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Rosetta Stone packaging
Catch Phrase
"Learn language the way you learned as a child."
The Background
Owing to their ubiquitous presence in airports, shopping malls, and TV, this is the first (often the only) name that comes to mind when you think "language-learning software." Rosetta Stone is known for its immersion-driven, "painless" approach to second language acquisition. Without a doubt they are the biggest company, and one of the first, but are they the best? I cut through the hype.
The Approach
When Rosetta Stone says, "Learn language the way you learned as a child" they mean, without trying. I mean, when you 3 you didn't sit down and study the past pluperfect. How do they go about delivering on that promise? This is one of three products I used from beginning to end. With my grade-school-French background (mostly forgotten), it took me about 10 months to get through all 5 volumes. The first thing you notice when you open the box is that it comes with a surprisingly decent USB headset. This is a clue that something may be different with Rosetta Stone, and it is: This is the only two products I found (Tell Me More is the other) that have speech-recognition software.
Rosetta Stone is famous (and sometimes derided for) it's total immersion, 4-panel approach. Here is an all-too-typical screen:


Within this structure you do various things: match spoken language with the correct picture; type a spoken phrase; speak the phrase shown, and so on. But it's always 4 panels (except when on occasion it's 2 or 6). Still, if you can handle the unvarying format (and all the programs have their own private monotonies as well), it's not a bad way to learn. At the end of each unit you have what Rosetta calls a "milestone," a kind of POV vignette, in which you are dropped into a situation and have to -- gulp -- make conversation. Nice idea, but sometimes the effect is less "you are there" than "first-person-shooter video game." Surprising a couple camping in the woods? Creepy! And doesn't Rosetta know that that's the plot of just about every teen slasher movie ever made? But let's not quibble: They have one thing that no other product on the market can match: speech recognition. Rosetta Stone requires you to speak, and it analyses how well you did. On most exercises, you need to reasonably decent pronunciation to continue. I was skeptical at first, but started to believe when it flagged just about every French word with an "R," which is notoriously difficult for Americans to pronounce, and having spent nearly a year with it, I'd say it works surprisingly well. You can adjust the precision level, or sensitivity, to your own skill (and tolerance).


No English Spoken Here
No grammar, either. Rosetta Stone uses the immersion method, which means no English is used. Sometimes (not often) this can lead to confusion, as when you're trying to figure out what you're supposed to do on a 4-panel screen. Match the pictures? On what basis? I see four pictures of horses here -- what to you want from me?! But truthfully, that's rare. I'm more disenchanted with the lack of explanations. Rosetta Stone boasts in their advertising that you don't need to spend hours with mind-numbing conjugation charts and vocabulary lists, and that's true; but as a result you also don't learn your conjugations and vocabulary. A classic example: One of the most difficult things for the French student is learning the gender of nouns, which seems totally arbitrary. A chicken is a "he" but a necktie, that most masculine (and phallic) pieces of men's apparel is a "she." After months of trying to memorize all of these, I saw in my daughter's high-school French textbook that nearly all nouns that add in -ion are feminine and those that end in -eau or -age are masculine! A word from Rosetta here (even in French) would've been worth a thousand pictures. Vocabulary
Rosetta Stone has what seems to be the most extensive vocabulary of all the products I reviewed. I'm just not sure it has the right vocabulary. Why should "swim" be one of the first words introduced? (Although when I went to France, sure enough, I did use it.) Another problem is that, even with their review feature, which periodically re-presents previous material, you tend to forget the early vocabulary and remember the most recent. At times it seems that for every new word I learn I forget a previous one. Moreover, as the lessons progress, the new words are getting more and more obscure. So I know the word for ‘crutches’ — and, God help me, if I ever need to know the French word for crutches, this entire project has really gone south — but I’ve forgotten how to say ‘next.’
Hot New Features
Live, online classes. With their TOTALe release in 2011, Rosetta added live, online classes to the CD version of Rosetta Stone, each class built around a unit. You get 3 months of free online classes with the CD package. Class sizes are 1-4 students, and both instructors I had were native Frenchwomen living in France. (I was the only student twice). You're likely to want, and need, much more than three months worth, but can purchase additional subscriptions.

They also hopped on the "online community" bandwagon, and you can play online games against other unseen students, regardless of their target language, but it seemed to me more obligatory than useful.

iPad subscription. A new way that Rosetta is offering to purchase the course is via an iPad subscription. All subscriptions include the classes mentioned above -- unlimited, as far as I can tell. Rosetta seems made for the iPad, with its tactile interface, but with the iPad version you're renting rather than buying, so when your lease expires -- poof! But I'm not sure I'd be returning to my CDs for a second pass anyway, so the iPad is an attractive (and portable) alternative, providing you have Internet access. The Skinny

  • Pros
    1. Speech recognition
    2. Most extensive vocabulary of all the products
    3. Immersion approach
    4. Unlimited live online classes
    5. Ipad version
    6. 6-month no-questions-asked guarantee
  • Cons
    1. Tedium of unvarying approach
    2. An explanation here or there would help
  • Available languages: Over 30
  • Version reviewed: 5-level Version 4 TOTALe
  • Cost: $399 on sale for the 5-level CD package, which includes 3-months online use; $299 for 1-year subscription to online/iPad/Android version.
  • Verdict: Cost used to rule this out for many users, but after a 50% cut, Rosetta is now comparably priced with other products (and even lower than some). The 5-level version, $399 on sale (which is almost always) is the most comprehensive product on the market. Speech recognition gives Rosetta an advantage few competitors can match. Conclusion: My first choice. You get what you pay for. (But wait for a sale.)






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3 comments:

  1. This product review is really great. Thanks for sharing this nice post. I love french language. French language is romance language. I would like to say that I'm at an advanced level of fluency . It's true that the best way to learn a language is to live in the country. So that people can easily achieve fluency.

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