The highlight starts at 0:53:
Interviewer: And, Michael, I understand you used [Rosetta Stone] to learn a little Mandarin to prepare yourself in Beijing. How did it go?That's getting dangerously close to saying, "I didn't really learn anything so please don't ask me to say anything in Chinese." (But, then again, as Rosetta Stone is an advertiser on Fox, I suppose he didn't really need to worry about getting grilled by the interviewer.)
Phelps: Uh, it's a very tough language.
Phelps: Um, you know, uh, um, foreign languages have always been very tough for me to learn, but, you know, I figured I might as well, um, I'm gonna give it a shot and, uh, try it and, uh, learned a few of the simple terms and, and the masculine and feminine term, feminine terms, so…And to think that for years everyone's been running around thinking that Chinese didn't have any grammatical genders.
Oh, right. It doesn't.
Now go to the video and watch Rosetta Stone's CEO Tom Adams' face when Phelps drops the gender thing. I'm not completely sure, but I get the feeling based on the way his expression changed that he realized right then and there what was wrong with what had just come out of his spokesman's mouth.
So how did Michael Phelps come to learn about Chinese's non-existant grammatical genders?
Off the top of my head, I can think of a few possibilities.
- Rosetta Stone is so messed up that it's trying to teach grammatical gender in a language that has no grammatical gender. If Rosetta Stone is still merely translating the existing content from one language to another, rather than customizing the content for each language (as they've been criticized for in the past), that could very well be the issue.
- Phelps used but did not actually learn from his use of Rosetta Stone's products.
- Phelps did not actually use Rosetta Stone's products.
- Phelps needed too much "extra help" to get through the Rosetta Stone software.
He seems to have fared a bit better in other, more scripted promotional pieces:
While mildly humorous in a cornball sort of way, notice you don't actually hear Phelps speaking any Chinese.
You've gotta go to this one to hear him actually speak:
My Chinese-speaking daughter, who was sitting next to me as I watched the above video, said, "What's that guy saying? I know what the computer says but not what that guy says."
That doesn't seem to stop Rosetta Stone's software from telling him he's saying it right. Indeed, I've heard of native Japanese speakers being unable to get the software to recognize their Japanese, but when the American store clerk used his American store clerk accent on the Japanese, the software got it. Could it be that making people feel good about using their software is a better business strategy than making them comprehensible to native speakers?
The fact that Phelps was best understood by Rosetta Stone's software is probably why he didn't use a lick of Chinese when Mazda made him apologize to the Chinese people for the bong-smoking incident.
Not even a measly nǐ hǎo, even though a little effort in Chinese would have probably gone over pretty well.
I suppose we can't draw any firm conclusions about Rosetta Stone from this little case study, but things do seem to point in one direction.