Wednesday, February 3, 2010

NY Times' "The Web Way to Learn a Language" is misleading and incomplete

The New York Times last week ran an article by Eric Taub entitled "The Web Way to Learn a Language". For the most part, the article is an uncontroversial list of some of the better known language-learning resources on the web, followed by a grab bag of a few lesser-known, language-specific resources plus a few iPhone apps.

That the article is an incomplete list of the numerous resources available on the internet is probably the nature of the medium, but it also to some extent reveals Eric's prejudices about language learning: that some kind of structured "class" is needed, along the lines of those found in the offerings of Rosetta Stone, TellMeMore, Livemocha (see my review of it here), Babbel, and BBC Language. Some things that are not really part of a course fall into his grab bag at the end, but he completely misses out on great resources like iTalki, Lang-8, or LingQ, which respectively can be used, among other things, to let language learners freely tackle whatever content they like in speaking, writing, and reading and listening.

However, the article is shockingly misleading in how it characterizes the results of one language learner's experience.

Here's what the article says:
The young woman … was born in Iran and spoke only Farsi until her arrival [in the U.S.] two years ago. What classes, we wondered, had she attended to learn the language so well?
There's that assumption that a "class" is needed, plain as day.
"I didn't," she said. "I used RosettaStone."
And that's where the article leaves it. And what are you left thinking after that? Naturally you end up thinking that Rosetta Stone is the only thing you need to sound just like a native speaker. But let's rewind and repeat for a second…
…spoke only Farsi until her arrival [in the U.S.] two years ago.
Uh… say again? She's been living in a place where she's getting tons of exposure to her target language for TWO YEARS?

For those of you who are wondering, living in the place where your target language is spoken will generally do wonders for your language abilities. Let's assume she speaks Farsi at home. I would still wager that she's been going to a U.S. school, has native-speaker friends, watches U.S. television, reads U.S. websites, has an English-language Facebook account, etc. To slavishly suggest what the marketers are hoping would be suggested—glory be to the software!—without checking to see what other exposure she might have been getting to her target language is practically negligent.

Indeed, the sole fact that she's been living in the U.S. for two years could be more than enough to explain her native-sounding English. A friend of mine from Belarus moved to the U.S. when she was 15. I met her when she was 18, by which time she was completely indistinguishable from a native-English speaker. After spending about two years in the U.S., my wife began getting asked if she was a native-English speaker. After just a year in Japan, even I was able to briefly fool people on the phone into thinking I was a native-Japanese speaker. And none of us had used any software, while all of us had spent has spent significant time in places where our target language was spoken.

If the article's young woman had just arrived in the airport from Iran speaking native English and said the only exposure she had to English was Rosetta Stone, then I would be very impressed indeed. But to uncritically suggest that exposure to English via Rosetta Stone's software somehow played a more prominent role in her language learning than other avenues of exposure—especially for someone who in all likelihood was getting a lot of exposure to her target language—is doing readers a disservice.

Link: The Web Way to Learn a Language [New York Times]


  1. I read the article yesterday. It really felt like Rosetta Stone paid NYtimes to write it. Then NYtimes got other web sites to bid to see who else they would feature in the article.

  2. I agree with your reaction and too was disappointed by how much was left unsaid. I guess that's the word limitation of print media. :-/ And of course, we would have loved to have been mentioned. Thank you, Vincent.