Thumbs Down: Rosetta Stone Online For Teaching the American Language
written by: Heather Marie Kosur
• edited by: Rebecca Scudder
• updated: 12/29/2013
Looking for an online language learning program to learn to speak, listen to, read, and write American English? Want to know more about the pros and cons of different programs before investing time and money? Read on for a review of the Rosetta Stone Online for American English Language Learning.
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The Rosetta Stone Online American English Language Learning program is divided into three levels with four units within each level. Each of the units begins with a core lesson followed by activities on topics such as vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, pronunciation, and speaking. The time needed to complete each lesson ranges from five to thirty minutes with most lessons requiring only five to ten minutes to complete. The initial core sections for each unit take roughly thirty minutes each and contain the most new information.
Under each lesson title is an estimated time so that an ESL learner can decide which section to do within a certain time period such as an lunch hour or a break period. New vocabulary and grammatical structures are repeated through each lesson so as to reinforce the new material. Overall, the lessons are organized logically and progress from basic to intermediate to advanced. However, clear instructions for each lesson are not explicitly stated nor were explanations or help provided for incorrect answers in activities. At times, even a native English speaker would be confused by some of the activities due to the lack of adequate instructions.
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Most of the vocabulary included in the Rosetta Stone American English Language Learning program is common English words used by native speakers on a regular basis. For example, the first core lesson begins with nouns for basic people of both genders (girl, boy, woman, man) as well as some pronouns and the definite article the. Other early lessons introduce the vocabulary for food, animals, and other objects as well as the indefinite pronouns a and an. Most of the vocabulary included is necessary words that beginning ESL students must learn. However, the section titled "Vocabulary Lesson" frequently did not introduce new words but instead reviewed the vocabulary from the previous section. Similarly, the same words and sentences were repeated to the exclusion of introducing more than a handful of new vocabulary per section.
Finally, the Rosetta Stone Online program also introduces new vocabulary without any explicit explanation and mixes too many new subjects at once. For example, although the first core lesson begins with some English pronouns, which are vital words for any beginning English language learner, the program fails to appropriately introduce the new subject matter. The simple subheading of "Pronouns" would have effectively alerted the learner to the topic focused on in the particular lesson.
The Rosetta Stone American English Language Learning program also sometimes mixes too many new vocabulary topics into one lesson. The section on numbers and colors, for example, is slightly confusing even for a native English speaker because the pictures to which the vocabulary must be matched often contain both numbers and colors. Overall, the vocabulary included in the program is appropriate for an English language learner but is confusing in organization and limited in content.
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The Rosetta Stone American English Language Learning program focuses on standard American English pronunciation. For example, the word car is always pronounced [kar], which is the standard pronunciation, by the program. Rosetta Stone does not, however, take into consideration the great linguistic variety found throughout the United States. Walking into New York City, one is just as likely to hear the native residents talk about all the cas [kaz] on toity-toit [toidi toid] street as a Midwesterner would discuss the cars [karz] on thirty-third [θәrdi θәrd] street. ESL speakers must at least be aware of dialectical differences in the pronunciation of American English.
In addition to the lack of dialectical variety, the Rosetta Stone program for learning American English sometimes overemphasizes some sounds in words. For example, native American English speakers often do not fully pronounce the t [t] and d [d] sounds when these consonants occur between two vowel sounds. Instead, an alveolar flap occurs as an allophone (similar sounds perceived as a single distinct sound of a language) for both the t [t] and d [d] sounds in English, which results in the middle consonant of rider and butter to be pronounced as the same sound. ESL learners cannot become aware of such pronunciations when the Rosetta Stone American English Language Learning program overpronounces sounds like t [t] and d [d].
However, the Rosetta Stone program for American English does include contractions such as can't and don't. English is a stressed language, meaning only certain syllables and words are stressed or emphasized, which makes English different from syllabic languages like Spanish and French that place more equal importance on each syllable. Native English speakers, therefore, tend to shorten or contract unstressed syllables and words. For example, cannot and will not are more often than not shortened to can't and won't in most registers of spoken American English as well as in less formal written American English. Therefore, the inclusion of contractions (both spoken and written) in Rosetta Stone American English Language Learning accurately reflects the English spoken (and sometimes written) by many Americans.
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Spoken American English
In addition to the overpronunciation of some sounds in words, many of the examples of spoken American English offered to ESL learners in the Rosetta Stone program are more formal than real American speech. For example, only complete sentences are absolutely required in the most formal written settings in English. Formal written settings include academic essays, professional articles, and business documents. Most English speakers tend to converse with phrases and words just as often as with full sentences. Take for example, the following conversation between coworkers:
Worker: "How are you?"
Coworker: "Good. You?"
Worker: "Just fine. Thanks."
Coworker: "Have a good day."
Worker: "You, too."
Only two of the utterances in this realistic English language conversation are considered complete sentences: "How are you?" and "Have a good day." For the Rosetta Stone Online for American English Language Learning program to include only complete sentences is rather misleading for the English language learner.
Although grammar is best taught through complete sentences, the program could also have included conversational sections that included more realistic examples of English speech. However, the program did use various speakers of American English (male, female, low-pitched, high-pitched, fast-paced, slow-paced) for spoken examples, which accurately portrays the diversity of America that English language learners will inevitably encounter.
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The biggest downfall of Rosetta Stone Online for American English Language Learning is that the program fails to address the myriad irregularities of the English spelling system. The spelling systems of some languages including Spanish are largely phonemic, meaning one letter or set of letters corresponds to one sound. For example, a ch in written Spanish always represents the ch [č] sound in spoken Spanish. The English orthographic system, however, is much more complicated due to the history of the English language. For example, a ch in written English can represent the ch [č], sh [š], or c/k [k] sounds in spoken English depending on the origin of the word (ch [č] for Anglo-Saxon words, sh [š] for Norman French words, and c/k [k] for Greek words).
The Rosetta Stone program also attempts to teach English spelling by focusing on learning syllables, which is ineffective because many English words have to be learned as single units as in the case of sight words. (Sight words are words such as there, their, and they're whose spelling must be memorized because sounds of the words cannot be decoded by their letters.) By not addressing the irregularities of the English spelling system, the Rosetta Stone American English Language Learning program will more than likely confuse rather than teach English language learners, especially learners with first languages with more phonemic spelling systems.
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The Rosetta Stone Online for American English Language Learning teaches English grammar from approximately the first year, or two semesters, of a formal or academic ESL course. The online program also begins with more basic aspects of English grammar and then progresses to more complicated constructions in later units. For example, the first core lesson focuses on present progressive verbs (is drinking, are eating), which is one of the more commonly used verb forms in the English language. The early lessons also focus much more on grammar than on vocabulary, which can hinder ESL students who want to practice forming various English grammatical structures with more than just a few basic nouns and verbs.
And, just as with vocabulary, the Rosetta Stone Online program also introduces new grammar without any explicit explanation. For example, the first grammar section seems to focus on forming the plurals of English nouns. Again, however, the simple subheading of "Plurals" would have effectively alerted the learner to the grammatical structure focused on in the lesson. Such headings would allow for English learners of different native language backgrounds to better grasp the similarities and differences between their native languages and English. For example, although a native Spanish speaker might figure out that adding an -s or -es to the end of most nouns forms the plural because Spanish has the same plural marker, a native German speaker might not understand the regularity of the English plural system because of the variety of plural markers found in the German language.
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Although some of the images used in the Rosetta Stone American English Language Learning program are obviously not of the United States of America, the variety of photos accurately reflect the cultural diversity of the country. Travelers and immigrants to America are more than likely to see people and things (such as clothing and customs) from all over the world as to encounter a typical American. In fact, a typical American can be anyone from anywhere wearing and doing just about anything. However, some of the pictures are a little outdated especially the photos of automobiles. Many of the cars date from the 1970s to the early 1990s. And, although one does still see older cars out on the roads today, modern cars are much more prevalent. All in all, however, the wide assortment of photographs accurately reflects the diversity that is the United States of America.
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All Rosetta Stone programs attempt to teach second languages through a language learning method dubbed the Dynamic Immersion Method. Through interactive multimedia technology, the program combines listening comprehension, structured input, problem solving, and a readiness to talk to create an environment in which second language learners learn additional languages in the same ways as first languages were learned. Although the idea that language learning is a combination of speaking, listening, reading and writing is accurate, the Dynamic Immersion Method and Rosetta Stone fails to take into account that people learn second languages differently from the acquisition of first languages. In fact, Rosetta Stone completely ignores the difference between first language acquisition and second language learning.
Even without the pedagogical problems of the Rosetta Stone program, the immersion experience for the Rosetta Stone Online for American English Language Learning is rather limited. First, the program assumes that the language learner will already know something about American culture. For example, for a learner coming from a strong patriarchal culture, the images of men cooking and women openly reading might come as quite a shock. The learner must also have some idea of American schools and American jobs to be able to correctly match the pictures to the new vocabulary.
Secondly, although the United States of American is extremely culturally diverse, some of the information into which the learner is immersed is completely inaccurate. For example, the section on money includes euros and pounds as well as dollars even though many Americans would balk in confusion any mention of a monetary transaction not in US dollars. So, overall, the immersion experience created by the Rosetta Stone American English Language Learning program is limited if not inaccurate.
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Although the Rosetta Stone Online for American English Language Learning makes a lofty attempt at teaching ESL learners American English through language immersion, the program fails on a number of levels. First, the individual lessons lack the explicit instruction necessary for second language learning. Second, the amount of new vocabulary introduced is limited in comparison to the amount of grammar taught. Third, the pronunciation and spoken sections are restricted to standard spoken and formal written English. Finally, the Dynamic Immersion Method for teaching language used by Rosetta Stone fails to take into account the distinct differences between first language acquisition and second language learning.