Rosetta Stone Is No Replacement for In-Class Learning, Study Finds

Rosetta Stone, the popular commercial language-instruction system, is no replacement for trained teachers and in-class learning, a new study has found. The company that makes the system says it has no interest in replacing teachers, though it has recently made deals with colleges to use its product as a teaching tool.

A report on the study, published in the most recent issue of the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages’ Bulletin, is an example of growing faculty concern that software could replace classroom teaching.

The study found that the Rosetta Stone “software package is not a viable option for foreign-language learning” because of shaky theoretical foundations, mechanical inflexibility, and “cultural inauthenticity,” among other things. The author of the report, Lisa K. DeWaard, an assistant professor of Spanish and second-language acquisition at Clemson University, also took issue with what she described as misleading marketing claims by the company, Rosetta Stone Ltd.

Ms. DeWaard said she decided to look into the effectiveness of Rosetta Stone’s computer offerings after the company sent representatives to Clemson. She said the representatives had asserted that Rosetta Stone’s system could replace the first two years of foreign-language classes.

Rosetta Stone “is making a pretty aggressive push into universities and community colleges,” Ms. DeWaard said. “The implications are that software can replace the classroom.”

Ms. DeWaard used herself as a test subject, taking two of Rosetta Stone’s language courses, Portuguese and Japanese, but found the system’s basic premise—that an adult can learn a language like a baby—to be flawed.

“It’s based on a theory of acquisition that experts in the field rejected about 20 years ago,” she said. “An adult already has a fully formed language. It’s simply not possible to learn like a baby.”

Ms. DeWaard said the language classes at Clemson, by contrast, are structured by putting students in the kinds of situations they would encounter in real life. They are also given an abundance of grammar support. She said that Rosetta Stone’s software is simply not flexible enough to allow for deep learning of a foreign language. Without a focus on structure or grammar, she argued, students are merely memorizing words, not learning to speak a language.

A representative of Rosetta Stone, however, disputed Ms. DeWaard’s assertions, saying that her findings were based on her personal view of language learning.

“Her conclusions are very much her opinion,” said Jean Ku, director of industry marketing at Rosetta Stone. “We take the immersion approach. It’s very much to get people started in thinking in the language they’re learning. What she’s talking about is a critique of one particular approach.”

Ms. Ku also noted that Ms. DeWaard had used an older version of the Rosetta Stone program in her study, and many of her complaints about the technology were based on a version that hasn’t been used in a number of years. There have been significant changes in the product since the release of the version Ms. DeWaard cited in her study, Ms. Ku said.

Ms. Ku also emphasized that Rosetta Stone does not aim to replace in-class learning. Rather, the system serves higher education by helping professors and universities achieve whatever objectives they might have for in-class or online learning. For the most part, Rosetta Stone is used to supplement in-class learning, she said, as teachers have only so much time they can devote to each student in the classroom.

Ms. DeWaard said that she did not oppose the use of technology in learning, and that she uses language programs as supplements in her own classes.

“We’re pro-technology,” she said, “when it is properly applied pedagogically.”

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