Rosetta Stone & the Foreign Language challenge

BANGALORE (Reuters) – Rosetta Stone Inc (RST.N) is saying “seichou,” “seungjang” and “Wachstum” — Japanese, Korean and German for growth — as it looks to take its language-learning software beyond U.S. shores.

The newly public company sees the three countries as its most attractive global markets, presenting an opportunity three times the size of the United States, Chief Executive Tom Adams said in an interview with Reuters.

And this is a problem for boarding schools in Connecticut.  Many of our international students come from Korea and Japan, and China is a growing market source for us.  Yet students from these countries come for immersion studies in English.  It takes most of them far less than a year to learn English well enough to speak it.

But they’re not learning how to speak the language in class — they’re learning it through immersion in American culture.  They’re not being taught the language; they’re having to listen to it and learn it that way, the way one learns language as a child.  Grammar? Pfah.  Who needs it if you learn to speak like a native would learn?  And, of course, why come to America if the English instruction is better by computer?

In the long run, Rosetta Stone and its competitors mean a diminishing number of Asian students in American boarding schools, if all they’re coming for is the English instruction.

“If you think about how language learning happens around the world right now, people learn how to pass tests. But they can’t speak. It’s a fundamental problem,” Adams said.

Indeed it is — for schools.  If a computer-driven foreign language program can teach students to speak, read and write in a foreign language, then foreign language instruction in schools is in real trouble.  This is one-fifth of the basic technology one needs to begin replacing school-as-building with school-as-portable-device.. and eliminating most of the teachers that go along with school-as-building.  One core curriculum element down, four to go.

A study by City University of New York professor Roumen Vesselinov found 55 hours of Rosetta Stone was equivalent to a college semester.

And here’s the crux of the matter: fifty-five hours is more than a quarter of the time needed to learn a Western language fluently.  It’s estimated that most Western languages, from Russian to Spanish, only require 200 hours of practice to gain fluency; more reading and writing and speaking make you more fluent, of course, but 200 hours isn’t a lot.

To put it in perspective, if we built into our schools’ schedule an immersion-style program, which involved two hours out of every school day, our students would graduate high school with four additional languages besides English — one for each year of high school.  This is non-trivial, and worthy of notice.

Rosetta, which provides online and CD-ROM-based instruction services in 31 languages to individuals, companies and schools, is targeting the larger pie by chasing the traditional players.

Thirty-one languages.  Languages available include Pashto, Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish, Japanese, Italian and more.  Again, non-trivial.  How many American schools offer more than English, Spanish, French and occasionally Chinese?

Rosetta is addressing the need for English language learning in U.S. schools for students whose parents don’t speak English at home.

“We’re very active in schools. We’re in over 10,000 schools. That’s a fast-growing segment.”

via Eyeing growth, Rosetta Stone speaks in foreign tongues | Deals | Reuters .

Again… two hundred hours for fluency in any Western language, including English.  Learn one Romance language like Spanish, though, and the others fall easily to 100 hours of study or less — easily within range of a semester worth of study… imagine applying to college with five languages under your belt, to study international relations!  Admittedly, languages like Japanese and Korean and Spanish require a lot more practice — maybe 300 hours. Still, we’re talking two semesters, not years and years — and instant, immediate opportunities for high school semester abroad programs.

Sugata Mitra’s maxim holds true: Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer, will be.

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