Red Sox. Preferably not all at once, although that could be interesting. To see her online portfolio please click here!


  1. Ulrike Rettig (@Games4Language) · July 12, 2013 Reply

    Free is nice, but creating a good language course takes work, skill, and time … But a good program should definitely be affordable and not cost a huge wad of money. I also agree with you, once you’re no longer a baby, you don’t learn languages like a baby.

  2. english150 · August 29, 2013 Reply

    I absolutely agree with your view of Rosetta Stone (and I am still waiting to meet a person who learned a language using this program). Rosetta Stone’s core belief that the language acquisition process for the adults is similar to that for the kids is flawed, to say the least. I feel sorry for all those people who waste hundreds of dollars to purchase this fad.

    • Barbara · September 25, 2013 Reply

      Thank you so much for commenting and my apologies for not responding sooner.

      I am not sure it is as much a fad as it is a well oiled marketing machine, but either way it is a lot of money…. especially if you venture into the Less Commonly Taught Languages.

      I continue to find it interesting that the Audio-Lingual Method of teaching languages lives on through tools such as these… Drills and pattern practice…over and over again. And yet somehow, if we are to believe the ads, this technique will magically lead to more complex structures and idiomatic expressions such that yo can date the woman of your dreams or talk your way out of a parking ticket in the country of your choice.

      I continue to scratch my head.

  3. pescopo · August 29, 2013 Reply

    I am not going to comment on whether or not Rosetta Stone is a good tool to learn a foreign language, in spite of the fact that I am beyond qualified and have the authority to do so, because (to the best of my knowledge) I am the only language instructor who has used RS as a textbook in a large public university in the US to teach a first-year language course. I have also been involved in many ways (designing the experiment, teaching, collecting data, doing the statistics, etc.) in a couple of major projects related to language learning and technology, one over 10 years ago, when large public universities were barely starting to explore the posibility of implementing hybridization in language courses, and the other one recently, in which the role of the instructor in autonomous language courses was explored.

    I want to comment about the comparison you make between learning math or science, and learning a foreign language. In addition to being a linguist, I have one degree in physics, and one in statistics, in addition to 10+ years of experience teaching foreign languages (and the occasional math or science class) at the college level. I don’t think this comparison works, because of several reasons.

    1) Math and sciences are subjects in which no variation of any sort is allowed. One either gets it right, or doesn’t, and there is no credit for trying and not getting it right. While some aspects (e. g. syntax) of languages are not open to variation, many other aspects are open to variation, from the vocabulary, to the phonology of any given language.

    2) While it is true that, in general, practice makes perfect, the dynamics of the math or science classroom belong to a completely different universe than that of foreign languages. One crucial aspect of teaching the latter is to have a dynamic classroom in which students do not sit idle more than 3 or 4 minutes at a time, and have them speak, use meaningful negotiation, and interact with each other and with the instructor. Science and math classes call for a lecture-type of classroom, whose dynamics are centered in the instructor, not the student, and students sit idle for the most part. While there may be some neurocognitive processes that occur in learning in general, regardless of the subject, the thought processes that take place in learning math or science have very little in common with those used in learning a language.

    3) Classes in math and science require a written code (i. e. literacy). No serious math or science instructor would try to transmit knowledge (differential calculus, statistics, mechanics, biochemistry, etc., etc., etc.) using only the spoken word. It’s impossible. However, a foreign language can (and used to, before massive literacy came to occur only about 100-150 years ago) be taught and learned without ever having to write anything.

    It seems to me that one of the main arguments you have against RS (and again, I have refrained from taking a position for or against RS, even though I believe I have the authority to emit a very well founded opinion) is flawed, because, as I stated above, while they may share some basic general mechanisms associated to learning in common, a broad comparison between the brain processes involved in learning a foreign language and the ones involved in learning math or science is not a valid one.

    Nevertheless, I believe you are correct regarding your other main point: “Adults don’t learn like babies: they have lots of other contexts to weave into the learning of a language… ”

    I hope you are open to my comment, which I have made in kindness, and for the sake of clarity for any reader who may stumble upon your language blog. Thank you!

    C. Enrique Ibarra.

    • Barbara · September 21, 2013 Reply

      Thank you so much for your comment. For some reason I did not see it until now, and I apologize for keeping it in the “cue” for so long!

      You bring up some interesting points. One of which I would like to disagree with.

      You say “Science and math classes call for a lecture-type of classroom, whose dynamics are centered on the instructor, not the student, and students sit idle for the most part. While there may be some neurocognitive processes that occur in learning in general, regardless of the subject, the thought processes that take place in learning math or science have very little in common with those used in learning a language.” I find this comment very puzzling, given the recent research and practice that is being adopted in science teaching that involves “flipping classrooms” or using the classroom time not for students to be silent and passive and like empty vessels to be filled with knowledge by their profs, but rather to use that class time to actively interact with the material, the problems presented, in short to become active learners vs passive absorbers. Where I work the sciences have adopted a practice of breaking lecture classes into smaller groups and discussion leaders as a way to facilitate learning…because of the simple fact that the while lectures might be the best way for faculty to teach, it is by no means the best way for students to learn.

      In short, from my experience I have seen many scientists using activities that we also do in languages — small group interactions that promote active learning — as a way to encourage learning in a way that lectures simply do not.

  4. Carlos Enrique Ibarra · November 17, 2013 Reply

    Dear Mrs. Sawhill,

    while I understand what you wrote, I believe I wasn’t clear enough, and your interpretation of what I was trying to say was not the adequate one, because of the faulty way I exposed my argument. I never meant to say that group activities in the classroom should not take place in science classes, but it is simply impossible to compare science teaching to foreign language teaching (in addition to the 10+ years of experience I have as an ESL and college Spanish instructor, I have taught Calculus, Physics, and Statistics), because, as far as research is concerned, both involve different cognitive processes. It is as simple as understanding that there is no such thing as physics or statistics “input” that can be recorded and then be played and listened to in the car, but there is foreign language input that can be listened to in the car to help develop one’s listening comprehension skills. That can’t be done with statistics, physics, or calculus, because these subjects require, for the vast majority of people, the use of visual input. Foreign languages do not always require that visual input (there are millions of illiterate people all over the world who have learned a second language as adults).

    The central rhetorical question of your article “So, here’s a question: Would anyone think about trying to learn math or science or economics by just listening to audio while driving the car? Why do people assume that this can be done effectively with languages?”, on on which your whole argument rests, is invalid.

    I hope this clarifies things.


    Carlos Enrique Ibarra.

    • Barbara · January 7, 2014 Reply


      It’s not that I did not understand your argument, or that you did not express yourself clearly. I understand quite well what you are saying. I simply disagree with you.

      My experiences and thoughts are grounded in my experiences in the classroom, just as yours are grounded in your context and reality. No one wins or loses here… and we both are entitled to our respective opinions.

      I hope -this- clarifies things as well.

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