Rosetta Stone

Don Osborn dzo at BISHARAT.NET
Tue Dec 11 00:53:24 UTC 2007

As I look at this thread several thoughts occur. One is Robert Chambers'
discussion of "positive practitioners" and "negative academics" in
international development. The former try to do something, whatever the
agenda, and sometimes ineptly. The latter critique, sometimes insightfully
and incisively and sometimes less so. That is not to say that one is right
and the other wrong, but that in some ways they are like two different

Jess Tauber is right to point out the ironies in the historical sweep. The
same dominant culture that via education and technology tried to wipe out
languages or systematically marginalize them (not just in the Americas), now
is in part (at least the parts you see) trying to save them. It is natural
to ask why.

Part of it is the dynamic of power. I've noted - again in international
development - that the people in positions to do so end up occupying or
pre-empting both sides (or all positions) in many debates. Even about the
nature of a people themselves. This was particularly striking in several
decades of debates on pastoralism in Africa - an evolution of two opposing
views on the rationality or not of transhumant (semi-nomadic) herding. An
evolving debate entirely outside of the cultures discussed, with indirect
and imperfect references to the herders' knowledge systems, and in terms
totally outside pastoralists' languages, and totally immersed in Western
terms of reference.

I see a little of this in discussions on languages and on languages &

In part, this dynamic of power is just that way, like the wind just blows.
It shifts too, and you can find a way to explain it, but in the end how do
you protect yourself from it and better yet use its force to some advantage?

So, on one level, Jess's generalizing about "they" responds to a real set of
issues. However on another level it seems to blur some realities.

When looking at the specific case of companies like Rosetta Stone (or for
that matter bigger technology companies) part of what one must appreciate is
the nature of the beast and the environment it is working in. The bottom
line and survival in that environment is money. How to get it can raise
issues, but without it, *poof*. James's suspicion is natural, but with a
company, what else is new? 

But even that is more complex. I resist reifying the notion of corporation
too far to the point of overlooking the agency of people in organizations
like Rosetta Stone, who may be very sincerely devoted to somehow changing
the world for better. The latter may end up being the "positive
practitioners" per Chambers' dichotomy, with their more or less imperfect
human (and culturally bound) understanding of what they are dealing with -
and their own environment to survive in.

>From what little I know of Rosetta Stone I see it as a business that is at
least trying to do something. It's making good money, apparently, in general
language learning with a product that has positive reviews. It's stepping
outside of that market in an interesting way. Of course they are milking it
for publicity too, but again, that is the nature of companies. I don't know
enough about the program, its approach or results to judge it, but I'm
absolutely not surprised if there are limits in terms of what they spend on
it (anything has limits).

Let me finish with another technology example. A company named Lancor just
sued the One Laptop Per Child project for alleged use of codes in a patented
keyboard. The object of both keyboards is to facilitate input of "extended
Latin characters" and diacritics for West African languages. I don't know
the technical or patent issues well enough, but whatever the merits of the
case may or may not be, the ultimate victims will be people who might have
been able to use the technology sooner for their languages. 

The collateral damage to common aims from disputes over methods can be
considerable, and avoidable to the extent one accepts that everyone has
honorable intent. (Maybe a key question is how to establish the latter and a
sense of trust.)

I'd agree with Mia's bottom line conclusion that someone has to do it. If
you start subtracting potential partners from the equation, are you better

Don Osborn

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