by Marc Anderson

A Comprehensive Review of the Rosetta Stone Language Program

rosettastone_logo


Introduction

Recently I took some time to look at the Rosetta Stone Language Program as we sometimes recommend this to our students as supplemental English learning material to learn just how this well-known and one of the leading language software programs in the world really works. For those of you who may not be familiar with this language program, it is based on the premise that learning a language should be fun, easy and effective.  Therefore, the approach to learning a language is natural.  It teaches the language directly without translation, and with the clear purpose of not confusing the student with grammar or word lists to memorize. Millions of students have used this program in over 150 countries.

I became acquainted with this program several years ago, when a former student of mine gave me his copy of the Level I Korean program.  Matthew had worked on an independent study program to learn Korean in the elementary gifted/talented program under my supervision. I wanted to see how the company has expanded since then, as I knew they were continually improving their software technology and adding new products.

Current Languages

To my surprise, there is an extensive list of 30 languages now available for study with Rosetta Stone:

Arabic
Hebrew
Polish
Chinese (Mandarin)
Hindi
Portuguese (Brazil)
Dari
Indonesian
Russian
Dutch
Irish
Spanish (Latin America; Spain)
English (American; British)
Italian
Japanese
Swahili
Filipino (Tagalog)
Korean
Swedish
French
Latin
Turkish
German
Pashto
Urdo
Greek
Persian (Farsi)
Vietnamese

Demo of an Actual Lesson


I decided to explore the company’s website and try the accompanying demo which features study of a language with no translation in the student’s native language, and only images and sound in context.  Despite being pretty competent in German, I scored 85% on the first German lesson and as a native speaker of English I managed a 90% score on the first English lesson. Next, I moved to the Korean demo and scored 85%, as well.  I think my scores were influenced by not knowing exactly how to navigate through the lessons, and partially because I felt the pictures and words/phrases were a little misleading. For example, in the English lesson the phrases I am eating could refer to the same picture as She is eating and vice versa, so in my opinion, the pictures are not that clear when they suggest only one correct answer. That is the main reason I did not score a 100% in English even on the first level.

Images


Also, I found that in providing a series of 4 pictures for a lesson and having to match words/phrases that correlate to these, there is undoubtedly one picture remaining (e.g., the 4th picture) with one leftover phrase as well, so you would get that one answer correct.  This does not necessarily equate to learning the language. There is also a large element of guessing and if you did not fully attend to the lesson, you could complete it without really learning the targeted language. In the end this might prove to be frustrating as subsequent lessons are built on prior vocabulary. And if you guessed your way through the lesson, you would not have the skills to build on and continue successful learning.

Auditory/Visual + Technology

In the demos, I liked how you repeatedly heard the targeted vocabulary and how the words were written in several of the examples so you really can utilize two modalities in learning at the same time:  auditory and visual.  This is a great feature, since many people prefer to learn by listening and others by seeing.  Having both modalities of instruction also allows for more ingrained learning to take place.  I also found it stimulating to use computer technology to learn, and many other language learners would certainly agree.  Even as I type this, I’m thinking of many of the vocabulary phrases I heard yesterday in the demos.  I can even picture the vocabulary clue, which really helps with memory. I think it is a very positive way to learn thousands of words and phrases.

Vocabulary

The pictures, although colorful, were not as precise as I had hoped them to be.  This feature might be frustrating to some learners who really think the picture clue is correct with the saying, but in actuality it is not.  I also question the choice of vocabulary.  And, although you are learning vocabulary that later is embedded into phrases and sentences, I wonder about the relevance of some of the vocabulary.  For example, The plane is yellow (in German), and The boy is under the ball and They have pens (in Korean) might not be the most important things to learn in a language or that important to learn at first in a language. The instruction barely differs among the languages.  The content is similar and this area might need to be looked at, as each language has its own uniqueness that should be stressed and customized at all levels. Perhaps what is being learned and when it is introduced are areas that the company needs to look at and make necessary changes to, in order to maximize student interest and learning.

Speech Recognition Program

The speech recognition component is another helpful feature.  When you pronounce words, your speech is compared to native speakers with evaluation and feedback. You see how the speech and pitch compares to a native speaker’s pronunciation. You aren’t told what should be corrected or why a certain pronunciation is better. Instead, you need to assume this from your score.  To some people, this system works; to others, they may not know exactly why the way they said a certain word was better than another way they could have pronounced the word.  Again, there is no formal instruction in the native language to explain this. The tone of your pronunciation is not evaluated so this is an area of weakness.  Languages that rely on tone in expression to distinguish or inflect words like Mandarin Chinese or Bantu are not fully evaluated with the present speech recognition component in its current design.

Interactive Lessons

The interactive lessons offer additional practice of each lesson’s vocabulary.  After each lesson, there is an opportunity to have an interactive session that ranges from 30-60 minutes. You can also repeat the session for each unit. The interactive lessons are set up to be engaging, with an experienced native speaker of that language. The intent of this is a great idea, as the teacher offers video feedback while you talk with a headset (e.g., you see them, but they don’t see you). However, it falls short in meeting the needs of many if not most language learners.  For example, you might be more interested in other topics if you are a college student or employed in some type of business that uses English, and therefore, your interactive lessons are not based on your interests or needs. They are not individualized in content.

In theory, you are encouraged to speak, and the lessons might be individual (if no one else has signed up) or they might be a group lesson.  You have to admit that the opportunity to speak with a native speaker (e.g., the instructor who is a professional, personal, patient, and experienced teacher of that native language) is a helpful way to learn, but the content may be too controlled.  I have also read about the times to sign-up for the interactive lessons, and although the company has recently expanded its markets, the lesson times may not be as convenient for you as you would want or need.  Some students in various countries are restricted in having these lessons at later hours in the evening (or earlier hours in the morning, if you prefer to think of 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. as morning).  Again, this may not be convenient for your lifestyle and may conflict with your work or other schedules.  It may also be disruptive to your roommate or other family members.

Interactive Games and Community

Another feature of this language program is the interactive games and community.  The variety of games to help reinforce the targeted vocabulary for each lesson is refreshing.  Some games you play solo, and some you can play with other speakers on your language level who have accessed the online community.  That is a great feature to reinforce learning and to talk with others. I think a lot of people, especially younger people or those who like learning games, would really enjoy learning this way and see the value that these games and the community provide. However, for me, some of the games were difficult to figure out how to play.  In all fairness, maybe through more practice I would better understand how to play the games.  But I do have to wonder that for both younger students and much older students, the games might be confusing, as well.

Program Structure

I like the structure of the program and the levels.  For most of the languages there are 5 levels of language to move through.  It is estimated that if you spend about 30 minutes a day in study, you will complete the levels within a year.  The components of listening, reading, speaking and (later) writing are all covered.  Since my background is in education, and I am a strong visual learner, I would like to see specifically which skills are covered in each level before I study the level.  Then I would be better able to judge how complete this method is in learning a language.

In addition, as an adult learner, I do learn a lot through reading. I like to reread something if I don’t understand it or if I want to really think about or study something, or even commit it to memory.  Also, to me, I would like to be able to click on the foreign words to read more about them, what they mean, and how they are used.   I find great value in studying the etymology of words and how they should be best used.  I would like an opportunity to study the grammar of the language, too, rather than mostly having to discover the patterns of the words/phrases/sentences through listening, speaking, reading and writing.

I don’t doubt that many of the words I have seen will be learned, mastered and stored into long-term memory, but I do feel there are added ways the language can become better understood, and thereby used and maintained.  There should be value attached to learning about foreign concepts, foreign grammar and foreign phonology as traditional lesson books often approach these topics.

Added Tech Components


I like the idea that there are added components that you can purchase and renew each year with the Rosetta Stone series.  These include software access for the smart phone and Android tablet, the iPod and Android.  I think these features will reach many types of people and many types of learners.

Cost and Tech Support


Although to many people the Rosetta Stone program would be viewed as a high-end costly way to learn a language, I think it is difficult to attach a price to learning.  However, if the program does not particularly fit the needs of the student, then it is not the best way to spend your money no matter how much it costs. The kits are often on-sale and run for $179 for Level I, $374 for all levels combined; and an additional $299 for the online subscription for one year.   There is a specially-designed microphone and headset that are included.  One software CD is designed for each level of the computer and there are four audio CDs for each level, as well.  Sometimes there are special pricings to include 3-month trials of the online studio feature so it is worthwhile to check out the website and call to discuss promotions.  These prices are accurate as of May 21st, 2013.

I saw that there is live tech support free for 6 months, but for someone who is not that computer literate, this might be a costly feature in the end as there is a fee of $20 for a live chat support conference after the free period ends.   Personally, the cost of the program would not be worth the price since I would prefer, when learning a language, to work on vocabulary that was more relevant to my needs. I would also prefer to explore the language by reading it, with respect to its grammar and application of use.

The Immersion Way to Learn

I totally believe in an immersion way to learn a language, and I was quite successful myself, having experienced living in other countries and how this “forced” me to use the language every day. I was happy to be able to converse with native speakers in most of the countries I travelled to.  It gave me such a great sense of satisfaction.  Also, in my ESL teaching experience mostly with Hmong, Spanish-speaking, or Korean children and Japanese and Korean adults, I believe the students that made the best progress were those who asked me questions whenever they wanted. They took responsibility for their own learning and the language learning became very interesting to them. The instruction was at their own pace of learning.  This is extremely important because if you are not learning anything new, it is frustrating and if the instruction is moving too fast, you won’t be able to keep up to that pace and eventually you will not be successful in learning a new language. You will probably choose to quit studying.

As the students’ interest in the language grew, their skills grew and their self-confidence was enhanced. This in turn influenced more learning, and this cycle of learning continued.  I could tailor their learning to specific needs (not only in content, but also in learning their needs and style).  I still believe that the best way to learn a language is to engage in dialogue with native speakers and to embrace that culture in every way you can.  Those who do so are the people who have learned to speak a foreign language the best.  Their language is more natural, their vocabulary broader, and their personal confidence level much stronger.  Also, no matter what way you choose to learn a language or are “forced” into learning a language, there is no substitute for the right attitude and a positive emotional state.

The Rosetta Stone is appropriately named after the artifact that unlocked the secrets of the Egyptian hieroglyphics for linguists.  This program’s software truly unlocks language learning success for 2nd language learners throughout the world. It also has great possibilities to be used in schools (K-12 and higher education), businesses, and government organizations and for individuals of differing ages around the world.  The method is convenient for home-school students, as well.

Endangered Languages

It was very interesting to read the section on the Rosetta Stone’s website entitled Endangered Language Program.  It is about the endangered languages, and how this company began a program in order to address this.  They have collaborated with indigenous groups around the world to develop software to help keep these at-risk languages and heritages alive.  Linguists who work for Rosetta Stone estimate that as many as 50-90% of the world’s 6800 languages may be extinct within this century. So it was very exciting to read about the successful programs to teach these languages: Navajo to school children in some southwestern states in the US, Chitimacache in Louisiana, and Mohawk and Inuktitut throughout several regions of Canada.

Partnerships

Rosetta Stone is also open to partnerships with its business development opportunities (corporations and brands), institutions (public and private sector), marketing affiliates (online sales) and global retailers and resellers. This continued expansion is refreshing to see. It will only enhance the progress and value of language study for more people and throughout more places in the world.

Positives

It was interesting to review the Rosetta Stone Language Program and to look more deeply at its components.  There are many pluses that this program offers, from the variety of lessons to the immersion method that includes engaging images and up-to-date software.  The variety of reinforcements built in to practice and interest learners is also a positive.  The leveled lessons spaced between opportunities for interactive sessions with a native teacher of that language, as well as the many online games to play solo or with other learners, are great features.  The voice recognition feature is also a plus, as it helps with more accurate pronunciation.  The expansion of software and computer devices is appealing to many markets.  The emphasis on helping maintain languages and heritages around the world, as well as an emphasis on a very wide market to include all sectors of people and places that may be possibly interested in language learning, are also pluses.

Shortcomings

However, I feel there are some drawbacks to this method of language learning.  The images are not as carefully selected for the phrases/sentences as they should be. There is little variety between the selection of what is to be covered in the specific languages, which does not allow for the uniqueness of the language or the cultural heritage.  The online language sessions are not as convenient to access as students would like and need.  The pronunciation helper does not account for tones in language.  The program is not worth the cost, for me, as I find the program too controlled in content and not as tailored as I would like for my particular learning preference and language learner needs.

Rating

In all fairness, I would rate the Rosetta Stone Language Program as a 4 star on a 5 star scale, with 5 stars being the highest. This language learning program serves a valuable purpose and has many engaging components, but it ranks slightly above-average in its ability to deliver.

Further Resources:

http://www.fluentin3months.com/rosetta-stone-review/
http://language101.com/reviews/rosetta-stone/
http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2013/01/review

About the author:

Marc Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of TalktoCanada. Since founding the company in 2006, he has grown it to over 25 staff with operations in 50 countries. Marc spends his time outside of TalktoCanada travelling, playing with his son and working on new business projects.