Roseta Stone: Redux

Elena Lieven lieven at
Thu Feb 10 07:15:36 UTC 2011

Dan is right.  Of course it depends what is meant by 'acquiring a 
language'.  The skills of highly educated people or public speakers and 
great story tellers in oral cultures will not necessarily be acquired by 
all members of a community.  Ewa Dabrowska has shown this for some 
aspects of case morphology in Polish and for passives and quantifer 
scope in English -  both studies of adult native speakers
elena lieven

Dan I. Slobin wrote:
> 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.
> Best,
> 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:
>>>> Brian,
>>>>   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
>>>> readers
>>>>  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
>>>> language?
>>>> Craig
>>>> On 2/9/2011 2:04 PM, Brian MacWhinney wrote:
>>>>> Fritz,
>>>>> 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?
>>>>>> --fritz
>>>>>> 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
>>>>>>>>>>>>> ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 
>>>>>>>>>>>>> This message was sent using IMP, the Webmail Program of
>>>>>>>>>>>>> Haifa University
>>>>>>>>> ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 
>>>>>>>>> This message was sent using IMP, the Webmail Program of Haifa
>>>>>>>>> University
>> 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
> >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Elena Lieven
Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology  
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology                         
Deutscher Platz 6                                                                        
D-04103 Leipzig                                                                           

Tel.+49-(0)341-3550 404                                                               
    +49-(0)341-3550 400 (Department Coordinator: Henriette Zeidler)      
Fax.+49-(0)341-3550 444                                                            

Max Planck Child Study Centre
School of Psychological Sciences
University of Manchester
Manchester M13 9PL

Tel.+44-(0)161-275 2580
    +44-(0)161-275 2444 (Research Secretary: Mickie Glover)
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