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"Learn language the way you learned as a child."
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.
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:
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 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.
And a few others...