Rosetta Stone acquires the rights to endangered languages

Marianne Mithun mithun at
Fri Jan 21 16:57:58 UTC 2011

I finally have to weigh in here on another aspect of the issue specifically 
with respect to endangered languages.

For communities in danger of losing their traditional languages, learning 
the heritage language isn't just about being able to order a meal in a 
restaurant or book a hotel room. It's often about something much deeper, 
about appreciating traditional ways of viewing the world, of categorizing 
concepts, of combining ideas, of interacting. And the Rosetta Stone system 
is one-size-fits-all. People are essentially asked to translate the model 
sentences into whatever language is at hand, and the results tend to be 
close to word-by-word translations. So yes, learners learn how to say 'boy' 
and 'run'. But they don't learn, for example, that ideas expressed by nouns 
in English are expressed in language X by verbs. Or that in many languages 
people don't tend to talk sentences consisting of Noun Verb Noun (or Noun 
Noun Verb). They don't learn about the glorious elaboration of semantic 
distinctions or domains that have no counterparts in the model language. 
They probably won't learn about evidentials. They are unlikely to learn 
about elaborate aspectual distinctions. They certainly won't learn 
different patterns of subordination or clause combining.

For some situations, that may be fine. Heritage speakers just want to be 
able to use some phrases in everyday talk. And they don't have the time or 
interest for that kind of complexity. For others, it sort of defeats the 
whole purpose.

Marianne Mithun

--On Friday, January 21, 2011 11:30 AM -0500 Brian MacWhinney 
<macw at> wrote:

> Folks,
>      I share your low regard for Rosetta Stone, not so much for what they
> fail to deliver, but rather for the overstated claims they make.  I know
> a couple of students who have worked with them on internships and, so
> far, there is no evidence of malicious practices vis a vis native
> communities. Despite this, I agree that it is likely that communities who
> collaborate with them will get led down the garden path and end up
> unwilling to participate later with other, more promising, approaches to
> language maintenance.  But these are freely-formed relations between
> consenting parties, so nothing can militate against it.      Regarding
> the wider issue of effectiveness of language learning programs, I find it
> strange that Luke has located nothing on this subject.  Back in 1968,
> Paul Pimsleur already demonstrated the effectiveness of his method of
> graduated interval recall which is picked up, in an admittedly diluted
> form, by the current Pimsleur series.  There are hundreds of studies
> distributed across six major journals demonstrating the relatively
> greater effectiveness of specific components of language instruction,
> from keyword method to corrective feedback.  These effects have been
> demonstrated in both controlled experiments and, somewhat less
> convincingly, in classroom and online instruction.  Nearly all of my own
> experimental work is now focused on tests of this type embedded within
> online tutors.  Perhaps what Luke is referring to is the absence of
> evidence of the overall comparative effectiveness of the big commercial
> language programs such as Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur.  In the cases of
> such full programs, it is extremely difficult to coordinate a decent
> experimental test, because it would require buy in from a large group of
> volunteers across a long period with careful controls for study time and
> so on.  So, I think it is generally better to focus on demonstrations of
> the effects of individual components of programs, because these can be
> subject to reasonable experimental control.  Of course, all of this
> leaves the naturalistic methods of language learning out in the cold, and
> that is wrong.  In the end, the best way to advance this field will be to
> increase automatic data collection during the language learning process,
> within online, classroom, and naturalistic contexts.  This is what I am
> working on.
> Regards,
> -- Brian MacWhinney
> On Jan 20, 2011, at 11:09 PM, Luke Kundl Pinette wrote:
>> The question is, why is the Rosetta Stone doing this anyways?  According
>> to the article, Rosetta doesn't actually distribute the programs, just
>> makes them.  It doesn't say if it's turning a profit, a loss or selling
>> them at cost (though the last is what one would infer from the article).
>> If they're doing it for the PR, they'll probably try not to screw over
>> native communities too badly, though of course you know what they say
>> about the pavement used on the road to hell.
>> If they're in it for the money, I wouldn't put it past them to add a
>> clause like that. Then we've got a legal question on our hands.  It's
>> essentially monopolistic practice, particularly if they make a pattern
>> of deliberately blocking competition for language programs in endangered
>> languages.  I suspect that if they were to try it, it would be possible
>> to find some lawyer willing to pursue the issue, and when taken to court
>> they would lose.   It would certainly cause a lot of trouble in the
>> meantime though.
>> It sounds like nobody on this list has any illusions about the company.
>> It's depressing to see that a linguist like Krauss, and one in such an
>> important position has bought into Rosetta Stone's marketing, but again,
>> unless another company steps up it doesn't sound like there's any
>> options other than no language program.  If Rosetta is not in fact
>> inserting insidious clauses into the agreements with their informants,
>> it's still probably better than nothing.
>> Regards,
>> Luke
>> On 1/21/11 10:48 AM, John Du Bois wrote:
>>> I agree with Tom's assessment. One should not underestimate the damage
>>> that a company with Rosetta Stone's tendencies to mislead could do in
>>> an endangered language community.
>>> For example, they could insert a legal clause binding speakers that
>>> work with them to work with nobody else in the future. If that's the
>>> last speaker of the language, that's the end of the language, as far
>>> as indigenous language revitalization efforts, language documentation,
>>> and linguistic fieldwork go. Even if Rosetta Stone doesn't use this
>>> specific legal tactic, if speakers end up feeling abused by them for
>>> whatever reason, they may feel leery about working with anyone else on
>>> their language. When there are few speakers in an endangered language
>>> community, this can have a big negative impact.
>>> It may be worthwhile for some people involved in work with endangered
>>> language communities to monitor Rosetta Stone's actions closely, and
>>> to work with representatives of those communities to devise strategies
>>> for mitigating any negative  effects.
>>> Jack Du Bois
>>> On 1/20/2011 10:16 AM, Tom Givon wrote:
>>>> Rosetta Stone is a f---ing fraud. I certainly won't recommend to my
>>>> Ute friends that they do anything with them--if they asked me.
>>>> However, preying on innocent customers is RS's specialty, and the
>>>> Natives are just as gullible as the rest of us, an in many way more
>>>> vulnerable. I hope they don't create more damage than history already
>>>> has.  TG
>>>> ==============
>>>> On 1/20/2011 9:50 AM, Keith Johnson wrote:
>>>>> Hi Funksters,
>>>>> My subject heading is intentionally provocative, but this article
>>>>> raises a couple of
>>>>> issues.  Is it a good thing for Rosetta Stone to have an endangered
>>>>> languages
>>>>> unit?
>>>>> Keith Johnson
>>>>> etta.html

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