Am I too old to learn a language?

Inside the Internet.
Feb. 6 2006 4:33 PM

Am I Too Old To Learn a New Language?

A computer immersion program tries to teach me Danish.

Small children do many things better than adults. My 5-year-old son is better at getting attention from women than I am, he is better at falling asleep in improbable places, and he is better at getting his way. But there's one skill every small child has that adults rightly envy: They're brilliant language-learners. Any kid, with no formal instruction whatsoever, is capable of near-perfect pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar in a language that was utterly foreign to them not long before. Even the best teenage or adult foreign-language students sound clunky by contrast.

There is a software package, though, that promises to make us all kids again. Rosetta Stone, which is now being marketed massively in airports, bookstores, and high-end magazines, represents an unusual approach to language-learning. Rosetta Stone uses no English-language instruction—in fact, no instruction at all. There are no vocabulary lists, conjugation tables, or translation drills. Instead, it mimics language immersion by associating language with pictures. Rosetta Stone doesn't put it this way, but the program asks you to learn like a child.

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Rosetta Stone software is available for 28 different languages, from Spanish to Swahili. I tested out the Danish version. It's a language of moderate difficulty for English speakers, but since it's a Germanic language—a cousin to English—its vocabulary and grammar are not as distant as, say, Chinese. I know German, so it could give me a bit of help, but Danish and German aren't close enough to make it too easy. And I hoped to surprise my visiting Danish girlfriend. (If you want to play along, check out this free demo. You can purchase either an online or home version of the Rosetta Stone software. The Danish course I tested costs $195. Alternately, a one-month subscription is $49.95, and three months will set you back $89.95.)

Click image to expand.

The interface is incredibly simple. A written word appears and is pronounced by a native speaker. The user picks a matching picture from four images below. A correct answer gives a pleasing chime and a check mark. A wrong answer brings a muted air horn of disapproval and a red X. Other drills are similar. Sometimes you see the picture and choose from four written words; sometimes you choose from four spoken words. The key is that from the first exercise, you don't associate "flyvemaskine" with the English "airplane." You immediately associate "flyvemaskine" with an actual airplane, cutting out the mind-cluttering step of translation.

You will be surprised how quickly you learn words even in a difficult language. After 20 minutes with Lesson 1, I walked down the street and found myself saying "car," "cat," "dog," "boy," and "woman" in my new language. After basic words, Rosetta Stone starts teaching basic relationships. "A car and a cat." "A boy in a car." "A boy on a table." Then come a few verbs. Instead of being given grammar lessons, you are deriving the grammar from your linguistic stimulus—as a child does. (Don't hold your breath on perfect pronunciation, though. Unless you have a good microphone and are very patient, the bit of software that tests your accent against a native's is erratic and frustrating (at least on my computer).

But the Rosetta Stone approach has its drawbacks. Page 1 of the typical language book goes like this:

Pierre : Bonjour. Je m'appelle Pierre.
Mary: Bonjour. Je m'appelle Mary. Je suis américaine.
Pierre: Enchanté. 

This Lesson 1 stuff is obviously useful—if you want to deploy your new language, the first step is greeting people. While Rosetta Stone's initial vocabulary list includes "elephant," "airplane," and "boat," it doesn't have "hello." Each lesson focuses on grammar building blocks, and there is no time for pleasantries. After maybe a dozen hours with Rosetta Stone, I have a vocabulary of about 200 words. I can say, "The man is wearing a white shirt and the women are wearing black coats." I can't say "I" or "you." I can tell my girlfriend, "There is not a man on top of that house," and, "the yellow car is bigger than the red car." I can't ask, "Are you hungry?"

Granted, if you're doing well with basic grammar, it's not hard to pick up "How are you?" The bigger problem with Rosetta Stone is that the picture sets and grammar lessons are the same across all languages. Considering that verbs are fiendishly difficult in one language, adjectives tricky in another, and prepositions a pain in a third, this can be problematic. Arabic, for example, has a dual number, meaning you have to learn different forms for "he walks," "they [two people] walk," and "they [more than two people] walk." But there is no lesson for this in Rosetta Stone. If you're learning Arabic and don't know there is a dual, you'll wonder why the verbs change from picture to picture, not knowing to think about the number of people.

Rosetta Stone's head of marketing acknowledged that the program can't encompass every facet of every language. But he argues that Rosetta Stone is still the fastest way to get you away from a computer. It's mostly a confidence thing—typical language-learners get tripped up by embarrassment, not lack of skill. Rosetta Stone's technique, if a bit tedious sometimes, makes it so you almost can't help but learn. The constant repetition, starting with basic nouns and building with tiny, accumulating lessons, makes it different from a program that tries to get you communicating straight away.

No computer program can change the fact that, for whatever reason, learning a language is hard for adults. Rosetta Stone seeks to emulate a child's learning, but it's possible that the brain has changed to make this much harder as an adult. In The Language Instinct, Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker guesses this is because learning language was evolutionarily necessary only in childhood. The brain is a metabolic hog that uses a disproportionate share of the calories we consume—it doesn't make sense to keep around equipment, like the language-learning circuitry, that we won't need later on.

Rosetta Stone will help you build vocabulary and confidence, but it's best used alongside traditional tools like the dreaded Je m'appelle Pierre. Children have a supple language instinct. Adults need to rely on their advantage in cognitive horsepower.

Robert Lane Greene writes for the Economist online.

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