And Then There Were None: Surviving Foreign Language Study

Study Reviewed

 Nielson, K. (2011). Self-study with language learning software in the workplace: What happens? Language Learning & Technology, 15(3), 110-129.

Almost no one who studies a foreign language in the United States gets very far.  Millions of high school and college students show up to their Spanish or Chinese I classes in the hopes of learning to communicate in a foreign language, but only a relatively small percentage will ever do so. Hundreds of thousands of adults pay good money for language CDs, Dummies guides, and fancy software, but with equal rates of failure.

None of this, sadly, is news.  The language teaching profession has known about the severity of foreign language (FL) “dropout” rates for decades.  The study I review today adds to the rather depressing body count of foreign language study by examining the attrition rates for two popular self-study programs.

Subjects: Two groups of U.S. government (USG) employees working in agencies that provide self-study language training were studied.  Group I (N = 150) consisted of USG employees from a number of different agencies.  All were absolute beginners in the language they choose to study (Arabic, Chinese, or Spanish).  In Group II (N = 176), students were all employed by the U.S. Coast Guard.  Group II only studied Spanish, but unlike Group I, were at various proficiency levels.  All subjects were volunteers who sought to participate in the study, and Group II students were given time off their regular duties to do so (three hours per week).

Treatment: Group I used the popular commercial program Rosetta Stone (RS), an Internet-based software program designed for the self-study of languages. While the program is available on CD, all participants could only access an online version, per the procedure of the participating USG agencies. Group II used Aurolog’s Tell Me More (ATTM) software, also available only online.

Group I students agreed to use the RS materials online for 10 hours per week for 20 weeks, giving them time to complete the recommended 200 hours for Level I of the courseware.  Group II students agreed to use the ATTM Spanish courseware for at least five hours per week for 26 weeks.

Measures: Group I students were given proficiency interviews over the phone in which they were asked to identify and describe pictures similar to the ones that appeared in their RS course. The tests were administered after each 50 hour segment of the 200-hour long study period. They were also given an ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) as an exit test.

Group II students took the ATTM placement and exit test, as well as the Versant for Spanish oral proficiency assessment, which correlates highly with the OPI exam. Group II students who knew some Spanish already were given the Versant as a pre-test, and all students were to be given it as a post-test.

All students were asked to keep a “learner log” to track how much time they studied with the materials.

Results:  Nielson summaries her results this way: “The most striking finding [for both groups]…was severe attrition in participation” (p. 116).

Table 1 summarizes her data from both groups, and the steep dropout rates for both programs are evident. Nielson used different categories in reporting the data for the RS and ATTM groups (as noted in Activity column of Table 1), but the pattern is very clear.  In addition to the raw numbers, I’ve put the percentage of the “surviving” students of the total who originally enrolled in the program (Step 1).

Table 1: Attrition in Participation Using the Rosetta Stone and Tell Me More Software Programs 

(Rosetta Stone / ATTM)
Rosetta Stone% SurvivorsTell Me More% Survivors
1. Volunteered and Signed Consent Forms150/176/
2. Obtained an RS Online Account / Took ATTM Placement Test12080%10358.50%
3. Actually Accessed RS Account / Used ATTM for 5 hours7349%6135%
4. Spent More than 10 Hours Using Course3221%179.60%
5. Complete 1st RS Assessment (50 hours) / Used ATTM 15-25 hours2114%95%
6. Completed 2nd RS Assessment (100 hours) / Used ATTM 25 hours or more64%74%
7. Completed Final Assessments and OPI / ATTM Exit Test10.60%42.20%
From Nielson’s Tables 1 and 2, pp. 116-117

Of the students who signed up for the RS courses, only 21% completed even 10 hours of the 200 hour course (5% of the total). Only one of the 150 volunteers made it to the end.  For the ATTM course, less than 10% made it to the 10-hour mark (13% of the way through the course), with a mere four completing the final assessment.  The attrition rate from beginning to end was 99.4% for Rosetta Stone, and 97.8% for ATTM.

The language proficiency assessments were taken by only a fraction of the participants. In general, the researcher reports that more hours spent with the course did produce better scores on the interim assessments.  The number of subjects who took the exams was for the most part too small to be of much use in evaluating the effectiveness of the programs themselves.


1. Nielson’s results should be rather disappointing to the USG officials who paid for their employees to access these courses, not to mention the taxpayers. She does report that not all of the attrition can be blamed on the programs themselves, however. A significant percentage of the students apparently had a variety of technical problems with the software (browser plugins that would not load, system crashes, etc.).  Some of the participants reported dropping out due to being assigned overseas during the course of the study, not having enough time, or having experienced some change in their work situations.  Most, however, did not provide reasons for dropping out.  In addition to the technological problems, there were also complaints about the content of the courses themselves.

While one can blame technology for part of the attrition in Nielson’s study, no such excuse can be offered for students studying with traditional paper textbooks.  In the only other study of attrition in using self-study materials that I am aware of (McQuillan, 2008), I came to very similar conclusions as Nielson: hardly anyone finishes a self-study foreign language course.  In my study, I looked at how public library materials were used by patrons at a local library, using a “Wear-and-Tear” index to determine how far along patrons had gone in the books, indicated by worn pages, dog-eared pages, etc.  On average, those who checked out the language courses (only books were analyzed) got no further than 17% through the text before abandoning them.  Taking these results with Nielson’s data, we can conclude that attrition rates for introductory self-study materials approach 100%.

2. Nielson is rightly critical of the huge dropout rates for the software programs she studied, and notes that such self-study products are “unlikely to work by themselves,” without proper support (p. 125).  I agree, but we should also keep in mind that students often don’t fare much better in traditional classroom language classes.  Dropout rates are also quite high, and those who survive, as Dupuy and Krashen (1998) discovered, are mostly those who have studied abroad, not those who have come up through the ranks of the FL courses themselves (in Dupuy and Krashen’s sample, an astonishing 84.5% of the students in upper-division courses had studied abroad!).

Attrition in FL classes is not a new phenomenon.  Table 2 below shows data from Coleman (1930) on statewide high school foreign language enrollments by level for an unnamed northeastern U.S. state in 1925, as well as more recent data for all 50 states from the year 2000 (Draper & Hicks, 2002).  As in the case of Nielson’s data in Table 1, in addition to the raw figures, I’ve put the percentage of the Level I students who survived each passing year of study.

Table 2: Foreign Language Enrollments by Level in High School in 1925 (1 State) and 2000 (50 states)

Total Enrollment, 1925% of Year 1 EnrollmentTotal Enrollment, 2000% of Year 1 Enrollment
Level I3,594/1,133,626/
Level II2,83979%797,80070%
Level III36410%346,20031%
Level IV1604.50%201,80518%
For 2000 data, includes any higher levels (e.g. Spanish V or VI) plus Advanced Placement courses. Data from Coleman (1930) and Draper & Hicks (2002)

We see the similar declines from Level I (freshman) to Level IV (seniors), despite the difference of 75 years in the data.  The attrition rate for 1925 was 96.5%; for 2000, it was only marginally better at 82%.

The situation does not improve at the college level.  Furman, Goldbert, and Lusin (2007) report that of the 1,536,614 undergraduates enrolled in the top 15 foreign languages at U.S. colleges in 2006, only 17% were enrolled in upper-division courses. This attrition rate is similar to what we find at the high school level.

There may be several reasons why the dropout rates are so high in FL classes.  No doubt most students take lower-level courses to meet course requirements, and abandon them once they do so.  But my own experience as an FL teacher in high school and at the university is that many of these same students, if asked in their Level I courses, would indicate a real willingness to acquire the language they’re studying.

At least part of the blame for these high rates of attrition lies with poor teaching methodology.  Tse (2000) cites research from the 1970s showing that a significant percentage of students found their FL classes “unstimulating and uninteresting” (p. 72). Are we much better off today?


Research Cited

Coleman, A. (1930). A new approach to practice in reading a modern language. Modern Language Journal, 15(2), 101-118.

Draper, J., & J. Hicks.  (2002). Foreign language enrollments in secondary schools, fall 2000. Alexandria, VA: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Dupuy, B., & Krashen, S.  (1998). From lower-division to upper-division foreign language classes: Obstacles to reaching the promised land.  ITL: Review of Applied Linguistics, 119/120, 1-7.

McQuillan, J.  (2008). Does anyone finish the Berlitz tapes?: A novel method of perseverance for commercial language courses.  International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 4(1), 2-5.

Furman, N., D. Goldberg, & N. Lusin.  (2007).  Enrollments in languages other than English in United States institutions of higher education, Fall 2006.  New York: Modern Language Association.

Tse, L. (2000).  Student perceptions of foreign language study: A qualitative analysis for foreign language autobiographies. Modern Language Journal, 84(1), 69-84.


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