Roseta Stone: Redux

Dan I. Slobin slobin at
Thu Feb 10 03:53:18 UTC 2011

A few responses to previous postings:

Yes, languages with transparent and consistent 
agglutinative morphology, in the verbal or 
nominal systems, allow for rapid acquisition, 
with some productive inflections at the one-word 
stage.  Turkish morphology, having virtually no 
irregular patterns, is quite securely mastered by 
age 3 at the latest, and often much 
earlier.  And, in general, complex morphology, of 
various types, presents no serious problems with 
regard to acquisition of the basic grammar of the 
relevant constructions.  For details of 
successful early acquistion of morphology in a 
number of such "complex"languages see volumes of 
my crosslinguistic series: Vol. 1 (Hebrew, 
Polish, Turkish), Vol. 2 (Hungarian), Vol. 3 
(Georgian, West Greenlandic, K'iche' Maya, 
Warlpiri, Sesotho), Vol. 4 (Estonian, Finnish, 
Korean).  Comparable findings are available for 
the acquisition of Inuktitut, Tzeltal, 
Tzotzil,Yucatec Maya, Hindi, Tamil, and 
others.  What children find difficult--as do 
inguists--are multiply-determined and/or 
unpredictable morphophonological patterns.

So it depends on what you want to credit as 
"total acquisition" or "completion of 
acquisition."  An English-speaking 10-year-old 
can fluently produce a range of syntactic 
structures, in various genres and registers, 
without having mastered all of the irregular verb 
forms and a number of subordinate syntactic 
constructions.  Furthermore, remember that a 
bility to produce a pattern in some contexts is 
far from commanding its full range of semantic 
and pragmatic functions.  And when all of you 
Funknetters became undergraduate and graduate 
students, and later professionals, you were still 
acquiring many aspects of English grammar, 
vocabulary, and style.  Indeed, it goes on 
throughout the lifespan of an engaged individual.

There are no established criteria for full 
mastery, but there are numerous studies, in all 
five of the crosslinguistic volumes and 
elsewhere, of prolonged acquisition of various parts of a linguistic system.

As noted, I've written about the error of 
expecting early child language to mirror pidgins.


Dan (with references following, many of mine 
available for download at
Slobin, D. I. (1985, 1992, 1997).  The 
crosslinguistic study of language acquisition. 
Vol. 1: The Data (1985); Vol. 2: Theoretical 
issues (1985); Vol. 3 (1992); Vol. 4 (1997); Vol. 
5: Expanding the contexts (1997).  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Slobin, D. I. (2004). From ontogenesis to 
phylogenesis:  What can child language tell us 
about language evolution?  In J. Langer, S. T. 
Parker, & C. Milbrath (Eds.), Biology and 
Knowledge revisited: From neurogenesis to 
psychogenesis (pp. 255-285).  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

At 03:00 PM 2/9/2011, Lise Menn wrote:
>that's right.  And child language and pidgin aren't the same, in any
>case, for any language I know about, any more than any of them are
>telegrams.  But there are arcane reaches of languages that most people
>don't learn, confounding the definition of what 'acquire' means:
>Japanese honorifics and noun classifiers have elegant refinements,
>crafts and professions have jargons...
>On Feb 9, 2011, at 1:50 PM, A. Katz wrote:
>>I seem to recall that in "The Evolution of 
>>Language Out of Pre- Language" Dan Slobin had a 
>>sort of dissenting article at the end in
>>which he mentioned that Turkish children use grammatical morphology
>>at the one word level, so that they are never actually speaking a
>>pidgin Turkish at any point in their language development.
>>  --Aya
>>On Wed, 9 Feb 2011, Craig Hancock wrote:
>>>   This strikes as a bit like Lake Woebegone (Where all the children
>>>are above average).
>>>normal Danish children all learn good Danish and become fluent
>>>  Is acquiring a language totally separate from the uses of that
>>>language? Are we just acquiring the forms and then differing in our
>>>ability to put them to use or are the uses themselves a major part
>>>of what we are acquiring? Are lexicon and syntax wholly separate,
>>>or do we go on acquiring the lexico-grammar as we enter more deeply
>>>into adult worlds of discourse?
>>>   Anyone in literacy education knows that too many American
>>>children fail to reach high levels of fluency as readers and
>>>writers. Doesn't that somehow mean they have failed to acquire the
>>>On 2/9/2011 2:04 PM, Brian MacWhinney wrote:
>>>>There are studies in places like the Journal of Child Language by
>>>>Dorthe Bleses, Hans Basbøl, and colleagues at Southern Denmark
>>>>University on the delay of the acquisition of Danish phonology in
>>>>comparison to other European languages, mostly attributed to the
>>>>complexities of the vowel system and the various assimilatory
>>>>processes.  There is a corresponding delay in the acquisition of
>>>>reading by Danish children that was observed in the cross-European
>>>>PISA project.  All of this is well documented in the literature,
>>>>but it is rather marginal and transitory.  Eventually, normal
>>>>Danish children all learn good Danish and become fluent readers.
>>>>-- Brian MacWhinney
>>>>On Feb 9, 2011, at 1:27 PM, Frederick J Newmeyer wrote:
>>>>>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:
>>>>>>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:
>>>>>>>>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
>>>>>>>>I guarantee it will be Navajo. And there is an objective
>>>>>>>>reason for it--
>>>>>>>>the morphophonemics are just unbelievably complex.
>>>>>>>>Quoting "A. Katz"<amnfn at>:
>>>>>>>>>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
>>>>>>>>>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.
>>>>>>>>>       --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
>>>>>>>>>>>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.
>>>>>>>>>>>>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
>>>>>>>>>>>>>Stone gave a short talk about the software. What follows
>>>>>>>>>>>>>is my
>>>>>>>>>>>>>of how it came to be.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>The Navajo Rosetta Stones was created in collaboration
>>>>>>>>>>>>>with Rosetta
>>>>>>>>>>>>>and the non-profit Navajo Language Renaissance (NLR). NLR
>>>>>>>>>>>>>is a
>>>>>>>>>>>>>organization that is NOT affiliated with the tribal
>>>>>>>>>>>>>council or
>>>>>>>>>>>>>any way, for obvious reasons I think (e.g. getting
>>>>>>>>>>>>>council approval for
>>>>>>>>>>>>>project). However, it has been endorsed by the school
>>>>>>>>>>>>>leadership and NLR
>>>>>>>>>>>>>actively trying to get the school district to adopt the
>>>>>>>>>>>>>software. You
>>>>>>>>>>>>>view the NLR website here 
>>>>>>>>>>>>>  A
>>>>>>>>>>>>>non-community member started NLR after using Rosetta
>>>>>>>>>>>>>Stone to learn
>>>>>>>>>>>>>She thought it would be good if Rosetta Stone created a
>>>>>>>>>>>>>Navajo version.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>contacted Rosetta Stone (RS), and they told her they
>>>>>>>>>>>>>would provide here
>>>>>>>>>>>>>the software to develop the lessons,  a photographer, and
>>>>>>>>>>>>>assistants (limited on the ground, mostly by phone) to
>>>>>>>>>>>>>develop the
>>>>>>>>>>>>>for $300,000. Another option would be for her to apply
>>>>>>>>>>>>>for a grant from
>>>>>>>>>>>>>to cover most of the costs. So the NLR was created, a
>>>>>>>>>>>>>community members and one non-community member,  as a non- profit
>>>>>>>>>>>>>organization and applied. RS gave two grants the year
>>>>>>>>>>>>>they applied, one
>>>>>>>>>>>>>to NLR. The grant covered all but $27,000 of the
>>>>>>>>>>>>>$300,000. So NLR had to
>>>>>>>>>>>>>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
>>>>>>>>>>>>>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
>>>>>>>>>>>>>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
>>>>>>>>>>>>>community for many of the usual reasons. Ironically, the
>>>>>>>>>>>>>speaker after
>>>>>>>>>>>>>Rosetta Stone folks gave a talk that demonstrated how to
>>>>>>>>>>>>>create nearly
>>>>>>>>>>>>>identical language lessons as Rosetta Stone's simply
>>>>>>>>>>>>>using power point.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>was encouraged to let folks know that they should contact
>>>>>>>>>>>>>the NLR if
>>>>>>>>>>>>>have any questions at mbittinger at You
>>>>>>>>>>>>>can try a free
>>>>>>>>>>>>>introductory lesson here 
>>>>>>>>>>>>>  The
>>>>>>>>>>>>>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
>>>>>>>>>>>>>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
>>>>>>>>>>>>>to think that it was not a pancea, but rather another
>>>>>>>>>>>>>useful tool in
>>>>>>>>>>>>>language revitalization efforts.
>>>>>>>>>>>>This message was sent using IMP, the Webmail Program of
>>>>>>>>>>>>Haifa University
>>>>>>>>This message was sent using IMP, the Webmail Program of Haifa
>Lise Menn                      Home Office: 303-444-4274
>1625 Mariposa Ave       Fax: 303-413-0017
>Boulder CO 80302
>home page:
>Professor Emerita of Linguistics
>Fellow, Institute of Cognitive Science
>University of  Colorado
>Secretary, AAAS Section Z [Linguistics]
>Fellow, Linguistic Society of America
>Campus Mail Address:
>UCB 594, Institute for Cognitive Science
>Campus Physical Address:
>CINC 234
>1777 Exposition Ave, Boulder

Dan I. Slobin
Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Linguistics

Department of Psychology           email: slobin at
3210 Tolman #1650                    phone (Dept):  1-510-642-5292
University of California                phone (home): 1-510-848-1769
Berkeley, CA 94720-1650, USA   fax: 1-510-642-5293

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