In a world of little kids trying to break into the language learning industry with apps built on new technologies and big ideas, Rosetta Stone is the smooth talking adult who doesn’t need to change.
They’ve been at it since the early ‘90s and their sales team is like a freight train.
You’ve seen Rosetta Stone in book stores and mall kiosks. You hear “Rosetta Stone” and you think of the software before the ancient artifact.
But have you used Rosetta Stone? Better yet, have you used it recently?
I hadn’t. I had an impression of a mouse clicking on stock photos, but no hands-on experience. Feeling ashamed and also some curiosity to see how much Dutch I could learn in three months, I decided to check out the current state of Rosetta Stone.
The big picture
Rosetta Stone no longer pushes the classic yellow box of CD-ROMs. They’ve transitioned to a subscription model which gives you access to their platform for a limited amount of time. You can run that platform in a web browser or on apps for a number of platforms.
Languages you can learn
Rosetta Stone’s long history is evidenced by their long list of supported languages. While not every language has the same amount of content (the high-earning ones are conspicuously the most robust), there is a healthy amount of content for all.
|English (American or British)||5|
|Spanish (Latin American or Spain)||5|
Noticeably absent are Bulgarian, Cantonese, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Hungarian, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, Thai, and Welsh. I’m surprised that Swedish is the lone Scandinavian representative.
In my opinion, one level of Rosetta Stone is not enough to learn anything beyond basic survival phrases. Three units does feel substantial, though.
As is common for many subscription services, the longer subscription you buy, the more value you get. Keep in mind that you are charged for everything up-front. If you order 24 months, expect a $143.76 charge on your next credit card statement. The monthly price is simply the total cost divided by the amount of months of access you get.
|3 months||6 months||12 months||24 months|
How long does it take to complete?
Before deciding on your subscription length, you probably want to know how long you should expect to study with Rosetta Stone.
Obviously not every language is created equally. I studied Dutch, famously one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn. You can expect that Arabic or Japanese will take more time.
Either way, you should be able to complete a unit in about a week. One unit represents between three to six hours of work.
The top-most organizational unit are the levels. As you can see in the list of languages above, each language has between one and five levels. Each of those levels contains four units.
At four weeks per level and no more than five levels, a 6-month subscription should be sufficient for any language.
The promise and the particulars are one thing. What’s it like to actually study with Rosetta Stone?
One device to rule them all
I fell into a big trap here. Listen up so you don’t make the same mistake.
It’s true that Rosetta Stone supports a wide array of mobile devices: iOS, Android, Kindle Fire. But you don’t get the whole experience.
Missing from the apps are some additional activities and “conversational Milestones”—practice conversational exercises which can prepare you for real conversation. These are not just another lesson. They are critical for getting practical language ability out of your study.
It’s easy to work around this app limitation by popping onto your computer at the end of each unit to complete the conversational milestone. But if you’ve been using the apps there is no indication that you’re missing out on anything. I completed many units before I realized that there was additional content on the site. By that time, I needed to review very old content before I could pass those lessons.
Also, the app experience is so much nicer than the dingy Flash-based web experience. We can’t assume everybody owns a computer with a web browser that supports Flash anymore. My parents use iPads exclusively and Flash is simply impossible to run on those devices. There doesn’t seem to be an option for those people to access the entire platform.
The core experience
When you launch the Rosetta Stone app and log in, you see a list of all the Units in the program. Open the first unit and you see a list of lessons. Start the first lesson and you’re on your way.
One area Rosetta Stone excels is that it always shows you the next thing to do. The navigation is dead-simple. Do a thing and Rosetta Store shows you the next thing to do. On and on until you’re done.
Within each lesson is the “core lesson” and a number of activities. The core lesson progressively introduces new vocabulary, grammar patterns and opportunities to practice. You’ll be tapping pictures, choosing words to fill in blanks, parroting the pronunciation of native speakers, and describing pictures with your voice. These take about half an hour to complete.
After that, you go into the activities which will focus on a certain skill. Pronunciation, Vocabulary, Grammar, Listening, and so on. These are much shorter and go into a bit more depth than the core lesson, but generally don’t introduce anything new.
You must get a certain percentage on the activities in order to mark them as complete. If you fail, Rosetta Stone allows you to focus on just the questions you missed instead of completing the entire activity again.
Mixed in with the activities are “revisit” activities, which review content taught in previous lessons. This is not quite as powerful as spaced repetition—your performance in the review does not affect which content is presented to you in the future—but Rosetta Stone has done a good job of showing you older content when you're about to forget it. And as much as I love spaced repetition, it would almost certainly undermine the charming simplicity of the product as it stands.
Each unit has four lessons, each lesson has four to twenty activities including the core lesson, and each of those are comprised of pages of questions that look like this.
There is no English explanation. You simply tap one of the options or speak the word or phrase out loud to proceed. This brings me to Rosetta Stone’s famed “learn like a child” approach to language learning.
Adults learning like children
Rosetta Stone’s teaching philosophy is to teach you a language the way you learned your native language.
You know... by tapping on stock photos.
Ok, I’m being mean. There is a lot of good about Rosetta Stone’s approach. It’s actually incredible how much ground I was able to cover without once relying on English explanations.
Your first experience will involve a certain amount of trial and error. You see a word and a picture of a man and a woman. Tap on the man. Wrong. Ah, so this means “woman”.
You then build up verbs and adjectives. In one example, you are shown a yellow thing and see a word. Then you are shown another yellow thing and see the same word. Finally, Rosetta Stone prompts you with the word and shows you a picture of a yellow, red, and black thing. You tap the yellow thing.
It’s a perfect execution of a very good idea. Without a careful progression of topics, it would fail. Without perfectly selected images, it would fail. With a more confusing user interface, it would fail.
But it doesn’t fail. Soon you are interpreting advanced sentences, thinking in the language without English as a crutch. It’s no wonder satisfied Rosetta Stone customers wind up singing the praises of “learning like a child.”
But… we’re not children.
Where this approach breaks down is in teaching grammar.
One example is gender. Like other languages, Dutch articles change depending on a noun’s gender. So you might say “de man”, “de vrouw”, “de vriend”... but then suddenly you're faced with “het kind”. What?
True to Rosetta Stone’s intuitive (read: no explanation) approach, the word “gender” is not stated anywhere. During the grammar lesson, the phrase “het kind” is highlighted as if to say “there’s something going on here.” You are left with no option but to blindly accept that it’s different and move on.
Dutch does not have a complicated grammar system, but gender is hardly the last aspect that would have benefited from an examplation. Simply put, it’s frustrating to not have a chance to peek at the logic behind the way sentences change. As adults, we believe in reason, not rote memorization. And by being shown the reason—however briefly—our brains can better integrate that new knowledge.
I don’t think a grammar reference or some sort of explanation would undermine the intuitive way the lessons are structured. It’s not an either/or issue. I would have appreciated a little info icon to appear which could briefly explain why something does not behave the way you expect. Ignore it if you’d like.
Recognition is great… but recall?
Rosetta Stone holds your hand through the entire process. You pick up new grammar and vocabulary slowly but steadily, and soon you’ll notice yourself understanding quite a bit.
But completing the lessons and communicating in the language are very different things.
Rosetta Stone is heavily skewed towards recognition exercises. You will see a phrase and know what it means. You will see a picture and you will know which of the options it represents.
Where it struggles is in building confidence in communicating spontaneously.
Yes, there are 1-on-1 conversation lessons available for an extra fee. And yes, the conversation milestone lessons are a big help (if you found them). But to get a functional knowledge of the language Rosetta Stone can't do it alone.
You need more recall practice. It doesn’t need to be difficult. Rosetta Stone already asks questions where it shows a picture of an object or action and asks for the word or phrase. But it does it by giving us multiple choices—often only two choices—and the correct answer is usually obvious.
Instead, ask us the same question without the multiple choice. Use your wonderful voice recognition and ask us to say the word for “yellow” out loud.
My guess? These questions will be disproportionately difficult compared to the other questions in the lesson. And that is precisely why they are necessary.
Because when you’re trying to communicate in a language, you don’t have the benefit of multiple choice. You have to construct sentences in your head like “How much is the yellow one?” To do that, your brain must recall vocabulary, grammar, and put them all into the proper order.
By avoiding those exercises, Rosetta Stone gives you a misleading sense of progress.
I didn’t pay for the extra conversation lessons. Those lessons might be as streamlined, professional, and useful as the rest of the product. They might be exactly what I'm missing. But without them, it’s not a complete language learning solution.
Which is too bad, because otherwise it’s so close.
Aside from the core experience, there are a few extra materials: Stories and the Audio Companion.
The Audio Companion is like Rosetta Stone lessons in podcast form. It is a useful way to review the content of the lessons passively. This is a very thoughtful way to keep your language fresh during your commute or while puttering around.
The Stories feature is also very nice. They are aligned with the units of the main course so you can challenge yourself to read a few short stories after finishing a unit. Reading is a critical skill to become a self-sustained learner. And these stories appropriately limit their vocabulary to words you already know, with only a few new words mixed in to keep it interesting. This way, you focus on the skill of reading, instead of the skill of looking up words in a dictionary.
There is one unfair assumption I’ve made throughout this review: that Rosetta Stone is the sole resource you use to learn a language.
In reality, most people will use it in conjunction with a few other resources. I would recommend a decent textbook with grammar explanations and written exercises, a flash card system to practice recall, and conversation lessons either through Rosetta Stone or another resource.
With these supplemental materials, you can benefit from Rosetta Stone’s strengths without being affected by its weaknesses.
You can pick up vocabulary as effortlessly as can be expected, while practicing your recall of those words through flashcards.
You can intuitively grasp the gist of its grammar and then use a textbook to understand the underlying logic.
And you can transition from the practical but generic example sentences and situations into true communication with conversation lessons.
In this context, Rosetta Stone still has a lot to give the language learning industry despite its age.