Language learning has traditionally been quite a mundane task involving dense, boring textbooks and pointless grammar and vocabulary exercises. People only really learnt a language simply because they either had to at school, or because it was required by their employer.
However, last week I went into my local bookstore and I thought to myself that the demand for language learning must be there. There was a whole corner of the bookstore devoted to language learning, from Afrikaans to Zulu and the more popular languages such as French, German and Spanish often had whole bookcases to themselves – there must have been at least 5 different kinds of courses for each language.
People must obviously want to learn languages; otherwise bookshops wouldn’t be filling up their shelves with courses. But is learning a language out of a book now history? Can a computer really help us with some conversational Spanish before that trip to Madrid? Or maybe that big meeting with those investors from Germany?
Well, Rosetta Stone believes it can. It uses a technique called dynamic immersion, which is an intuitive new way of learning a foreign language and one that is radically different from all other programs.
It has certainly got a loyal fan base: NASA and the European Union both use it to teach foreign languages and the company offers a six-month risk-free guarantee on all their products, meaning you can return them within six months of purchase without any problems if you’re not completely satisfied with the results.
Rosetta Stone teaches a foreign language in the way babies start to learn talking: by listening to their parents and repeating every word they say and by relating words to pictures, much like during infant development. This method may seem a bit dumbed down for us adults, but I gave the Russian version of Rosetta Stone (a language which I had prior to this write-up absolutely no idea about) a go to see what the results were like. Read on for my full review.
With Rosetta Stone, you have the choice between around 30 different languages, from the more well-known ones such as French, German, Spanish and so on to some rather more obscure ones (conversational Pashto, anyone?), so it really depends on what you fancy.
There are 3 levels to each language (some even have 5), meaning you can really start from the basics and work upwards. In terms of where it’ll get you: Levels 1-3 will bring you up to CEFR Level A2 (a description of the different levels can be found here) and levels 4-5 will take you up to CEFR Level B1.
The Mac version of Rosetta Stone runs on Mac OS X 10.4 onwards (PowerPC and Intel processors) and to really enhance your language learning experience, a microphone or a headset with a built-in mic is ideal (I’ll explain why later). The application is relatively simple to install and once you’ve gone through installing it and the relevant language pack(s) you’ll be asked to give your name (multiple users are also possible) and what kind of course you want to do.
Rosetta Stone allows you to select different types of course depending on what skills you prioritize. If you are simply wanting to brush up on your skills before you go on holiday, for example, then you can select a shorter version of the course which focuses on, say, speaking (however seeing as the course costs about the same as an average return flight to Europe from the UK, I doubt you’ll be using it for just that).
For the best language learning experience (and to get the most out of the product), you’re best selecting the whole course which takes you through everything. Once you’ve selected your course you arrive at the home screen.
Each level is divided into 4 units, which are each subdivided into 4 lessons. Each unit covers various subjects, such as the basics, greetings and introductions and work and school life and each lesson is split into different sections: Pronunciation, Vocabulary, Grammar, Reading, Writing, Listening, Listening and Reading, Speaking and Review.
The later lessons repeat what you learnt in the previous ones, so you don’t forget the new words and phrases you learnt. This can get a bit repetitive after a short while, however it is all part of the Rosetta Stone learning experience, making sure you certainly don’t forget anything you’ve learnt.
The reading section involves matching up words or phrases to images and vice-versa. Again, this ties in with Rosetta Stone’s teaching methodology, as it believes associating words with pictures is the best way to learn quickly and without forgetting. You also have the task of filling in parts of a dialogue, which is later tested in the listening and speaking sections.
In the writing section you are asked to spell whole words and sentences that are read to you, as well as fill in certain parts in a dialogue, which is then tested on in later sections.
For any languages in a non-Latin script, a native keyboard comes up (see the screenshot) which allows you to type in the foreign script (this is the same for languages with accents, such as French and German).
Now, here’s where the microphone comes in handy. Each lesson has a speaking part, whereby you are asked to repeat key words and phrases you’ve learned in that section as well as thinking on your feet a bit by filling in parts of a dialogue.
The application has accurate in-built speech recognition that matches your intonation and pronunciation to a native speaker’s.
You can set the precision of the speech recognition depending on how strict you want the program to be with your accent, however if you really want to perfect your accent then obviously put it on the highest possible setting. A high-quality microphone is required, as the application may not recognize any poor quality voice recordings, however I found that the built-in microphone in my MacBook worked absolutely fine and recognized my voice without any problems.
Rosetta Stone attempts to cut out the boring, mundane grammar drills that puts so many people off learning foreign languages and tries to deliver it in bitesize, non-technical chunks.
There is a grammar section in every lesson that tests you on things such as nouns, adjectives and gender. In the Russian edition (and indeed for any language in a non-Latin script), there is also a dedicated section to learning the alphabet.
I have one slight complaint about the grammar section though. Although it does teach you the basics and helps you recognize the patterns in the language, it is not technical enough. I would find that if I carried on learning Russian by more advanced means, I would struggle getting my head around the grammar, as it doesn’t explain why the grammar is as it is – it just teaches you to recognize it and then reproduce it.
This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in my opinion, to progress towards proficiency in a language you really need to understand the mechanics of the language and why it does what it does; Rosetta Stone is unfortunately a bit sketchy in this field. I would suggest buying a grammar tuition book to work with alongside the course so you really get to grips with it.
Private tuition aside, Rosetta Stone is probably the most expensive way to learn a foreign language, however it really does work. I found myself remembering almost everything I had learnt without much difficulty and although the course is a bit repetitive, it does drum it into you and impregnates it into your long-term memory.
I found that as I progressed through Level 1, I could still remember the basics (like ‘man’, ‘woman’ ‘child’ and so on) even right at the end. The program is even fun and you don’t have to do it all in one go: you can always start where you left off. Each lesson takes on average 90 minutes to complete and with 16 lessons, you’ll certainly have plenty to do.
Rosetta Stone is certainly a very polished product – hence the commendable 9 rating – however the one major drawback to it is the price. If you are going to pay nearly $400 for a language course, then you really need to be serious about learning the language.
I am by no means a linguist or expert in language learning so I obviously cannot judge how effective the program is from a scientific point of view, but from an average Joe’s (i.e. me) point of view the program does work.
It is a slight pity that the application isn’t within everyone’s budget seeing as Rosetta Stone’s method of teaching one of the best methods of learning a foreign language quickly and without any dull textbooks. But if you are really serious (and you’ve got a spare $400 knocking about) then I would seriously recommend it to anyone.