Friday, August 10, 2012

Language Learning, Part 2: Curse of the Mummy's Granodiorite Stele

In the last post, I talked about some of my experience with learning languages outside of the State Department. I thought I would break my thoughts up into do posts, because this one will be more interesting to the people who don't care about what I've done in the past. Here's what we can do now:

The State Department has access to the full complement of Rosetta Stone, and from the Rosetta Stone company, you will never here the end of it. "The U.S. State Department uses our product!" It's a little deceptive, though. When the State Department wants to train someone in a language, they use a classroom with an amazing teacher to student ratio (something like 1:5). The students spend six or more hours each day practicing in class with native speakers, and supplement with homework assignments, projects, and presentations. This training goes on for months, and never during that period does Rosetta Stone get used. They can't always offer that kind of training to their employees, but when they do, it is as ideal as it can get.

If they can't offer you that (and, based on Susie's job and other various issues, they can't offer us classroom Russian training), they have tutoring and distance learning classes, and sometimes classes are available at the consulate or embassy post. Again, these don't use Rosetta Stone. From what I can tell, these involve studying your way through a text book, working on assignments through the internet, and a periodic phone tutoring session. Plus, because the students are (or soon will be) living in a country where the language is spoken, you have the perfect degree of language immersion to dramatically improve your skills.

So, where is Rosetta Stone in all of this? Well, I have access to it online, to do with what I want. I can run through all the levels of Rosetta Stone Russian in whatever way I see fit. But it is entirely separate from what the State Department wants and makes available. Why? Because Rosetta Stone is uniformly, undeniably, and laughably bad for learning a language. If any of you have tried to learn through Rosetta Stone, I'm sorry. It's awful and won't be much help (if any) when you have to actually speak to someone in the target language.

Most people can't afford $300 or more dollars for a computer program, so here's the rundown as I have experienced it. Rosetta Stone tries to teach everyone like a child who is learning their first language, which is, linguistically speaking, absolutely nuts. No one who uses Rosetta Stone is using it to learn their first language, which means that, unlike babies, we have access to a never ending supply of life examples, vocabulary, minute distinctions, and logical understanding. We do not learn like children, and it's absurd to think we should. The program is language independent, so it relies on repetition of pictures and the target language to try and imprint the language on you. This could be alright... but if you have a question or don't understand what is happening, you are out of luck. The things you are "taught" are piecemeal and random, starting with things like "boy" and "run" (anyone ever see a "Dick and Jane" book?), and wholly irrelevant to what stuff I will need to be able to say when I get to Kazakhstan. I need to be able to direct a taxi, order food in restaurants, understand prices and products in a grocery store, and any number of other things that have nothing to do with me explaining in broken Russian that a boy runs or a girl eats or a man reads. My experiences, and yours, are greater than those of a child, and adults need to be able to speak differently than children do.

Rosetta Stone does not teach you how to speak. It centers around flashing words, pictures, and sounds and having the user match them in a multiple choice fashion. You do not learn to communicate and you do not learn how to create or expand you knowledge. You learn to match words to things that can be pictured and vice versa. There is next to no feedback about your abilities with matching words and pictures, and you never get to practice in context, just repetition, repetition, repetition. It's a glorified and very expensive set of flash cards.

I spent about an hour using Rosetta Stone before I became so frustrated that I stopped, and I will not be picking it up again. Should you ever think about learning a language, let me recommend against it. This is coming from a linguist, a language educator, and someone who has studied four foreign languages and who will study many more in his lifetime: Rosetta Stone is bad, and the people who promote it should feel bad. I am an expert in this! If you have ever used Rosetta Stone software, or are currently using it to try to learn a language, I would strongly recommend trying other things. Rosetta Stone is useless and possibly worse than useless.

If you want to learn a language, of course the best way is to immerse yourself. For people in the Foreign Service, this is forced upon you. For people who aren't, hopefully there is a way. Eventually, I would recommend it to anyone who is learning any language. If you learn Spanish in a classroom, from a tutor, or just by studying by yourself, take an extended trip to Spain or Mexico. Find a way to spend several weeks or months surrounded by the sounds of the language, having to use it for anything you want to do. Put the television on in the background whenever you are doing anything. It's amazing the difference even a little bit of time makes. I know it's not possible for everyone, and let me be completely clear that immersion is not, in and of itself, a way to learn a language. You will still have to study and practice, it's just that being in an environment where you must study and practice to do even the most basic of things is better than sitting at home or in a classroom.

I've been tracking down websites and books for learning Russian, finding online message boards and groups that I might be able to practice with, downloading apps to practice vocabulary and spelling. The best part about these resources is that they are free, or next to it. I understand that software like Rosetta Stone is a major undertaking, especially with new features like voice recognition, but it is massively expensive for what users get out of it. So many people want to provide language learning tools and assistance without breaking your bank, and we have the internet to thank for their ability to do so easily.

Learning a language is a major effort, but the only way to get the most out of it is to prepare and get a solid footing before we begin. With the internet connecting so many people all over the world, there are more resources available than five years ago. More available than even one year ago. I'm hoping that these resources will make it work for Susie and me (and you). You just have to track some down. Luckily, there are even people who have already done that for us!

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