Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rosetta Stone teaches Michael Phelps grammatical gender in genderless Chinese

You might recall that Michael Phelps did a stint as the spokesman for Rosetta Stone. Did you also know that Rosetta Stone and Phelps managed to uncover something about Chinese that has eluded linguists, scholars, and even the Chinese themselves for millennia?

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?

Phelps: Uh, it's a very tough language.
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 continues:
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.
  1. 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.

  2. Phelps used but did not actually learn from his use of Rosetta Stone's products.

  3. Phelps did not actually use Rosetta Stone's products.

  4. Phelps needed too much "extra help" to get through the Rosetta Stone software.
My money is on something like the following. Rosetta Stone strikes an endorsement agreement with Phelps. In the agreement, Phelps makes some kind of vague promise to use the software. Phelps tries the software while being filmed, and maybe even uses it a little bit on his own. Language learning isn't really much of a priority for Phelps in the lead-up to the Olympics, so he doesn't really use Rosetta Stone much, and the few times he does he finds that he's just not that into it. End result: he learns pretty much no Chinese but takes home a nice paycheck from Rosetta Stone. Then, when he's put on the spot by the report, Phelps—genuinely wanting to do good for his sponsor—tries to think of something good to say. His high school Spanish memories rear their ugly head, and you get grammatical genders in China.

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.


  1. Haha. That's classic. I like how Tom Adams shifts uncomfortably a few seconds later. Rosetta Stone has been making a big ad push here in South Korea the past 6 months. They've got small kiosks set up in some of the Kyobo Bookstores and are advertising on EBS TV and radio.

  2. Ah, that must be part of the push abroad they've been talking about in their SEC filings for a while. I wonder where else they've been heading abroad to. I'm going to have to go spelunking through their SEC filings again sometime soon.

  3. My biggest problem with the Mandarin Chinese edition is that it doesn't recognize tones. You can say the word with whatever tone you feel like and it passes you with flying colors.

  4. Wow, srrrsly??? That's worse than I thought. If you get the accent wrong in English, sure you'd sound weird, but we can probably understand what your saying, so it might be OK to let that slide. But tones in Chinese? Saying "ma" in two different ways can get you from "mom" to "horse", and since you probably don't want to refer to someone's mom as a horse, you'd better get the tones down. If Rosetta Stone's not helping you to do that, what an epic fail.

  5. I agree; the voice recognition with Rosetta Stone is lousy. It does force you to repeat the words out loud, which is good. The biggest problem is that it does not teach you conversation so unless you plan walking around making statements like "a girl eating an apple" then it falls short. I think the software can be a useful tool for learning a language but only if used as one of many.

  6. Regarding your four theories about how he learned about grammatical genders in Chinese, I can vouch for Rosetta Stone and say that they didn't teach him that. It was probably one of your other theories... Probably number 4...

  7. I'm guessing it's number 3... I know a lot of people like to trash talk Rosetta Stone, especially with those annoying commercials that claim to take one to a level of fluency but I can vouch for them (haha anonymous) and say that although the product is overpriced it does teach the very basics of a language in a comfortable manner.

  8. I find it hard to believe anyone who has ever in their life learned a foreign language to a high level would vouch for Rosetta Stone. Any serious language learner knows it's nothing but a toy. It could be a lovely gift for a small child to play with if it wasn't so expensive. A serious learner needs serious study materials, not Rosetta Stone. Rosetta Stone is all about marketing, and AFAIC, marketing is evil because its purpose is to deceive people.

  9. Theory 5:
    He's read the box blurb from Rosetta Stone. I have never seen a Rosetta Stone box, so if anyone else has, please let us know. I've seen many language products with standard blurb on the box that doesn't reflect the specifics of the language being studied....

  10. You can use Rosetta Stone to teach yourself the basics of Spanish or any other language that interests you. This is your one chance to learn a new language ...

  11. I've been using Rosetta Stone to study Spanish for Latin America rather lackadaisically during the past few months. I'm now on Course #2. Because I already speak the language with rough fluency, I'm able to notice a few dialectical choices Rosetta Stone has made, and I am fascinated by them, imagining a committee debating the possibilities. This is my third language of some competency, but I have studied several, including French and Italian, Mandarin, Tibetan, and Fijian – enough to know that learning a language involves varied exposure to and demands in the target language and its home culture. You do what you can when you find yourself in a language classroom (or on your computer with Rosetta Stone), and then you throw yourself into the culture, which usually involves travel and housing far from home. A Rosetta Stone course can help get you ready to put feet on the ground, and its available wherever and whenever you have a moment for practice. I'm grateful to have the Rosetta Stone course I'm using, which I view as an important part of my language-learning arsenal.

  12. I don't understand - are you saying there are no "masculine terms" and "feminine terms" in Chinese? He never specifically said "gender". And I take it you know that Chinese writing distinguishes 他,她,它 for he, she and it? There is also 妳 for you (female).