Roseta Stone: Redux

Frederick J Newmeyer fjn at
Wed Feb 9 18:27:25 UTC 2011

A propos, are there any published studies out there that point to measurable difference in rate of completion of first-language acquisition by speakers of one language compared to another? Or even of mastery of one aspect of L1 acquisition (phonology, morphology, etc.) by speakers of one language compared to another?


Frederick J. Newmeyer
Professor Emeritus, University of Washington
Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University
[for my postal address, please contact me by e-mail]

On Wed, 9 Feb 2011, A. Katz wrote:

> Tom,
> If the language is dying, then the advice not to listen to somebody under 
> forty because they don't know how to speak may be sound, but not for the 
> reason that you suggest. It could be there are no fluent speakers under 
> forty. It seems very unlikely that one would have to arrive at age forty 
> before acquiring fluency, especially in a hunter gatherer culture where death 
> before forty might be quite common.
> But if you have evidence to the contrary that fully immersed, monolingual 
> young speakers of a language cannot speak it with communicative effect until 
> age forty, then this is a big discovery that ought to be published and shared 
> with the scientific community.
>   --Aya
> On Wed, 9 Feb 2011, Tom Givon wrote:
>> Right on, John. And one could make a prediction--hopefully someday to be 
>> tested by acquisition studies--that Navajo kids will not master the fully 
>> complexcity of the Athabaskan verb by age 10, or 15, or 20. I once reviewed 
>> a grammar in Papua New Guniea of a language that had comparable complexity 
>> on the verb (three positions, 6-8 categoriers each, massive zeroing & 
>> morphonemic). I had to ask Carle Whitehead--is this guy for real? He said, 
>> yes, he's been in the island for 20 years, really knows his stuff. So I 
>> asked the guy--at what age are kids considered fuill-fledged speakers? He 
>> said-- the old people say, don't listen to anybody under forty, they don't 
>> know how to speak.  In my work with the Utes, one exchange has stuck out, 
>> an elder (ka-para'ni-wa-t, he's not walking about any more) who was pointed 
>> to me as the best orator in the tribe. I told him that, and he said: "Oh, I 
>> am nothing. You should have heard the Old Ones; when they spoke, you could 
>> see it all in front of your eyes". Part of it is due to the complex Ute 
>> deictic system, which invades NPs, ADVs & the verb. The combinations, and 
>> the subtle choices of when to combine the deictic particle with other 
>> categories, are a whole wond(e)rous world. Cheers,  TG
>> ==========
>> On 2/9/2011 10:13 AM, john at wrote:
>>> Aya,
>>> I think I was the one who said first that Navajo is not a language for
>>> amateurs. I'll second what Tom said--you should learn something
>>> about Navajo (or some other Athabaskan language) before making
>>> statements like this. Some languages are just plain objectively harder 
>>> than
>>> others, regardless of typological similarly to one's native language. If 
>>> you
>>> don't believe this, do an experiment in which you take speakers of 
>>> English,
>>> Turkish, Georgian, Chinese, whatever you want, try to teach them Navajo, 
>>> Hopi,
>>> and Cree (for example), and see which one gives them the most trouble.
>>> I guarantee it will be Navajo. And there is an objective reason for it--
>>> the morphophonemics are just unbelievably complex.
>>> John
>>> Quoting "A. Katz"<amnfn at>:
>>>> Tom,
>>>> I don't think that is a valid viewpoint with regard to Athabaskan or any
>>>> other language family.
>>>> Victor Golla earlier had a much better phrasing when he wrote:
>>>> "Let that read: "A language that is not for amateurs is not for
>>>> ADULT people.""
>>>> But in fact no language is easy for adults to learn who have not already
>>>> learned a language with a similar typology. If your native language works
>>>> similarly to the one you are learning, then you have an enormous 
>>>> advantage
>>>> as an adult second language learner.
>>>> The remark about how Navajo is not for amateurs was made in the context 
>>>> of
>>>> people who have no experience with languages of a similar typology.
>>>> To make this a universal statement about the difficulty of Navajo without
>>>> qualification is to suggest that some languages are "easy" and others are
>>>> "impossible". Not only is this not true from an objective standpoint, it
>>>> also perpetuates the prejudice that English (or IE) is a "normal" 
>>>> language
>>>> and that every language should be measured against this norm.
>>>> Best,
>>>>        --Aya
>>>> On Tue, 8 Feb 2011, Tom Givon wrote:
>>>>> Before you actually tried to learn an Athabaskan language, or at the 
>>>>> very
>>>>> least worked on one, maybe you had better refrain from asserting that "a
>>>>> language that is not for amateurs is not for people".  TG
>>>>> =========
>>>>> On 2/8/2011 6:33 AM, A. Katz wrote:
>>>>>> A language that is not for amateurs is not for people.
>>>>>> This has nothing to do with RS or computer language teaching. As others
>>>>>> have stated, the technologically based systems are not a panacea.
>>>>>> But a language that ordinary people can't pick by talking to their 
>>>>>> parents
>>>>>> in childhood is either dead already or not a human language.
>>>>>>     --Aya
>>>>>> On Tue, 8 Feb 2011, john at wrote:
>>>>>>> I would be amazed if a single person actually learns to speak Navajo
>>>>>>> using Rosetta Stone. This is not a language for amateurs.
>>>>>>> John
>>>>>>> Quoting "s.t. bischoff"< at>:
>>>>>>>> Hi all,
>>>>>>>> Over the last week I was involved with an event at the American 
>>>>>>>> Indian
>>>>>>>> Language Development Institute and the folks that created the Navajo
>>>>>>>> Rosetta
>>>>>>>> Stone gave a short talk about the software. What follows is my
>>>>>>>> understanding
>>>>>>>> of how it came to be.
>>>>>>>> The Navajo Rosetta Stones was created in collaboration with Rosetta
>>>> Stone
>>>>>>>> and the non-profit Navajo Language Renaissance (NLR). NLR is a
>>>> non-profit
>>>>>>>> organization that is NOT affiliated with the tribal council or
>>>> government
>>>>>>>> in
>>>>>>>> any way, for obvious reasons I think (e.g. getting council approval 
>>>>>>>> for
>>>>>>>> the
>>>>>>>> project). However, it has been endorsed by the school leadership and 
>>>>>>>> NLR
>>>>>>>> is
>>>>>>>> actively trying to get the school district to adopt the software. You
>>>> can
>>>>>>>> view the NLR website here A
>>>>>>>> non-community member started NLR after using Rosetta Stone to learn
>>>>>>>> Russian.
>>>>>>>> She thought it would be good if Rosetta Stone created a Navajo 
>>>>>>>> version.
>>>>>>>> She
>>>>>>>> contacted Rosetta Stone (RS), and they told her they would provide 
>>>>>>>> here
>>>>>>>> with
>>>>>>>> the software to develop the lessons,  a photographer, and technical
>>>>>>>> assistants (limited on the ground, mostly by phone) to develop the
>>>>>>>> program
>>>>>>>> for $300,000. Another option would be for her to apply for a grant 
>>>>>>>> from
>>>>>>>> RS
>>>>>>>> to cover most of the costs. So the NLR was created, a partnership
>>>> between
>>>>>>>> community members and one non-community member,  as a non-profit
>>>>>>>> organization and applied. RS gave two grants the year they applied, 
>>>>>>>> one
>>>>>>>> went
>>>>>>>> to NLR. The grant covered all but $27,000 of the $300,000. So NLR had 
>>>>>>>> to
>>>>>>>> pay
>>>>>>>> RS $27,000 to have access to the software to create the Navajo 
>>>>>>>> Rosetta
>>>>>>>> Stone. This means they had to create the lessons and pay speakers and
>>>>>>>> informants themselves. RS provided the software, a photographer, and
>>>>>>>> technical support for the $27,000. NLR now is the only group that can
>>>>>>>> sell
>>>>>>>> Navajo Rosetta Stone, which they do for $150 per license and $200 for 
>>>>>>>> a
>>>>>>>> personal box set. It is not clear if they have to pay RS a percentage 
>>>>>>>> of
>>>>>>>> those revenues or not. When I asked a clear answer wasn't given. NLR
>>>> also
>>>>>>>> has a "training" session for administrators and teachers which costs
>>>>>>>> $1500 a
>>>>>>>> day and $400 per 3 hours. Needless to say, it is not un-controversial 
>>>>>>>> in
>>>>>>>> the
>>>>>>>> community for many of the usual reasons. Ironically, the speaker 
>>>>>>>> after
>>>>>>>> the
>>>>>>>> Rosetta Stone folks gave a talk that demonstrated how to create 
>>>>>>>> nearly
>>>>>>>> identical language lessons as Rosetta Stone's simply using power 
>>>>>>>> point.
>>>> I
>>>>>>>> was encouraged to let folks know that they should contact the NLR if
>>>> they
>>>>>>>> have any questions at mbittinger at You can try a free
>>>>>>>> introductory lesson here The
>>>>>>>> folks
>>>>>>>> at NLR praised RS for their efforts and felt they had really done 
>>>>>>>> them a
>>>>>>>> service. In short, they were very happy with the arrangement and how 
>>>>>>>> it
>>>>>>>> was
>>>>>>>> working out. They were also upset by the controversies surrounding 
>>>>>>>> the
>>>>>>>> Navajo Rosetta Stone and felt they were really the result of a
>>>>>>>> misunderstanding and misguided assumptions. One finally thing, they 
>>>>>>>> did
>>>>>>>> seem
>>>>>>>> to think that it was not a pancea, but rather another useful tool in
>>>>>>>> language revitalization efforts.
>>>>>>>> Cheers,
>>>>>>>> Shannon
>>>>>>> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
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>>>>>>> University
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