By Tony Messina
Lately there’s been some apprehension, among us foreign language teachers, about Rosetta Stone. Some people I’ve spoken to openly worry that, some day, they’ll be replaced by computer software.
“Well,” I say to them, “Welcome to the world”.
But one way to deal with evolution is to evolve along with it and, bottom line, if you get to be very good at what you do, it will be difficult to replace you, no matter how many engineers and software designers they assign to the cause.
Let’s look at another field and another type of occupation, the TV studio cameraman (this term refers to women as well, I like genders and I don’t like neutering). Cameramen are smart people; they have to zoom, pan, focus, read scopes and adjust light levels while taking chaotic directions by often-overcaffeinated TDs and directors.
But their particular assignment remained fairly constant; there wasn’t much variation to what they did day-to-day; and that makes them easy prey to the designers and engineers assigned to replace them with robotics.
But many of these cameramen did not become discouraged. Unlike computers, humans can reprogram themselves by themselves. And they did. They became Steadycam operators, where everything was suddenly more complex and difficult. Steadycam people are used in all types of production, including movies; it will be much harder to replace them with robots.
Which brings me back to Rosetta Stone; they base their teaching on a very simple premise: that all of us, as children, learned how to read and write our own native language by associating words with pictures.
And their software is loaded with words and pictures and you can see how the whole process really works, especially with beginner students.
But like the scope of the studio cameraman, their whole outreach is limited. There just isn’t very much in the way of nuance, complexity and sophistication. If you ask Rosetta to show you See Spot Run, she’ll show you See Spot Run.
But ask her why in certain languages and in certain cases, the subjunctive verb tense is preferable to the present and you will See Rosetta Run. Like a deer in the headlights…..
As I see it, the next wave of foreign language instructors will be specialists, teachers who can fulfill a student’s need to zero in on a particular subject. We will have Mandarin medical tutors,
French finance tutors and Arabic accounting tutors.
And if these people are good at what they do, no amount of Rosetta (or any other kind of software) will be able to replace them.