the problems with Rosetta Stone

2010-06-30

There was a question on the HTLAL forums about why a lot of people were against Rosetta Stone, and my response to the question sorta grew into a giant post, so I thought I’d stick it here too. enjoy.
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Over the years I’ve dabbled in a lot of languages, and I fell for the Rosetta Stone marketing in about 2002 or so. I bought German,Japanese, and Spanish, if I remember correctly. I now speak German, but only because of considerable effort 8 years later using totally different methods. I’m not necessarily a “hater”, but I usually recommend people away from Rosetta Stone.

Here are my main problems with it:
1) it doesn’t give beginners what they need to feel more comfortable
2) it doesn’t have enough content to take you to an intermediate level
3) the content is boring
4) it doesn’t help you develop the skills that you will need in order to get through intermediate and advanced levels (because this would contradict the promise that buying Rosetta Stone gives you EVERYTHING YOU NEED!)
5) it’s expensive

I’ll go through these in a minute, but firstly let me say that I’m still impressed that they continue to tell people that there are different ways to learn languages, and that languages can be learned by “absorbing” things without necessarily fully understanding them in an academic / mathematical sense. These are important concepts. Now, onto my beefs.

1) “They don’t make beginners feel comfortable.”

I think that when a lot of people start learning a new language, they want something that makes sense, something they can hold on to and feel secure. This makes it hard to advocate that they start right away with an “absorbing” method where there’s a long period of semi-confusion before the full absorption has occurred. For that full-absorption to happen, the learner has to listen to hundreds of hours of content in order to feel secure in the language. Most
beginners are going to give up long before then, because they don’t know how long they might have to wait, and they’re unsure about their progress.

As an alternative, what I like to suggest to beginners is to do a “bootstrapping” phase, where they get themselves a little bit familiar with the language and start to feel more comfortable with it. I think it helps to just know what’s out there, what types of things exist in the language. Do some reading ABOUT the language first, like what types of sounds exist, what types of grammar ideas exist (like
genders, cases, etc), how the language relates to other similar languages, how the writing works, who the famous authors are, what the history is.

None of this bootstrapping phase should be about memorization or perfection, but rather just about getting a little bit of familiarity. There’s no test on this stuff, just read it and explore a bit, and see what’s interesting and unique. This gives you a bit of grounding in the language and makes you feel a bit more at home. It helps give a framework to relate things to.

One of the ways I like to do this (which I did recently with Swedish) was to find a book like one of those “Essential Grammar” books that tries to cover every topic. Instead of memorizing or doing workbook exercises or trying to calculate out my own unique sentences, I merely read the examples. Just look at all sorts of different example sentences in there, to try to get a sense for how things work
generally. Ideally you want to be able to say “oh neat, I see how that sentence is put together now”, but there’s no need to be able to put together your own sentences yet.

An exercise like this lets you see a new sentence with all sorts of strange words, but it will still feel a little bit familiar because you can kinda see how it fits together. You can’t create yet, but you can recognize a little bit, and this makes you feel more confident. It generally takes very little time to get to this point.

Rosetta Stone did not give me this feeling at all. I just felt confused, until I got bored and quit.

2) “It doesn’t have enough content”.

In order to really absorb a language, you need to expose yourself to a lot of real content. Just to give you a sense of the scale, you probably will have to read a few hundred thousand words in that language (I like to aim at 1 million, personally), and listen to hundreds or maybe thousands of hours of audio. This is what I think you need in order to reach some sort of basic fluency…if you just
want to ask for train tickets, then clearly a lot less work is required, but if you want to talk to cute people in a bar about things that interest you generally, then you need wide-ranging comfort in the language and that comes from lots of input.

Rosetta stone just doesn’t have that much in it. I think it’s good that it has a lot of stuff that might not be in a typical textbook, or maybe it comes at it from a different direction with a different conception of what’s “hard” and “easy”, but in total I just don’t think it has enough substance.

To get real substance and to make real progress to fluency, you need a way to get lots of interesting native content. And the word “interesting” is key here, which leads to my next point.

3) “The content is boring”

To make progress in a language, you need to maintain your motivation. For me, this has been the single biggest obstacle to learning other languages, because when I get bored of the content I tend to jump to the next new shiny topic. I used to spend a few weeks on one language, then I’d get bored and stop, and a few weeks later I’d pick up a new language because it was bright and shiny.

Rosetta Stone didn’t help with this. Seeing these dumb pictures and simple sentences about counting tennis balls, and which color the clown’s hair was, did not keep me interested and motivated, so I’d usually give up after a while. What really interested me was reading books (especially fantasy novels) in other languages.

I thought it’d be super awesome if I could read alternate language equivalents of Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien. I wanted to find cool books like that in German and Spanish. I also developed an interest in poetry after reading a dual-language English/Spanish book of Pablo Neruda poems, and wanted to find more like that….but listening to a bunch of lame sentences with funny pictures didn’t really help me get there…

4) “it doesn’t help you develop skills”

Rosetta Stone markets itself as an all-in-one package that will teach you the language. When I used it, I really felt that I had to force myself to work through it from start to finish so that I’d get awesome! They didn’t give any suggestions about how to work from other materials using their ideas.

Also, because their sentences were generally stupid and boring, and all isolated from each other, with no sense of context, it kept me thinking about learning in a counterproductive way. I was still thinking in a textbook mindset, where I had to master simple context-free examples before I could tackle real native content, which I think is totally backwards.

Now I think that context is king. It doesn’t matter if you understand every little detail of a sentence in a book as long as you can get the general idea from using the context. Reading a book is not an exercise in perfection, but actually starts like a picture loading on the internet. First you get a blurry approximation, and then you improve over time until you see a precise image. You still get a lot
of good information from the blurry approximation, but it doesn’t work too well when you just read one sentence at a time that is totally separated from everything else.

5) “It’s expensive”

This one is a no-brainer. Back in 2002 I spent hundreds of dollars buying Rosetta Stone in German, but it got me basically nowhere. I couldn’t converse, I couldn’t read a book, I couldn’t understand TV. In 2009, I spent hundreds of dollars buying DVDs of my favourite TV shows dubbed in German, like 150+ hours of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, along with some CSI and South Park, etc. I also bought a bunch of Harry Potter books with the audiobooks.

This stuff was all fun and very interesting to me. It was very challenging at the start, but I found that by doing a lot of listening and reading, combined with some occasional dictionary lookups (but not too many), then I made steady progress. I spent less money than I did on Rosetta stone 7 years before that, but I had way more fun and got way better results.

Now I’m off in Germany (actually, technically I’m in Austria this week but I’ll be back in Germany soon), and I’m speaking with cute girls in a bar about general topics of interest. Mission accomplished, no thanks to Rosetta Stone.

In summary: you need lots of content, it has to be fun otherwise you’ll quit, and Rosetta Stone doesn’t give you these (plus it’s expensive). If you really want a very structured approach to starting a language, I recommend Assimil, because it mostly solves the 5 problems I listed above. It helps beginners feel comfortable, has more content, is more interesting, it helps you develop skills that will enable you to move quickly to real native content, and it’s not as expensive.


a listener-friendly German accent

2010-06-29

I’ve been having lots of fun chatting to people in German so far. The more I chat, the more I find holes in my vocabulary, but I can usually work around them. A lot of the time, I can say the word in English and people know it, even if they can’t converse much in English.

Since I’ve been here, almost everyone has been really enthusiastic about speaking to me in German. I think one part of this is my accent, since most people can’t place my native language. The Germans seem to think I’m Swiss, while the Austrians think I’m German. At least that’s their initial impression, until I start stumbling for words, and then they get this weird look on their face and ask me where I’m from.

When I speak, I try to use one of Benny‘s tips and smile a lot. If I were frowning and stumbling for words, then people might want to switch to English to make it easier, but if you smile and have a good time while stumbling for words, then it all works out and everyone continues in German. Smile and laugh while you say “sorry, I’m trying to improve my German” and everyone will be happy to help you out and compliment you.

There are times when the accent works against me, since people think I’m better than I am. I’ve had some people start using a bunch of local slang or dialect on me, so I have to tell them to speak clearly. I got pulled over by an Austrian cop last night while riding the wrong way down a confusing one-way street, and he started explaining my infraction with all these official sounding words until I said “woah woah, I’m a foreigner, slow down”. But at least he understood everything I said 🙂

Developing a listener-friendly accent requires a lot of listening. You also should have some knowledge about the physical production of the sounds, so that you can understand, for example, which part of your mouth should be used to make a German “R” (which seems to be a real problem for native English speakers). Some accent problems come in when you try and substitute one of your own language’s sounds for a letter in a word that is actually a different sound in the target language.

Particularly for English speakers here, if you try and say some German words using an English R and L sound, then the result will be confusing for the German listeners. If you can’t do the common back-of-the-tongue German R, then at least try to do a tip-of-the-tongue rolling R like russian or spanish, and people here seem to get that a bit easier. There are some native accents in southern Germany that use this rolling R more often than the back-of-the-tongue variety.

For a lot of English speakers, I think the R will come much easier once you’ve mastered the various sounds used for “ch”. The easiest is perhaps best described as the sound that a hissing goose makes. For those of you who’ve encountered an angry goose defending its young, you’ll recognize the noise I mean. They open their beaks wide, so the sound is clearly not a tip-of-the-tongue “ssssss”, but something else. This helps visualize the human equivalent, which is where the back of your tongue goes really close to the top of the back of your mouth, to make a “hhhhh” hissing sound. You might also try to visualize an angry cat hissing, which is the same sort of open-mouth idea. Practice making this sound to yourself for a while, and then you’ll be able to say “ich” properly, instead of the common mistake of saying “itch” or “ish” (which are both typical English front-of-the-mouth sounds). Also notice that in most cases, this “ch” is not like the harder Arabic noise…there’s no vibrating or spit-gargling. Don’t overdo it. Usually it’s very “clean” and smooth.

Once you can say “ch” properly, then you’re ready to move on to a good “r”. The sound is articulated in the same general area, although to me it feels slightly different. Try to start out by making a “ch” hiss, and then add some voicing to it. To make it work properly you’ll have to make a slight movement more towards the back of the mouth I think, but at least that’ll get you started in the right general area.

This R sound gets used at the beginning of words and after another consonant (like in the words “Rad” and at the beginning of “Trockner”). Keep in mind that German words ending in R don’t use the same sound. You can’t just use the same phoneme for every occurance of the letter R. At the end of words like “Trockner”, the “er” part sounds more like just “ah” with no clear “R” sort of sound (to my ears, anyway). If you start pronouncing the first R in “Trockner” the same as the last R, then I think you’ll start to sound more French or something.

Also, again I should stress that in most cases I don’t hear any sort of really hard R. It’s not usually a “rolling” thing at the back, and there’s no Klingon / Arabic vibrations. Try to make it soft and smooth. The number one rule is to listen a lot. Pick an audiobook or some other audio content that’s at least 15 – 30 minutes long, and practice listening for all the “R” sounds. Really listen hard to what sounds they’re making, and what sounds they’re NOT making. Pick one sound at a time to focus on, and just try to hear all of them without making too much effort to understand the actual words or content.

Another one to listen for is the German “L” sound. I might actually characterize this as more of a “European” L sound, since it seems to occur in French and Italian as well. It’s notoriously difficult for English speakers to grasp the difference between and English L and a German/French/Italian L, so make sure you listen carefully.

It’s even quite hard for me to describe the difference. I’m sure it’s an amusing scene here, as I sit in my friend’s kitchen in Vienna going “LLL” “lll” “LLL” “lll” trying to figure out what the heck my tongue is doing. It feels to me that the English L is more “closed”, with the back of the tongue squeezing closer to the back of the mouth (example: the word “ball”), making it a bit more nasal perhaps (“velarization” is the technical term), whereas the German/Italian/French L feels more “open” with easier airflow ability out the mouth.

As a decent approximation, try making an “awww” sound, and then slowly moving only the tip of your tongue up to touch just behind the teeth. While doing this, concentrate on making it an “awww” sound, and don’t think about making L sounds. If you unconsciously think too much about making it an L sound, you might automatically move the back of your tongue too, making it a velarized “dark L” from English. To make his new L sound, you have to retrain your mental autopilot.

Don’t forget to listen! Listen to hours of audio, and listen to yourself when you practice talking. If you have a transcript and some audio for it, then work on it in sections where you listen to a short section over and over again (maybe 20 to 50 times) to get it firmly in your head, and then try to repeat it many times while listening carefully to yourself.

I’ve ignored a lot of the subtleties here, so don’t complain too hard. This has been mostly an attempt to get the beginners up to speed a bit so they don’t sound so obviously like a typical English speaker. What I would love to hear from people, actually, is what other sounds give away a native English speaker when they speak German…any further suggestions?


out at the pub

2010-06-19

I went out for drinks last night, here in Munich. It was a nice neighbourhood sort of pub/restaurant, slightly outside of the downtown area. As a spoken and listening exercise, it was quite fun.

One thing that I found was that the words I missed most while speaking, were considered rather simple. I need a lot more practice at regular everyday expressions. Having to use them is helping me a lot, although I still have to ask a lot of questions.

Generally, I’m finding conversations quite easy. The Germans I’ve talked to usually like to throw in a bit of English, but I’m ok with that. I usually use that as an opportunity to throw in English words of my own, and then immediately ask how to say them in German. It makes me comfortable to know that I can always get my point across through the use of multiple languages if necessary, and that comfort leads me to start and continue more conversations.

It really bothers me when I have to talk about really simplified things in a conversation, because the interest just dies and we run out of things to say. Part of this problem is solved by explaining to the Germans that I really do have a decent listening ability, even if my speaking hasn’t caught up. I encourage them to talk more, and to try to guess at what I’m saying. But by peppering in a few English terms with a questioning tone (to ask for the German version), I can advance the conversation quite a lot and learn some new words.

I need to get better at starting conversations, however. In the past, I haven’t really been one to start up random conversations in coffee shops, but now it’s becoming more of a necessity if I want to talk to people. I have to change the way I would normally act, and become someone different in order to achieve my goals. I’ll probably never see these people again anyway, so it won’t be a big deal if I “disturb” their coffee drinking with a little attempt at conversation.

If I don’t feel like conversing, I can always just retreat to my book. It’s something I really want to read, so it’s easy to get lost in it for hours. Perhaps it’s a bit more antisocial, but at least I’m still learning 🙂


Increasing confidence in speaking

2010-06-15

I’ve been wandering around Munich for a few days, and I’ve had many more chances to speak. By now I’m quite convinced that it’s totally fine to wait until late in the game to speak. Spending so much time just listening and reading last year was the right thing to do.

With a pretty decent level of understanding, you can go quite far in practical situations. I’m finding it quite easy to pick up new words, because I can get them from context, or I can just ask someone what it means, and I usually understand their entire explanation. If I were working on a minor language (ie one that I don’t intend to pursue in-depth), then I’d be quite satisfied with my level right now. I can read novels that I like, I can go for dinner with friends and talk with their German-speaking parents. I can understand most of what people say in a noisy bar, and I can get my basic meaning across verbally.

German, however, is not a minor language for me, since I have some family background and other motivation to learn it. Therefore, much further work is required. One thing I’ve been trying to do is improve my verbal nimbleness. There are a lot of phrases that are still like tongue-twisters for me, especially when involving a mix of “ch”, “sch”, and “s” in sequence.

Good pronunciation is firstly a result of LOTS of listening, in combination with some knowledge of the general workings of the mouth, and some specific knowledge about what sounds exist in your target language. After that, you’ll have the tools required to practice speaking. Sure, try a bit out early on if you like, but at this point I sorta think that most of your speaking practice should wait until you have the above items first.

My personal speaking practice consists mainly of coming up with something I may need to say, and then trying some variations on it. I try to add more words to it, or say it differently, and then I repeat each of those a bunch while listening to myself very carefully, and trying to correct my mistakes. This sort of iteration is only worthwhile after LOTS of listening, because then you know a lot about what the language *should* sound like, so that you can correct yourself. This is even better to do if you have a native speaker around that can repeat the phrases over and over for you, and correct your mistakes, but it’s sometimes hard to find someone willing to do that for you, and they’re not usually present at all times when you wish to practice.

Today, I decided to work on my numbers a bit, which sounds like a basic topic, but I realized I don’t have them drilled into my head enough to be really natural at them, so I need more practice. My main problem is that 2-digit numbers in German are “backwards” compared to English, so something like “twenty-three” becomes “three-and-twenty” in German. It’s sort of embarrassing when someone asks for 24€ and you start looking for more than 40€ because you think they said 42€.

Anyway, as I was walking down the street by myself, I just started counting from 1 to 100 over and over. Every time I made a mistake, I’d go back to the nearest multiple of 10 and go through them again. My goal was to be able to do it fast and completely effortlessly, and I’m hoping that by drilling this into my head like this, I’ll also be able to recognize spoken numbers at lightning speed too. For every number I spoke out loud, I also visualized the written form.

During something like a bike tour, where you have plenty of “free” time during the day while you’re riding, it helps to also have a little notepad with you at all times. I tend to come up with a lot of things that I don’t yet know the words for, so then I write them down in my notepad to look up later, along with an example of what I was trying to say.

Things like this that have some personal importance to you are very valuable, because that experience of wanting to know them will aid your memory later when you actually look it up and try to use it in practice. If possible, you should also put anything you looked up into a flashcard program too, so then you won’t have to look it up in the future.

So, all this speaking practice is fine, but I also need more vocab! I just went to a bookstore here today and bought a novel. Last year, the latest book in the “Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordan (and now Brandon Sanderson) came out, but I was too busy working on my German reading skills to stop and read a big long English novel. Fortunately, it’s now available in a German translation, so I can finally read this eagerly-awaited continuation of the series, and also spend a lot of time studying German in the process. The best way to “study” is to do something you would do anyway, except all in your target language.


studying while on bike tour

2010-06-13

Today, a little excerpt from my bike touring journal over on the “crazy guy on a bike” website. For those not following along, I started in Frankfurt on July 1st, and I’ve ridden about 550km so far and have arrived in Munich, where I’m staying for about a week.

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I might go into town later today, but that might not happen if I decide to take a nap or something. Until then, I’m working on languages again. With nothing pressing to do, I can work on my hobbies a bit.

Since I got some books the other day in Augsburg, I’ve been browsing through them a bit. The German bike-repair book is quite interesting, because it’s full of words I’ve never seen. I didn’t previously have any exposure to bike-specific terms, and this one does a good introduction. It’s aimed at total beginners, so it explains exactly how every part works, which makes it pretty easy to figure out the names for the parts just from context.

I also looked through my book on 1000 common Swedish words, which is written in German. It seems that reading has done a lot for me, because I know pretty much all the general words, and most of the specific ones. It’s more of a passive knowledge…I can’t recall a lot of them if I try to think of how to say something, but when I read or hear them then I know right away. I’ll have to go through it more thoroughly and see if there are any that I’ve missed, and add them to my flashcard program.

Although I’m feeling rather motivated to work on German and Swedish, the more urgent task is to do a bit of review on Esperanto, since I’ve got 3 weeks left until I start the week-long course in Slovakia. I have a bunch of 15-minute podcasts from Radio Verda to listen to, which were actually produced by a couple in Vancouver. They come out with a new one every week or two, and have over 100 online, so I downloaded a few dozen of them. I also have my Esperanto copy of “The Hobbit” with me for reading, although that doesn’t work so well when I’m riding.

I’ve actually really enjoyed listening to audiobooks as I ride. The countryside is quite peaceful, and I’m usually on roads with no cars, so audiobooks are the perfect passtime. Having hours and hours of extra listening time in German is really helping my comprehension and vocabulary too, so it’s a good combination. It lets me prioritize speaking practice when I actually meet up with people.

The opportunities for language learning are really great here. I’m quite jealous of the ability of people here to travel short distances from home and encounter a different language. The Dutch bike tourist I met here, for example, has been to Germany many times and is decent at German. There are some people here from Italy and Spain, although it seems that for them German is a bit of a stretch…it’s perhaps a lot easier for the Dutch since their own language is so similar.

It’s an interesting experience being in a place where everyone expects other people to know and speak other languages around them. In Vancouver, this is usually something that separates people a lot…people tend to form cliquey groups with their own language speakers. But here, although people join conversations in their own language more easily, most people also mix around and try to find common ground with the others.

Everyone is also quite tolerant of language mistakes, since it’s just a common occurance, and they know that not everyone can be expected to learn every language. Contrast this with the English-speaking culture of North America, wherein everyone is expected to learn lots of English to a high level, and where English speakers constantly make the assumption that they won’t have to learn anything else because the “middle ground” is always English.

This leaves people in quite a comfortable position if they already speak English, and not much motivation to branch out. I think this comfort also breeds expectation and assumption. Perhaps people just need to have things stirred up a bit more, so they don’t get complacent, which is exactly what happens here in Europe.

I’ve also started talking to other people about language-learning. Most people are quite amused to hear my story of having used hundreds of hours of Star Trek and CSI in German, and having read multiple Harry Potter books in German while listening to the audiobook in German too. Somehow, less focus on proper “study” makes them think that I’m some sort of language “genius”, but isn’t it odd that the people who speak the most languages all tell the common story that exposure to input is the most valuable thing you can do? Those who have trouble with languages (of which I was recently one), complain a lot about the defficiencies of classroom instruction and official “study”, whereas those who just find lots of ways to enjoy content in their target language talk about how fun it is, and how successful they’ve been.


First impressions in Germany

2010-06-02

I’ve been in Germany for two days now, although a good portion of this afternoon was filled with a nap due to jet-lag. So far, I can make myself understood pretty easily in German, and almost nobody has switched to English on me. The exception was the first person I met, while I was walking my bike across a pedestrian bridge over the river Main. He asked in German where I was from, and then switched to perfect English when I said Canada. He mentioned that he had visited Canada in 1956, but I assume he’s had plenty of other English practice since then.

On the streets of Frankfurt, I hear some Arabic, Turkish, Italian, and at least two different slavic languages that I couldn’t definitively identify, but almost everything I hear is German though. I went to an Italian restaurant the other night, and amusingly the menu seemed to assume that the customers would not be able to figure out items such as “Tortellini Quattro Formaggio”, so it had “mit 4 Käsesorten” tagged onto the end of the line.

I’ve found that I tend to mumble my German a bit when I’m uncertain of vocab or phrasing. I’m trying to correct that, now that I’m aware of it a bit more. I still have some problems with specific vocab sometimes (like trying to figure out how to ask for lentils at the store), but I can usually talk around it.

Currently, I’m still staying at a Hostel near the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, since I’m pretty jetlagged and I need to buy some supplies here in the city. Soon I’ll head out into the countryside a bit more and see what’s around. Bis dann!