- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2006

In my last column, I described Rosetta Stone, a language-learning software program that helps students learn through immersion and visual cues. In a subsequent interview with the company’s director of learning, Duane Sider, and the director of home-school sales, Nick Ropp, I learned the history behind the software.

As Mr. Sider describes the genesis, it all began with two men: Allen Stoltzfus and his brother-in-law, John Fairchild. Each had been frustrated with the experience of trying to learn a language through the standard grammar-based approach.

Mr. Stoltzfus decided to take a radical approach, moving to Germany to study economics, all in German, in a German university to force himself to learn the language. It worked.

Mr. Fairchild experienced similar success using the same method, and the two began talking about how computers could be used to simulate immersion in a new language.

Despite Mr. Fairchild’s crackerjack computer programming skills, the technology available to consumers in the 1980s was not advanced enough, but by 1993, the team was able to produce the first version of Rosetta Stone.

Since then, it has been improved and expanded, and many languages have been added, but the underlying infrastructure remains the same.

“We have two criteria, which we are firmly committed to,” Mr. Sider explains. “Our guiding principle is dynamic immersion, so there is no translation anywhere into the person’s original language. And the second principle is teaching effectiveness, so before we adopt a new technology, we need to be able to demonstrate how that feature teaches better.”

The commitment to immersion is found in the use of a single model native speaker who has the clear pronunciation of a modern new broadcaster, not a compound of computer-generated speech.

The company also decided against using video for all but the most advanced levels, Mr. Sider says, because “it’s just too meaning-rich, with a multiplicity of image, sound and speech that overwhelm. Instead, we use still photos to isolate the exact action — a horse jumping — to make the meaning clear.”

In fact, the system follows a structure of some 8,000 images, chosen to convey specific visual clues and associate them with the sounds of the language for the learner.

Families who buy the home-schooling edition can use the teachers guide and users guide, some written workbooks and a mapped student-management feature to track different students, coordinate lesson plans to curriculum objectives, and show the grading of the various lessons to demonstrate proficiency.

Most important, Mr. Ropp stresses, “The parent does not have to know the foreign language in order for the child to learn it with this program.”

Parents are urged to pay attention to the four exercise methods for each lesson, which enables them to guide children with different learning styles and use what is most effective for each. Most important is a listen-and-repeat feature — to hear the native pronunciation and mimic it — along with a voiceprint system to “see” the sounds.

Families can augment the learning by posting sticky notes of the vocabulary on corresponding objects in the home and also by using the language in real-life situations as soon as possible: on trips, during social occasions, when meeting native speakers, and the like.

Parents can buy the Level I and II home-school-edition programs together at a discount — $349 for both — or separately for $209 for Level I and $235 for Level II. These can enable every child in the family to study the same language at his own pace to the level of everyday proficiency for the equivalent of a four-year study program.

For more information, go to www.rosettastone.com/hs or call 800/788-0822.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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