Rosetta Stone Squared: How 'Exponential Learning' Gets You Talking

Anyone who’s spent time in a traditional language-learning class remembers the moment all those lists and charts you memorized failed to produce anything. Somewhere—at some shop, street corner, bus station or backyard barbeque— your language study left you speechless. You couldn’t speak a lick.

Of course it’s easy to blame the method most of us used in school: the grammar-translation method or GTM for short. And you’d be right—except that GTM never claimed to be able to help anyone learn to speak. In fact, the method was developed specifically and exclusively to improve reading and writing skills in the classical languages. Communication was not the goal.

So when it became important over the past two decades to actually speak another language, the grammar-translation method simply wasn’t fit for the job. And that’s the problem.

When we learn a new language—most often in school—we also acquire a method for language learning: a set of strategies, techniques and tactics that guides the language-learning process. Grammar-translation is one of those methods. Understandably, the method sticks with us and we depend on it when we continue our language learning beyond the classroom, whether it’s with a self-study program, another class, or an in-country experience. And that “sticky” method, whatever it is, usually determines whether we’ll succeed, especially if we want to speak the language.

In the case of the grammar-translation method, for example, we learn to depend upon translations and grammar explanations in our native language even though the GT method itself usually accounts for our failure to speak the language. We venture out into the world nonetheless, fortified with translation-based dictionaries and phrase-books hoping we’ll learn to speak. But the method gets in the way.

What we need, then, is a method for learning to speak a language that carries us all the way through the process, beginning to end, and delivers real communicative value regardless of the context: self-study, conversations around town, or in-country. You could call it an “exponential-learning” method that multiplies its value in each new setting. Imagine a completely natural language-learning method for self-study (x) that builds your conversation skills with live native speakers at the same time (x2) and gives you exactly the strategies and tactics you need to continue learning when you’re surrounded by native speakers in-country (x3). You could call it exponential learning, or you could just call it “immersion,” the method you were born with.

The Dynamic Immersion method in Rosetta Stone Version 4 TOTALe takes exactly this approach. It’s not only what you learn in Rosetta Stone programs, it’s how you learn that equips you to communicate with native speakers and to continue your learning process in context. In V4 TOTALe, for example, you’re completely surrounded by the new language from the very beginning, just like being in-country. Yet you learn systematically from the start. In every screen, you use the language you’ve already learned as the context for learning new language. You’re always looking for what you know. And you develop all key language skills simultaneously with constant opportunities to practice live conversations with native speakers right inside the program.

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Consider the “exponential” value of this approach when you’re out and about. Ordinarily, we feel a bit overwhelmed talking with native speakers in everyday situations. Having tried out a greeting or a question, we’re suddenly confounded by a response we don’t understand, full of language we haven’t learned. We freeze and get discouraged. In Rosetta Stone, however, we’re trained to do the opposite: to listen carefully for language we know in order to solve the meaning of language we don’t know. And we start breathing . . . and speaking again.

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  • Matt

    Wow Duane, I’m impressed! You just nailed both my experience in school, and my experienes talking to native spanish speakers before and after using TOTALe.

    I didn’t even consider the GT method as not being designed for speaking. I thought it (other than in-country immersion) was the only way to learn. In the past, when I took my spanish class, I just wanted to… servive it, if you will; I just wanted to pass the tests as best I could and be done with it; but because I was being taught to rely on translation, I could neither comprehend nor speak beyond a few phrases. Thank you for this. I’ll be sharing this on Facebook.

  • Simone Killian

    That is definitely my experience as a high school teacher in Canada. Something was definitely wrong with our previous method when our students would be taking French courses for 9 years and still not be beyond the “survival phrases” mode. Now, with a method very similar to what Rosetta Stone is doing, our students are speaking in French and they are excited about learning the language. The change in attitude is worth its weight on gold. Human beings want to communicate, they don’t want to translate.

  • Craig

    Many language schools are already moving away from grammar based instruction to using a communicative approach.
    Some students can pick up on the rules of grammar easily and use it in learning their target language.
    For the bulk of other learners the communicative approach is the way to go.

  • Ted Abbott

    When I was in school back in the 1960s in the USA, we learned phoenics, diagramming sentences and conjugation. I am not sure any of this is still taught in the USA. My wife was raised in the Philippines and they actually receive this more classical approach. I know my son was taught “sight reading or memorization” in the late 90s and early 2000s. He is an avid reader, however his spoken and written skills are only average, in other words lacking. We worked with him early and he can still sound out the words, something I don’t see alot of other people teaching.

    Further, I am in a position of reading alot of resumes and job applications and most people have a hard time expressing even the most basic ideas. I think the US systems currently used are failing us.

    So, maybe the RS method would work if you don’t have the more classical approach to fall back on as a foundation. However, if you are more advanced and understand grammar and conjugation and have a basic command of your native language, either way I believe would work. I am more in favor personally of using a new language also help you refine your current one also. So I would be more in favor of a software package that uses a translation method.

    So, in summary, if you lack basic skills in your native language then maybe RS is better.

  • Duane Sider

    Interesting observations, Ted. They remind me of Stephen Krashen’s distinction between what he identifies as two independent systems that contribute to second-language production: ‘the acquired system’ and ‘the learned system.’

    The ‘acquired system,’ he says, is the product of an unconscious process similar to the process children undergo when they acquire their first language. The ‘acquired system’ develops through meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are not focused explicitly on the form of the language, but on the act of communication. At Rosetta Stone, we use immersion to develop this ‘acquired system.’ On the other hand, the ‘learned system’ or ‘learning’ is the product of formal instruction like we encounter in school, and it results in conscious knowledge about the language, for example knowledge of grammar rules. This more formal ‘learning’ system acts as a monitor to flag deviations. But according to Krashen, the “acquisition” system is almost entirely responsible for our ability to produce or “utter” new language.

    With our Dynamic Immersion® approach, we’ve combined these two systems by developing the skills and presenting the forms of a new language simultaneously and systematically, within a complete immersion context, so you learn to speak the language correctly from the beginning. Thanks again for your comments.

  • Simone

    Knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate to skill. I see where Ted is coming from, but I would guess the masses would benefit more from a language program that doesn’t translate but helps a learner acquire the language through skill and practice in real life situations. It develops an internal grammar like we learned for our first language. Metacognition comes in at a later time. A person doesn’t have to explicitly know the grammar and rules of language to use it well and communicate clearly.

  • David

    I am a native English speaker who learned to speak Spanish fluently. I know exactly what it takes to become fluent and actually be able to speak. I learned Spanish in school over a course of eight years using the GMT method. Or did I? I could never really “speak fluently” until my junior year of college when I went and lived in Argentina and made many friends there. Actually,
    conversing is what helped me put it all together.

    I have since learned French and German with Rosetta Stone. I can honestly say that I feel confident speaking both and that the amount of content covered (both grammar concepts and pure vocabulary) in this program is astounding. I spent less than 6 months on both languages with RS (enough time to still return it under their policy if I wished).

    I majored in Spanish. Had I known that Rosetta Stone existed, I would have majored in something else.

    Learning a brand new language in a strictly GTM (Grammar Translation Method Environment) is like learning to swim or ride a bike by reading about it in a book or building a house from the roof down. I know a lot of people who have honestly given it their all in trying to learn a language in school. Very few succeed in reaching fluency. The ones that do, either did Rosetta Stone, a study abroad, or a great deal of practicing with native speakers or other methods on the side.

    A language must first be learned subconsciously and in an audio visual manner. One begins to understand the meaning of single words and their corresponding images. Once this has happened you can now proceed to describe those people, places, and things. Once you can describe them, you can ask questions like, “how many” or “which one?” Once you can ask questions you get answers thus learning subconsciously how to structure a grammatically correct response. That is how we learned our first language. That is exactly how Rosetta Stone teaches. Studying grammar rules in school is fine, once you already speak the language. That is, if you still care why the grammar rules are what they are once you got what you want… the quick fix ability to be able to understand and be understood in your new language!

    If you want to succeed go with Rosetta Stone. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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