A History of Language Learning: The Road to Dynamic Immersion

These days, language-learning methods sport an array of trade-names associated with a particular founder, technique or symbol. But names aside, these methods cluster around two basic approaches: those which use translation and grammar explanations in the learner’s native language as the touchstone for meaning in the new language, and those which do not. The first set of approaches is generally called the Grammar Translation Method (GTM) and the second either the Direct or Natural Method, or simply Immersion.

Grammar Translation Flourishes
This distinction between the two wasn’t so clear five hundred years ago in Western Europe when Latin was still a living, spoken language. With the decline of Latin as a spoken language in the seventeenth century, however, teaching by translation and rote memorization became the only way to read classic Latin writings. Students were evaluated primarily with written tests while oral abilities were used simply to read the translations aloud. During the eighteenth century in Europe and later in North America, modern languages began to rival Latin in schools. The rote approach was simply recycled to teach modern foreign languages, and the grammar-translation method emerged.

girl reading textbooks

Getty Images/Igor Balasanov


Grammar Translation Fails
At the tail end of the 1800s, however, a revolution broke out in language learning that stressed oral communication and removed translation from the process. After centuries of dominance, GTM had proven unfit for teaching students to communicate in a new language. Assigning texts to translate and grammar rules to memorize had not worked. Using students’ first language as the language of instruction had not developed students’ abilities to speak.

So by 1900, teachers in Germany and France were experimenting with ways of teaching new languages that mirrored the way children learn their first languages. This “direct method” stressed oral communication and learning to think in the new language. All foreign-language teaching occurred in the target language—the language students were learning—with no instruction or translation in the students’ native languages.

While the Direct Method never took hold in public education, “direct” techniques filtered into the 20th century. But they almost always appeared in classrooms using students’ native languages as part of the language-learning process. Tests still had students translating. And learning to speak a new language was a long shot.

New Technologies and Dynamic Immersion®
Serendipitously, computers showed up in our schools and homes in the 1990s with all the capabilities to recreate language-learning settings like those in which we learned our first languages. Words, images and sounds combined to form new worlds of language. Constant interaction made it possible for us to immerse ourselves in the language and learn on our own. Sound familiar?

Rosetta Stone language learning

An image from Rosetta Stone’s office in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Yet nearly twenty years after computers revolutionized learning, most technology-based programs for learning languages—most language-learning programs of any kind, for that matter—still rely on GTM and therefore fail to build genuine communication skills. Even the propagation of digital devices, social media, and virtual worlds has left us speechless when it comes to holding conversations in a new language.

With Dynamic Immersion, Rosetta Stone’s method for learning to speak new languages, we resolve to lead the language-learning revolution.

For more reading on language-learning education, check out:

• The Grammar-Translation Method. Rene Tetzner. 2004.
• Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Richards and Rodgers. 2001
• Desiderius Erasmus: Concerning the aim and method of education. William Harrison Woodward. 1904.

man and woman using iPad

Getty Images/Alan Bailey

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  • http://cacology.net/ Aaron S.

    First, I really do appreciate all the cool things your company does and how committed you guys are to language acquisition.

    “most technology-based programs for learning languages—most language-learning programs of any kind, for that matter—still rely on GTM and therefore fail to build genuine communication skills.”

    Does this imply that your program builds genuine communication skills? The (unfortunate) truth is that languages have grammar for a reason. If your users learn languages using a few set phrases that they have to parrot back, they’ll learn those phrases, sure. But they’re not going to learn any “genuine communication skills.” For example, if someone were to use the Japanese version of the program, they’d find themselves unable to even understand the difference between the polite versions of verbs (which Rosetta Stone uses) and the dictionary forms, rendering them unable to even look up unfamiliar words in everyday life!

    The point is that your program will not teach someone a new language, as it is advertised. Is it a good tool to help a user with certain vocabulary? Sure. The amount of repetition will most likely ensure that the user remembers the words he encounters in the program. But this function can be replaced by any number of flashcard programs which are 100% cheaper than Rosetta Stone.

    I remain unconvinced that Rosetta Stone, for the price tag, is a worthwhile investment.

    • Duane Sider

      @Aaron S. – Our top priority at Rosetta Stone has always been to help learners understand and communicate clearly in a new language. And communicating clearly means using correct grammar. Otherwise, your language unravels, leaving you stuck with random words, phrases, and the odd question you memorized but no longer understand.

      The challenge is to learn grammar intuitively, so it becomes second nature when you talk. We know that simply learning the rules of grammar for a new language won’t get us speaking. We pass grammar tests in school but still can’t speak a lick. But we also know that when we’re completely surrounded by a new language—in another country, for example—our natural ability to learn a new language surfaces. Word by word and sentence by sentence we learn to communicate by patterning our language after the speech of native speakers, just like each of us learned our first language.

      Rosetta Stone replicates this environment and goes one step further. Rather than leave you guessing, Rosetta Stone introduces and confirms new language systematically, step-by-step. No grammar explanations included. Yet within minutes, you understand the meaning and structure of complete sentences. And by the end of the first lesson, you’re speaking—actually producing—new sentences on your own!

      When it comes to Japanese, we know that native Japanese speakers use different verb forms (and sometimes different verbs) based on the social context in which they find themselves. When we designed Rosetta Stone Japanese, we wanted to get people comfortable speaking and listening to Japanese as soon as possible without ever compromising their ability to be civil. Because of this, we chose to rely on the desu/masu form of verbs: this form is common, and it allows beginning learners to start speaking quickly without being impolite. While this choice helps learners speak quickly, maybe it’s less convenient for those who like to consult a dictionary once in awhile. We’d love to hear from you.

  • http://www.elanguagesoftware.com Dustin – language Software

    I agree you guys quite obvisouly stand apart form the rest in quality, your not the cheapest but the most thorough and productive by the look of it.

  • Dave

    “Does this imply that your program builds genuine communication skills? The (unfortunate) truth is that languages have grammar for a reason. If your users learn languages using a few set phrases that they have to parrot back, they’ll learn those phrases, sure. But they’re not going to learn any “genuine communication skills.””

    You obviously have never used the program. I’m using it right now, and meet people around town speaking in my new language and can strike up a conversation with them.

    – Rosetta Stone doesn’t have “a few set phrases that they have to parrot back” for one

    – So, right when you were born, you were told a bunch of grammar rules, THEN started speaking? Were your first phrases “Subject – verb – object. I before E except after C” or “I want juice. I’m tired.”

    – As pointed out, the new words are introduced systematically. You learn new vocabulary, then see it in a variety of contexts. You understand which words function in which way, and can then produce sentences on your own. I can say “I want someone to buy something at my store today,” a phrase which is NEVER found in the program.

    “The point is that your program will not teach someone a new language, as it is advertised. Is it a good tool to help a user with certain vocabulary? Sure. The amount of repetition will most likely ensure that the user remembers the words he encounters in the program. But this function can be replaced by any number of flashcard programs which are 100% cheaper than Rosetta Stone.”

    Once again, it’s clear that you’ve never used it before. It’s also clear that I’m a fanatic!

  • BK

    @Aaron: Think about grammar when your speaking your mother tongue. In my case, when I speak, read or write English I never think to myself: “Oh, it’s third person singular so I add the “s” to the end of the verb!” The sentence just comes to me naturally, and it rolls off my tongue.
    I believe Rosetta Stone is trying to do the same thing, teach you just like you learned your native language so you can speak your second language just like you speak the first.

    I can conjugate all the verbs you want in French. I learned it in school! I memorized them and got A’s in all my classes. But what use is that when I can’t put any of it in a complete sentence, when it takes me five minutes to think about the right structure before I speak? And this is why I chose this product to relearn the language that I had learned before.
    And who said Rosetta Stone doesn’t teach you grammar? It just teaches it to you in a different and more effective way:)

  • Aaron S.

    @Dave – I have used it before (though, admittedly, not the latest version, which I believe is v3; I have used v2). I have heard that the new version improves on many things, so perhaps the product has gotten much better in the meantime. However, from my experience, for the money, something like Pimsleur or any number of books like the Teach Yourself series is a far better investment. See below, after I address BK.

    @BK – I certainly see where you are coming from. At the same time, please look at the preceding sentence. It expresses a fairly abstract concept which will never be able to be conveyed using pictures. I have no doubt that you can conjugate verbs in French, and as someone with a background in the language perhaps Rosetta Stone is a good tool for you to use as a method of brushing up in it. My point remains that for someone with no prior knowledge of how the language works will not be able to learn any of the grammar of a language.

    Let me give you an example. Say there is a running boy in a picture. In Japanese, the caption as I recall was “男の子は走っています。 [otokonoko ha hashitte imasu.]”.

    Does this sentence mean “the boy runs,” or “the boy is running”? For that matter, the sentence could also mean “the boy ran,” “the boy had been running,” et cetera. Even if you could somehow convey things like tense in a set of pictures, how do you differentiate similar ones like “the boy will run” versus “the boy is going to run”?

    Personally, as I hope I have made it clear, I find that a grammar-founded approach is far superior to a phrase-based approach. I admit that some people learn easier using a phrase-based approach, and that’s okay. Still, the “translationless approach” is essentially the same thing as an approach using translations, except that the English sentence translating the foreign one has been replaced by a picture. A picture that cannot possibly convey as much information as a simple English sentence.

    At the end of the day, Rosetta Stone is a neat program that I think does a good job of teaching the user vocabulary such as nouns that represent concrete objects that are able to be conveyed using pictures. There is no way that I can possibly imagine that Rosetta Stone will “teach” you a language. In fact, I don’t think any one method will do such a thing. However, for the money, and for people who have no prior experience in the language, a better choice is something like a book with at least a few grammar explanations, or at the very least, English translations.

  • Eric

    This is an old thread, but I think it’s interesting.

    Aaron, your points are well-put, but they’re based on personal opinion and experience. That’s fine, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything about the Rosetta Stone product or the immersion method of learning in general.

    In fact, learning by immersion is far more effective for the majority of people specifically because it replicates the natural language-learning process. Matching a foreign phrase to a native phrase is actually different than matching a foreign phrase to a picture or other sign within context. The human brain works with these pieces of information differently, even though they may seem to you to be the same. There is research and a field of study dedicated to exactly this process.

    While your personal experiences, I’m sure, are valid, they do not reflect the experience of the majority of folks, or the findings in current research.

  • http://www.seanlyoung.com Sean L. Young

    @Duane Sider

    There are a few things that I find a little inaccurate in what you posted.

    “…communicating clearly means using correct grammar. Otherwise, your language unravels, leaving you stuck with random words, phrases, and the odd question you memorized but no longer understand.”
    Using to learn correct grammar is true, but what if you’ve been in Japan for a few months and then someone says “nanka kawatta-koto atta”? You’re stuck because you learned to always use correct grammar – the polite -desu/-masu forms. You wouldn’t know what to say in answer. Always learning correct grammar is not always the best way to go. RS should have in their later units (or create more) the way people really talk in a language so as to be familiar with what is being spoken around them. When talking in English, who among all these comments on this page are using 100% correct English grammar? Go outside on the street and see if you can hear someone using 100% correct English grammar. Knowing (or becoming familiar with) how a language is used daily is another facet in language learning.

    “The challenge is to learn grammar intuitively, so it becomes second nature when you talk. … when we’re completely surrounded by a new language…our natural ability to learn a new language surfaces. Word by word and sentence by sentence we learn to communicate by patterning our language after the speech of native speakers, just like each of us learned our first language.”
    It really doesn’t come as intuitively for adults as one may think. Even children need to be corrected by adults to speak properly. For example, if a child says “I want drink”, what is the first thought in your mind? If the child says again, “I want drink”, you say “I want A drink” until the child says it correctly. RS software does not do that. It keeps the student guessing and that sometimes can be frustrating because the student can’t understand why the verbs ser and estar have two different concepts, but still they mean “to be”. They have to stumble and keep guessing and get frustrated until eventually (hopefully) they see the differences.

    You see a person drowning, you don’t stand there and tell them to guess what they should do next. Adults need to know why and how things work. Grammatical explanations are needed for adults to learn. When I lived in Ukraine for two years, I spoke only Russian, so in the immersion environment of West Ukraine, I had errors in Ukrainian that were corrected by others to help me. They didn’t keep me guessing and therefore cementing the incorrect way of talking in my mind.

    “Rather than leave you guessing, Rosetta Stone introduces and confirms new language systematically, step-by-step. No grammar explanations included. Yet within minutes, you understand the meaning and structure of complete sentences. And by the end of the first lesson, you’re speaking—actually producing—new sentences on your own!”
    I have not seen that with RS students after Level 1 or rarely after Level 2

    • Rosetta Stone

      @Sean: What you describe as “correct” grammar is only one small part of the full range of grammatically acceptable language. Many languages have encoded formal and informal ways of addressing listeners into their grammar, and each is considered correct for a particular relationship and setting. This is especially true for a language like Japanese, which has encoded a great deal of information about social relationships and levels of formality in its grammar. In Japanese and in all of our language solutions, we try to teach conversational language that real people use in real situations. But with only three levels of content, we couldn’t create a comprehensive Japanese solution that covers colloquialisms and casual, informal speech. So we chose to teach the formal register first, believing that this would provide our learners with a foundation that will serve them well over their language-learning journey. We know that there’s even more we can teach, in every language, and we’re always considering ways to improve and expand on what we already offer.

      Also, it’s a popular misconception that children need to be corrected to learn their native language properly. How would you explain to a child all the rules of when and how to use “a” correctly? The vast majority of linguistic input a child is exposed to is not explained to them explicitly, yet they develop a full native understanding of their first language in just a few years. In fact, the errors children make when learning their first language are often a good thing. For example, when children overgeneralize the regular past tense (“runned” for “ran”), that mistake actually demonstrates learning—not the contrary. They can and do learn the exceptions simply by exposure to grammatical adult speech, whether that speech is directed at their own linguistic efforts or not. We believe that given properly structured linguistic input, adults can learn a new language the same way.

      The “properly structured” part gets at the heart of our method. We never make learners guess. Instead, we help them to rely on the language they’ve learned, combined with nonlinguistic cues from images and carefully chosen contexts, to move through a product successfully. In addition, feedback is immediate—if you choose the wrong photo or text, or if you speak a word or phrase incorrectly, you’re immediately required to repeat the task.

      We’ve designed selected screens in Rosetta Course, even in the very first lesson, to require learners to produce sentences that are new to them. In addition, Rosetta Studio provides learners with ample opportunity to try out the language they’ve learned in novel ways with a tutor who is a native speaker. In fact, every week thousands of our learners take Studio sessions and speak on their own. Studio sessions are available to learners starting with the end of the first unit of Level 1. If you’re not familiar with Studio, we encourage you to purchase TOTALe and experience it for yourself!

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