When we plunked down $700 to buy the Rosetta Stone French series before leaving the States four years ago, we were obviously putting a lot of faith into it. Its slick packaging and select marketing and pricey price tag didn’t really make us question its efficacy. The only question was whether I’d have the discipline to follow it. If I did, then of course I would learn French, right? It’s practically guaranteed!
As for the first question: I did finish the program, all five levels, and it took me more than two years. Certainly it can be done faster, much faster. But it wasn’t something I did every day; sometimes it would sit unused for months at a time. I even restarted from the beginning once when I was halfway through level three.
As for the second question—did I “learn” French? Well, that turns out to be a strange question to even ask. People misuse this word all the time by putting it in the past tense. I don’t think anyone can say they “learned” a foreign language because it implies all of it, finished, done. Instead, it’s a lifelong journey filled with different degrees of learning. Look at how long we study our own native language! I don’t know about you but I had to take English classes every darn year of school, even into university. And I’m not talking about literature, but usage and composition. Yet there’s still a lot about English that I don’t know or get wrong from time to time, and new vocabulary I continue to discover.
But I know what the question is getting at, and it’s a valid one. So here’s my success story: Yes, it taught me a good amount of French. Of course! In fact it’s thanks to the first 2.5 levels of Rosetta Stone that I was able to get myself around France without too much difficulty 9 months after starting the program. (Ironically, on my way to a language school.) It’s also thanks to Rosetta Stone that I was able to land in the first “blue” intermediate level of that language school, skipping the first two “green” beginner levels. And that made a huge difference in the return on investment I got from the school.
After that first class in France I came home and finished Rosetta Stone, which by then had lost some of its appeal in comparison to the real thing. But I trudged on, hoping that “fluency” would be found at the end of level five. Sadly, it wasn’t. But still, I learned some more stuff, and that’s never a bad thing. (A reminder: my personal and rather high benchmark of fluency is being able to keep up with casual conversation amongst a group of native French speakers, at full speed.)
At the end of the day, I would recommend Rosetta Stone but for some very specific reasons, and with the caveat that it be supplemented with something else. During my two years with it, I also hired a private tutor; took two 4-week classes abroad; used a couple of other books and workbooks and podcasts; and practiced with the people around me. (Sadly, though, it was rarely my husband. Early on, I found it simply too humiliating to speak like a child in front of him. Today that’s slowly getting better.)
Caveat: my review which follows is for version 3. Some of my complaints may have been improved in later versions. In checking their website today I see that the price is now $499 instead of $699. In fact they’re having an “October” sale for $349! Not fair!
First: what Rosetta Stone is good at.
- It uses more than one mode of learning.
Most of what you’ll find for sale in the language section of Barnes & Noble is an endless choice of repeat-after-me CDs. Those are fine, but you’ll notice they use only one method of input: your ears. If you’re a visual person who likes to see the written word, then driving down the interstate listening to those CDs will be less than helpful. Rosetta Stone, on the other hand, uses multiple modes of learning. You’ll see the word written, see a picture that represents the word, and hear the word, many times. In return, you’ll have to match the word to its picture, speak the word, and even write the word. Obviously, the more modes of learning you use, the better your chances of actually learning something.
- It’s engaging and interesting because of its multimedia.
More than once I experienced this weird feeling of euphoria while using the program. Some of the photos are beautiful, sweeping, touching, or downright funny. It made me feel good about learning, reminded me why I was doing this, and made me want to keep going. That and the price tag helped me to complete the program, whereas many of the cheaper CDs and things I’ve purchased did not give me the same push to finish.
- It’s excellent for pronunciation.
With other language programs, you’re basically on the honor system. The typical language CD will say something and ask you to repeat it. Which you may or may not do, depending on how silly you feel or who might overhear you. But even if you honestly speak the words out loud, your own ear is a terrible judge of how you did. Either you think you sound like a total idiot, or you think you nailed it. In both cases you’re probably wrong.
Rosetta Stone judges your pronunciation through speech-recognition software and a little microphone. The sound it makes when it doesn’t accept your pronunciation is a disheartening, annoying, sometimes makes-you-want-to-throw-the-computer-out-the-window kind of a sound, but all that repetition definitely forces you to improve.
- It’s excellent for writing and spelling.
Writing is one of those skills you’ll never get from an off-the-shelf CD, and you probably won’t have the discipline to practice it on your own. Rosetta Stone quizzes you on it, and it’s kind of hard. Some people really dislike it, especially if all they want is to be able to speak a little French as soon as possible please! Who needs writing?? Well, it may seem superfluous, but actually it’s a huge help. Writing is yet another method to help you memorize and recall words, but also to solidify its pronunciation, its gender if a noun, or its conjugation if a verb. French has very consistent rules when it comes to pronunciation and conjugation, which aren’t apparent at first glance. Writing helps you to understand and appreciate these rules. At least it did for me. The writing exercises were my favorite part of the program, in fact. Maybe because it gave me a break from that super-picky microphone.
All right, so what is Rosetta Stone not so good at?
- Their general immersion approach means slow, frustrating progress.
They say it’s because “childlike immersion” is the best way to learn. I disagree; I think they just want to be able to sell their software around the world, and so all they have to change between the US market and the Japanese market is the packaging. (And for the record, dear friends at Rosetta Stone, children cannot learn languages from a computer or a TV. Read this.)
What this means is that there’s no English explanation or translation of what you’re learning. You’re supposed to just “get it.” The program does this by introducing you to a word and an image at the same time. This is rather straightforward when learning simple vocabulary (show me an apple with the word pomme; ok, got it), but with more abstract vocabulary, or a word that could be taken different ways, this can be a bit unclear. It happened more than once that I went through an entire unit not understanding a certain word or phrase at all, or assuming it meant something else. I only discovered this later after using a dictionary (shame! dictionaries aren’t very childlike) or misusing the word or phrase with actual people.
Take the subjunctive, which they introduce in level 3 already. Trouble is, you don’t realize you’re learning the subjunctive. Again, there’s no translation, there aren’t even any conjugation tables. (Both of which are touted as selling points for the program.) So you toil and trouble over this funny word that looks an awful lot like another word you already learned. You may not even notice it’s different until you’re quizzed on it and keep getting it wrong. Then you start noticing that the rule appears to be unevenly applied. Why does “je voudrais que tu” take the subjunctive but “j’espère que tu” does not? Or why does “faire” take a wildly different subjunctive form while “manger” does not? These things are unexplained and prompt a person to wonder if there are errors or bugs in the program. (As a former computer programmer, this is the first thing I usually suspect.) Or to resign oneself into believing that this is far too hard to understand so forget it, I’d rather go give the cat a bath than study stupid French.
When I first heard the French subjunctive explained in plain English, it was like night turning into day. It made so much more sense! (This was all thanks to the excellent podcast Coffee Break French, by the way.) How much easier and more productive is it to learn like this, rather than randomly guessing?!
- There’s no notes!
Apart from the potential for misunderstanding and the time-consuming wringing of hands over something unexplainable, the “immersion” approach (i.e., no English at all, anywhere) also becomes a problem when you realize afterwards you’ve forgotten something, because there’s no way to go back and look it up. You can try repeating a lesson but it’s hard to know which one. You can search the written transcript (at least there’s that) but only if you remember the French. (You know, the thing you can’t remember?)
Or try going back to remind yourself how the subjunctive is used again, or when you’re supposed to use the simple past versus the imperfect tense. Rosetta Stone’s point is: Hey, nobody needs to know about these fancy terms of grammar! We teach it to you so that it becomes part of you, you don’t have to think about how or why, you just understand it intuitively. You know, like a child!
This is a fabulous idea, and it works in certain cases. With enough repetition, I can start to “hear” the imperfect tense in my head and just know that it works better than the simple past in some cases. But I’ve gotten this wrong way more than I’ve gotten it right in actual conversation. The program itself is just not enough to nail this down in my head. I need cheat sheets, explanations, lists! Something I can post on the mirror in the bathroom and think about while I brush my teeth. Not very childlike, I know. But it’s been about 40 years and 6 months since my brain was wired to “think like a child” – I can’t help it.
- Not speaking naturally means lack of fluency.
At the end of the day, Rosetta Stone is like any other computer program; i.e., it’s not a human. In order for it to judge your progress, it has to keep you inside a little box. Despite all its strengths, it is still, essentially, asking you to repeat after it. It shows you an apple, you say (or write, or choose from a list) the word “pomme.” This is great for basic vocabulary, and I can’t think of a better approach.
In the mid to upper levels you’ll speak in rather long sentences and while this is impressive, it still means the sentences must be in the exact form it’s expecting. Any deviation and the answer is wrong. The program will say or show you the way it’s expecting it, which you repeat until you get it right. Again, it’s hard to think of a way around this, but in the meantime you’re subconsciously developing a dependency on this sort of prompting and repetition after a machine. You begin using your own head less and less. The situations inside the program are extremely predictable; real life is not.
This is getting long… what’s the bottom line??
Sorry, it’s a review. I’m trying to be fair and balanced!
If I had to do it all over again, I would still choose Rosetta Stone for their comprehensive pronunciation and writing drills, but I would use other programs simultaneously to fill in the blanks. (Sounds like a lot of work! But now I know that 20-40 minutes is sufficient for a single focused session with a computer. After that we’re talking law of diminishing returns.) Obviously if my goal is just to travel around Japan for a couple of weeks, I wouldn’t go to all this effort in Japanese. If I wanted to enjoy a long and rewarding relationship with my Japanese in-laws and spouse’s friends, however, then here are my notes to self:
- I would definitely buy whatever Radio Lingua has to offer, and for starters much of their stuff is free. I love my Coffee Break French teacher, intense Scottish accent included! He makes everything MUCH easier to understand.
- I would try Michel Thomas next time, because I like the idea of having to come up with a complete phrase using nothing but your own head. It’s not a repeat-after-me approach like all the others, but instead makes you translate, which I think increases understanding. (Of course, this is an anti-immersion approach, and there are those who say translating in your head is a bad idea. I think it’s only natural.) I know three people here who used it and loved it… however none of them kept with it very long, and I’m not sure why. Probably just our very exciting, highly distracting expat lifestyle!
- I also hear good things about Pimsleur but haven’t tried it myself. Worth a look.
- I would avoid the cheap-o generic CDs you can find all over the shelves at the bookstore. They cost more than you think — in discouragement and lack of motivation to keep going.
The truth is, it’s incredibly tempting to look at a pretty box full of software and believe that we can buy our way to fluency. They make such outrageous promises! “Learn a new language in hours!” “Fluent in three months!” Come on. It’s no wonder many of us have wild misconceptions about how long it should take. (And can suffer extreme disappointment when we don’t measure up.) What they really mean is you’ll learn some stuff in hours and you’ll feel pretty darn good about it. But the first time you converse with a native speaker you might be shocked at how not very far you can get with your arsenal of phrases like “where can I find the post office” and “my dog is ugly.” And that’s assuming you remember the phrases — did you know it takes the average person 7 repetitions of hearing something new before they can remember it? A French teacher once told me for a foreign language, it’s more like 21 repetitions.
A box of software is a good starting point, but it’s only that. It’ll give you a nice foundation to work with, and the confidence to go out and start speaking with people. And then the real work begins.