No Post Today, Or: Despising Rosetta Stone

No post today. Writing this down makes me feel like the paperboy who went door to door to announce he wouldn’t deliver the paper due to rain… But I’m dead serious. It’s the last week of the writer’s marathon NaNoWriMo, and I’m trying to make it to the finish. Now, I hear some of you whispering to each other, “It’s three weeks in November, and this is the first he’s telling of this?” Why, yes. But to be fair, my last three posts were all rants, and those are the easiest to write, like, ever. Get me riled up, and I can write a year full of posts. Unfortunately, my life is back to just waiting for a green card, so I will just leave you all with a few observations I made the past few weeks:

– Veterans Day. I thought it was every other day, but it turns out there was a whole day designated to veterans. Actually, I was at a fabric store where an old man was cashing in on Veterans Day in many ways. First of, he was parading up and down the store in half his uniform, but with all medals on full display. If he would have carried a mobile spotlight with him, it wouldn’t surprise me. Also, veterans got 15% off. So did I, because I found a coupon at the register (The lady was not amused. “Where did you get these?”).

– Rosetta Stone commercials (okay, I feel a rant coming up, this will take a while). There’s a bunch of radio commercials promoting the Rosetta Stone language course. They promise bilinguality to millions of Americans, learning ‘their own way’, without ‘memorizing words’ and the same way ‘they learned their native language’. First of all, I’d like to raise a first objection to Rosetta Stone. Why is learning a new language a good thing in itself? Beside practical aims, if you don’t plan to leave the Midwest, you won’t need it, and there are many other skills you could pick up easier that also have better side effects than talking Spanish to yourself, if you still remember the words after a year. Luckily, you don’t have to, because with Rosetta Stone’s program, there is no memorizing words necessary, or at least that’s what they promise. I personally believe knowing words after you learned them is key to speaking a new language, but let’s agree to disagree.

From Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Development by Rima Shore (NY: Families and Work Institute, 1997).

From Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Development by Rima Shore (NY: Families and Work Institute, 1997).

My second objection is less philosophical. Your brains are wired for language before you are born, and you are able to distinguish your native tongue(s) from other languages right after you’re born (leading researches to suggest you develop a ‘sense’ for your own language while in the womb). Through synapsis, you develop an overload in brain connections in the first 7 to 8 years of your live. As you can see in the picture, this is prime time for learning. After this, the brain is pretty much set (when it comes to language in the least, but that’s the only part I know about), and existing connections are nurtured and explored further, whereas unused connections are pruned. Of course, your brain can make new connections any time, and that’s what we understand to be learning, but the ridiculous openness to new things that can be seen in children fades away pretty quick when they become early teens. How well do early teens know their native language (texting aside)? Compared to that, how naturally did you pick up Spanish, French, or German in high school or middle school? After you rolled your eyes at these rhetorical questions, feel free to write Rosetta Stone an angry letter to rebuke them for making stupid claims.

A map of Italian dialects. Just read their hand movements and assume they're not as angry as they sound.

A map of Italian dialects. Just read their hand movements and assume they’re not as angry as they sound.

The last part is my pain with most language courses. It will take a while, and a lot of immersion in actual language, to get to a level where your new language skills take you further than sign language and smiling a lot. You learn to respond to well-articulated messages that revolve around a topic you have identified early on. If abroad, you can ask where the train station is the same way Google translate can read your groceries aloud, but the response may be distorted by passing traffic, the person who answers you will most likely speak much faster than any recording you’ve ever heard, and if you’re unlucky, he curves it into a local dialect that leaves you perplexed and unknowing of any train station anywhere. This is why a paper map beats a Rosetta Stone.

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