October 6, 2009

Are Language Teachers Really Better Than Rosetta Stone?

Every language teacher I know hates Rosetta Stone. Some hate the drill-and-kill methodology. Some hate the marketing. Others see it as a threat to their jobs. As for the marketing and methodology, I say let’s pile it on.

Claiming that language learning is “guaranteed” and implying that a Kansas farm boy can score a date with an Italian supermodel if he just purchases that yellow box is simply false advertising. And stating that language learning is easy is an insult to those of us who have worked hard our whole lives to actually learn a language. That same statement, not coincidentally, makes Rosetta Stone users who don’t progress feel too ashamed to call in and demand their guaranteed money back.

But let’s be honest with ourselves. Can we really act shocked – shocked! – that Rosetta Stone does not back up its claims with actual performance data when so few of us do so ourselves? Do we really know that sitting in a class with twenty-five other students doing worksheets is more effective than a distance education program, an online class or – perish the thought – Rosetta Stone?

Rosetta Stone is marketing itself to districts, not just airline passengers, and districts are falling for its claims. We can get the union to stand up for our jobs, but where is the proof that Rosetta Stone is really less effective than we are? Is the idea that a teacher in a face-to-face classroom is always more effective supported by better evidence than Rosetta Stone has?


  1. Very glad that someone has put some of these complaints in words, and asked for some good evidence that we teachers are better then RS.

    I often read the questions on the language section of YAHOO answers, and a considerable number ask for opinions about Rosetta Stone. My comment generally is that it seems good for parrots who are learning some words in language X, but not so good for humans who want to learn to speak the language.

    I can perhaps refer the askers to this blog.

    Great work!
    Louis Janus, LCTL project, CARLA, U of MN

  2. Thanks for the call for openness at looking at results. I think much of the issue revolves around basic "trust". RS asks unsuspecting potential customers to trust the dream that they are selling (Kansas farm boy is a hit with Italian super model). I think one reason that has appeal is that we language teachers don't have a very high "trust" factor with the public, especially adults who've been through language classes but have no more to show for it than the RS users.
    We will gain trust as we demonstrate openly that we are committed to each individual learning, as opposed to a commitment to "teaching" classes. The public knows that we can teach even if students don't learn. We must demonstrate that we can help each one of them learn. It's about student results.

  3. Would the teachers be as quick to admonish textbooks as they are the RS program? Isn't it prudent to look at the RS software as a great new tool that will get people excited about learning additional languages that are desperately needed in the US to keep up with global competition? People are so quick to complain about our jobs being outsourced but when there is an advancement with learning tools, they are just as fast to complain. Maybe the farm boy and the super model isn't the best marketing. Should they show a homeless person being hit with a job because of RS? We will always need teachers and teachers will always need tools.

  4. R.S. may have a supplementary function for students learning a language, but the problem is that school boards and administrators want to use it as the sole vehicle for learning in their classes to save having to pay a salary for a teacher. This is the case in several elementary/middle schools and even in some high schools. R.S. is not standards-based in that it offers no opportunity for interacting in the language, is devoid of culture, makes no connections to other subject areas, provides no comparisons among languages and does not connect the learner to broader communities.

  5. IMHO, the primary problem with RS is that it perpetuates the myth that schools are doing it all wrong and that there is a fast, easy, plug-and-play way to learn a language. RS and similar vendors can exploit the general public’s gullibility because people want to believe in the quick fix. And, few people are lucky enough to be exposed to truly excellent K-16 programs that produce students with real proficiency.

    Despite our best efforts as a profession, world language programs are neither generally accepted nor understood. And, unfortunately most administrators in charge of making curriculum decisions have no more knowledge and understanding of communicative-based language learning than the average person. Nor are they prone to ask language professionals for advice before they spend money on software in order to save money on teachers.

    The language teaching community needs to require proof of results from RS. And, it needs to have data available to show what state-of-the-art world languages can do. However, like so many educators, we get caught up in the next new thing and neglect the basics.

  6. For a lot of people who aren't familiar with how academia works, a study that Rosetta Stone refers to in their marketing will look awfully impressive: "...after 55 hours of study with Rosetta Stone software, students will significantly improve their Spanish language skills and 56 to 72 percent of students will increase their oral proficiency by at least one level as measured with the ACTFL OPIc test" (from http://www.rosettastone.com/personal/what-people-say/research/armani). It compares those 55 hours to the 45 hours of class time, plus 39 hours of homework, of one semester of generic college Spanish. Oh, rapture. What they don't tell you is that this "independent" study, done at Queens College, City University of New York, was commissioned _by Rosetta Stone_. Think the petroleum industry commissioning studies that say global warming is a hoax. Tah-dah, it's a hoax. Now, could someone please do a real study of Rosetta Stone?

  7. Let me play devil's advocate for a moment. Let's give the Rosetta Stone study the benefit of the doubt. (After all, it puts the company in an impossible position if educators demand proof but refuse to believe the results any time the company contracts with someone to actually do the research.) What does the study really show? It shows that many folks using the product can move from very little ability in Spanish (ACTFL Novice-Low) to some modest ability to produce some words and phrases (ACTFL Novice-Mid). To me, this just shows that language input helps folks learn some words and phrases in a foreign language. (We're still talking ILR Level 0 here, after all.) I would be very surprised if after 55 hours of exposure nothing was learned. This is certainly not becoming "fluent" in the language by any stretch of the imagination. If there was evidence that using RS could move folks from Intermediate to Advanced, then I'd be impressed.

    But let's be real here. If we are not going get serious about giving student the multi-year, articulated, backwards-designed, psycholinguistically appropriate, intelligently assessed language instruction that we know would help them reach a meaningful level of functional ability in the language, then we may as well give them RS. Most students completing the language requirements in their schools are going to be no better equipped for that date with the Italian supermodel than that Kentucky farm boy.

  8. I seem to be getting emails almost weekly from schools and districts that have purchased packaged language learning systems as the "solution" to providing language learning experiences for their students. While I can see why elementary schools would feel compelled to go this direction since they have no funds for teachers and they want to offer "something" for students who are interested in exploring languages, I am really concerned about high schools (seems to be primarily alternative programs) that are purchasing products like this. The high schools would be motivated by the need to provide students opportunities to earn two high school world language credits -- needed for college admissions. But on what basis are they awarding the credits?

    Besides the issue of what these packaged programs produce, I'm just wondering how students with no prior language learning experience navigate them. Do they really engage? Do they know what they're learning? I can see that for experienced language learners, programs like this could address some specific needs for learning vocabulary and sentence structures. But, then, an experienced language learner knows how to go beyond those basics to learn about culture and all the nuances of the language that make it possible to actually use it. I'm not so sure that your average high school student (with no prior experience in a language classroom) would be successful with a product like this.

    Again... where are the studies?

  9. Great discussion! I happen to have a set of RS in German (it was a gift, tg) and I was curious about the program and its promise of 'easy and quick' language learning. I discovered that a prospective student can learn something from the lessons, practice vocabulary, and move from a nothing to a 0 on the ILR. However, there is no embedded culture (pictures are all stock photos of American things and people) - but there are teachers who teach language without culture too. It also is only functioning in the Interpretive mode AND at a simple list/formulaic sentence level at that.

    It is hard not to be offended with the claims that my education, passion, ability and professionalism can be simply replaced with a yellow box. Yet I agree - if we as a profession are not actively advocating for our programs, aggressively educating stakeholders about best practices and realistic LL goals, then we should not be surprised when a monolingual public seeks to educate themselves with slick ads and catchy promises.

  10. Would it be that difficult to compare standardized test scores (like the IB Exams or the SAT) of students who relied on Rosetta and those who had a competent language teacher? I think it would be clear as to the effectiveness of Rosetta - Rosetta is a tool that is only as effective as the user.

  11. I tried to read this blog with as open a mind as a world language teacher could and am impressed with the comments-you all have good points. It appears that we all would like to see some authentic data. I agree most with the previous person who suggests that we "...compare standardized test scores...as to the effectiveness of Rosetta...". My question is, who is the "we" with access to the statistics from both Rosetta and SAT or the National Spanish Exams, for example, who can accomplish this study?

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  14. Did anyone see this in the New York Times on January 27?:

    "The Web Way to Learn a Language"

    The writer of the article was amazed that an Iranian woman he was talking to didn't have any accent, even though she only spoke Farsi until arriving in the U.S. two years ago. What was her secret? Rosetta Stone! At least according to the article. Without any more explanation of what was up with that, the reader got about the best advertising that an ad-heavy company could hope for.


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