Jun 8th 2012 by FormerRSguy • 16 Questions • 1585 Points
I worked for RS for years, and have used their programs in versions 2, 3, and 4 for 7 foreign languages. I know which of their programs work, which don't, and why.
I have invited a few other former employees to join me here, and will update with their usernames so you can keep an eye out for their responses
The obvious questions:
does it work? - Yes and no, it really depends on the language in question. Some languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Chinese, English...) it works very well, others (Arabic, Turkish, Japanese) it is a very flawed endeavor, but may still be a useful tool, depending on the person.
Did you really learn 7 foreign languages with RS? - Yes and no; for some it was my primary method of acquisition, for others it was a great tool, and for others it was apparently an impediment to my success. I'm certified in 2 of the 7. I have former colleagues who I'm friend with who speak 5-10 languages each, and there are others who spent years with RS and just didn't bother to learn anything.
Adults don't learn like children, WTF is with their advertising? - It's advertising. Some people subscribe to the "critical period" hypothesis and would argue kids learn better than adults could ever hope to, others will point out that 5 year olds are complete fucking idiots and that any adult who spoke at the level of a 5 year old after 5 years of study should be ridiculed for their incompetence in language learning. Both are kind of irrelevant, in that RS is just trying to get people to buy a program that's built around a different framework, using popular ideas about linguistics.
EDIT 2: OtherRSguy and Zingerone are with me. I've asked them to contribute.
EDIT 3: Front page? You guys. Seriously...more Karma on my throwaway in one day than in 2 years on my real account.
EDIT 4: CTRL+F, people. We've already answered our thoughts on Russian, Mandarin, German, etc. a few times. My fingers are starting to hurt. My eyes are burning. I'm kinda freakin' out.
Edit 5: basslinguist is with me. What he says goes.
Have you heard about / used duolingo.com? It's a pretty cool project created by the same guy that did ReCaptcha - you help to translate the web while learning a language. There's a TED Talk on it, if you're interested.
I've been using Duolingo to learn Spanish. The software itself is very similar to Rosetta Stone. Does Rosetta Stone see projects like Duolingo as a threat?
Edit: I have a few invites, PM me your email address if you want one. I am out of invites for now. But see below for others offering invites. If someone is kind enough to send you an invite, sign up right away - that person then receives additional invites that they can give out. Oh, and try to be nice guy or gal & give a few away yourself.
I've never used it, but I'll check it out.
RS doesn't really think of anyone as a threat, as far as I can tell. Their main competition, as they see it, is universities, and they're trying to neutralize that by partnering with some.
Given three months, how many hours a day would it take someone to learn a language conversationally? Something like French or german.
I'd say 1-2. Don't burn out, study smart, pay attention to what's being taught, and spend the time you're not doing it thinking about the language and trying to improvise utterances using what you've learned. If you don't know something, no harm in looking it up.
Can you elaborate on the reasons romance languages + Chinese work well, but Arabic, Turkish, Japanese do not?
Thank you for doing this, it should be very interesting
It was designed around Spanish, as far as anyone can tell. Chinese has less complex syntax than Spanish, so it works. Arabic is not necessarily more complex, but it is radically different. You cannot use a method that works for getting learners to intuit Spanish conjugations to get them to intuit Arabic conjugations. So for Arabic, it just doesn't effectively explain verb weakness (defective, hollow, assimilated, and doubled verbs), derived forms, or verbal nouns. Similarly, Turkish is an agglutinating language, and RS just doesn't handle it well. Japanese for similar reasons, but also their refusal to address anything other than a very stilted, over-polite register.
Yes, without a doubt. Especially if English is your first language.
Finally, a simple question, a simple answer.
I'm VERY interested in this ama. Which languages do you speak? Which one do you enjoy most/ least and why? On average, how long does it take to learn a language if practiced for at least a half hour a day? are you planning on learning more? Why are you no longer with the company? were they jerks?
I don't want to give away too much personal information, and I have invited a few friends and former colleagues to weigh in, so among us we speak:
French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Mandarin, Russian, Dutch, Persian, Portuguese, and Turkish.
Personally, I love French and Arabic for the phonology. I love the grammar of Arabic. Above all, those of us who speak Chinese love the logic of it, as well as the elegance of it.
On average, how long does it take to learn a language if practiced for at least a half hour a day?
If that practice is smart and effective, the average for all of my friends (RS and non-RS using alike) is 3-6 months for a good foundation. Meaning: you can carry on a conversation entirely in your target language. Another year or two or more to get really articulate and comfortable. For an anglophone, it should be completely doable to take the C2 exam in a European language. Arabic will take longer than that for a foundation, in part just because of a dearth of good English language resources. Chinese, if you ignore exoticizing and orientalist statements about it, should take 3-6 for a good foundation, just like anything else.
are you planning on learning more?
I'm kind of cooling it for a while. I want to work on and perfect things I've already started. But then there are some days that I just want to speak everything, and get pulled by Cantonese, or Tibetan, or Yiddish, or Xhosa.
Why are you no longer with the company?
Moved on to bigger and better things.
were they jerks?
You have no idea.
were they jerks?
You have no idea.
Care to elaborate? By the way, Virginia high-five and thanks for doing this AMA! :)
On the small scale, my superiors were inept, mean-spirited, and uninterested in language. An area manager once showed up drunk, threatened me (playfully) with a blunt object, called me a few racial epithets, and threatened to fire me if the security camera was filming [them]. They made fun of Russian in front of an interested customer and scared of the customer. They tried to micromanage and play employees off one another. It was ugly.
On the larger scale, they insist that stores open an hour before the place they are in opens (wut?), and seem to have spent the last 5 years trying to figure out how to pay their employees the minimum possible. Over the course of the years I worked there, I basically took an enormous paycut. When I quit, I realized that after they went public, their changes to the commission and hourly pay made it so I had effectively taken a $15,000 a year pay cut from when I started. They hire some idiots (it's inevitable in retail), and then treat all their employees like idiots. The customers, it being retail, could sometimes be depressing...everyone has retail horror stories...but the company was worse than any customer ever was.
I have a pet theory about their former corporate big-wigs, some of whom are currently being investigated by the SEC, intentionally trying to run the company into the ground.
It's ok bro. It's ok.
Tüm iyi, teşekkür ederim!
I'm not the one among us who speaks Turkish though...My first reaction was to want to ask you, in Arabic, why you were addressing me as your father...
Yes. There are almost 7 billion people on earth, I can now talk to around 4 billion of them, instead of just the English-speaking ones.
EDIT: Your mileage may vary.
Hey, maybe you could help me out!
I've studied Japanese language in formal classes for 5 years (all through high school, one year in college.) I feel like I'm very poor at learning language in general, as before Japanese I studied Spanish for 7 years and never got very good at it (better at Japanese now than I ever was at Spanish.)
My current level of understanding is alright, but I stumble and have to think. I make grammar mistakes fairly often (though rarely bad enough to change the meaning of my sentence -- think the Japanese equivelent of English's "My name is Umi" and "My name being Umi."
Can you suggest anything that might take my foundational understanding to fluency?
You're actually the kind of person I would recommend RS Japanese for. Be ready to send it back for a refund if you didn't enjoy it or get as much out of it, but someone with a decent foundation who wants to clean it up before they move on is kind of the ideal customer for them.
Cool! Is there any way to tell which level I should start with? Some kind of placement test?
5 years ago I tried the beginner version, learned "boy" and then gave up and started formal classes, but I'm not sure how far I've advanced!
Start at the beginning, honestly. The way it's organized is completely different than a classroom setting, and there's stuff in Level 1 that I pretty much guarantee you don't know if you're asking about ways of studying a language.
My favorite one to call people out on was "he's buying a metal ladder in the hardware store." That's all L1.
You mentioned that it works for some languages, but not others. Why?
A cookie cutter approach, using a fantastic course for Spanish for English speakers. If it's Spanish, like Spanish (so, Romance), or grammatically simpler than Spanish (Chinese), it's a great program. If it's not anything like Spanish and equally or more grammatically complex (or just complex in different ways), you start seeing diminishing returns the farther you get from Spanish.
On a deeper level, I think it's because the linguists involved in R&D are staunch Chomskians, and they believe in universal grammar, without having done a lot of study of other languages, challenges to UG, or even really transformational grammar. So there's an anglo-centric current in the company that's just from complete ignorance of other languages, and it's worse when it comes to culture. It's very, very American. Corporate offices are in Virginia, and some of the people in support (not customer facing tech support), don't own their own computers at home, and are monolingual anglophones.
"monolingual anglophones" ----> dumb muricans
translator credentials: i'm a murican
"Murkns," is the shorthand my friends use.
Is there a professional R&D team that helps design the program? Or is it just a bunch of business people using Wikipedia to throw together something that sells? How is the product tested?
There is a professional R&D team, but they don't seem to get a lot of funding. You can actually see precisely how much they spend on R&D and on advertising in their quarterly press releases, on their website.
(Totally unverifiable) Anecdote 1: a friend used the program for Persian, and wrote up a list of all the errors to send to R&D. R&D said they'd love to fix them, but at the moment, having completed levels 1-3 of Persian, the friend was the best Persian speaker they currently had on staff, and that they'd get to it when they get to it, but thanks for the concern.
I feel bad for the R&D guys honestly. I'll bet there's probably some prototype new versions, units of new languages, etc. that have been researched, written, and coded - but will never see the light of day. There's probably some enthusiastic young linguists in there that have the right idea and took the job for what they thought was a language company, and are now just being forced to edit the pictures in the Spanish program to look prettier.
I feel so bad for them. Especially in Speech...those guys are awesome, and they just get ignored.
i am free for next month and i am planning on using internet resources to learn Spanish. what piece of advice would you give me?
Get as much comprehensible input as possible, including things just above your current level. Listen to Spanish and watch Spanish TV constantly. Try and formulate your thoughts in Spanish, even if it means walking around and talking about objects like a child with a learning impediment ("the toilet is next to my shower. My shower is dirty." etc.). Talk with native speakers as much as possible; the internet makes this easy to do for free. Pay attention to cognates, since Spanish gives you a ton of words for free. Read about things you're interested in, in Spanish, on wikipedia. I've learned more Spanish reading about Coffee and Tango dancing than you'd believe. Insist on Spanish, and don't let people drag you into using English out of laziness.
It's all about volume of input, comprehension of that input, and attempts to use the language without worrying about making mistakes. I'm generally not a fan of the fluent in 3 months guy, but his "aim to make 500 mistakes a day," is a great piece of advice. Make them, and learn from them.