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PRACTICAL RESULTS vs PERSONAL OPINIONS
The purpose of my experiment, as I said in the first post of my blog (The Challenge), was to show PRACTICAL RESULTS of Rosetta Stone without making any kind of judgment. I tried to report exactly what Rosetta Stone was doing to me without expressing whether that was good or not. I did this because, as I said, it’s very hard indeed to find this kind of information on the internet – most Rosetta Stone reviews express very personal opinions and tastes that sometimes are really far from practical. Of course there are some very good reviews out there and my own opinion was influenced by them – so not everything I’ll mention here is new.
But it's rare to find testimonials of people who have finished all the five levels saying exactly what Rosetta Stone can do. For example, I have never found a single video of a person demonstrating the language knowledge acquired with this course. So that’s what I did. (Click here to watch.)
But now that I have finished the course, I have experienced more closely the good, the bad and the ugly of Rosetta Stone. So I guess it would be nice to share my opinion with you readers.
NO GRAMMAR AND NO TRANSLATION – GOOD OR BAD?
François Gouin and the traditional method
What if you tried to learn a foreign language by memorizing thousands of words from the dictionary, all the rules from a grammar book and then translated classical literature? What would the results be? Would you ever accept this challenge? A French linguist from the 19th century, François Gouin, did it! His goal was to learn German, so he went to Germany. But instead of talking to the Germans, first he memorized more than 200 irregular verbs, 30 thousand words from a dictionary, all the rules from a grammar book and finally translated Goethe and Schiller. Then he went to talk to people, but instead of answers, he received nothing but laughter. He could not speak or understand the language. Frustrated, he returned home, to France, and there he got more perplexed: in the same amount of time he was trying to learn German and failed, his baby nephew had learned to speak French fluently. This fact made him have an insight: by analyzing how his little nephew was learning French so well as a first language, he hypothesized that we can benefit from learning a second language in a similar way. François Gouin then became one of the pioneers in developing methods that simulate a more “natural” way of learning a foreign language.
Gouin was a Latin teacher, and in order to learn German he followed the same method he used to teach Latin: the grammar-translation method, the oldest and most traditional in language learning. This method had its importance: to prepare the student to read and translate literature. But, as we can see from Gouin’s experience, this way of learning does very little in developing the student’s ability to communicate in the language.
Rosetta Stone is the total opposite of that: no grammar, no translation, no student’s first language. Like François Gouin, the developers of Rosetta Stone believe that we can benefit from learning a foreign language in a similar way we learn our first language: by associating the language directly to concepts and experiences, without any instruction or other language mediating the process, just by using our intuition.
Grammar and language analysis
I’m a language teacher. On the first day of an Esperanto course I used to teach, a student asked me: “How are we going to learn Esperanto? First you’ll teach us the sounds, then the words, the grammar rules and finally the sentences, right?” - “Not really.” My student had the traditional notion of how languages should be taught: by analyzing grammar rules, structures and vocabulary – the ability to communicate would hopefully result from that.
Modern methods tend to work the other way around: to actually use the language in a meaningful situation and then analyze how it works. Rosetta Stone never brings such analysis. I believe that grammar explanations do very little in developing communication skills in the beginning of the learning process, but in more advanced levels, they become essential to continue the progress. But I don’t think that grammar and language analysis are a bad thing from the very first lesson as long as the communication element is always there.
Ask anyone who speaks more than one language fluently: “Do you have to translate things in your mind when you speak or try to understand the foreign language?” If you speak more than one language, you know that the answer is NO. If you speak a foreign language fluently and understand it well, it means that you are able to THINK DIRECTLY in the foreign language. Since my first language is Portuguese and I speak English as a second language, many people have asked me: “When you read in English, don’t you have to translate to Portuguese in your mind to be able to understand?” Well, if I tried to do that, for example while reading a book, I would spend an enormous amount of time and energy, so I doubt I would ever finish reading it. Or (who hasn’t gone through this situation!) watching a movie or listening to a song in a foreign language, and the person next to you says: TRANSLATE! (as if you were a translation machine) COME ON! DON’T YOU SAY YOU SPEAK THIS LANGUAGE?! - Little does this person know that translating and understanding are very different processes. Perhaps this notion was influenced by the traditional grammar-translation method. Being able to understand everything does not mean you are able to translate everything. Making a translation means that you have to think it up again in another language – and that may involve lots of aspects related to language structure, cultural context, etc.
Some modern methods still bring translations, but ultimately, to speak the language fluently you have to think directly in the language, that is, you have to associate words with their corresponding concepts without any translation. I’ve tried such methods – it’s a much faster way to understand a word or sentence simply by having its translation - it’s also a much faster way to forget! Just reading a translation is not as impacting as having to guess the meaning of a word or sentence by associating it with images.
After I finished Rosetta Stone, I started studying a book with grammar explanations and translations. As I read, I thought: “Oh… so this is what I was doing all this time!” So I had a feeling of reward because the explanations made so much sense for me and they were so easy to understand. These explanations would not make much sense and sure would be more difficult if I tried to understand them first thing without actually knowing how to use the language. And the translations served as a confirmation of my guesses.
MY VERDICT: Rosetta Stone’s having no grammar and no translation may be positive for some people starting to learn a language. Exhaustive grammar explanations do very little in developing a person’s ability to communicate, especially in the beginning. But at a more advanced point in the learning process, the learner will need to look for materials that bring grammar analysis to go further. The use of translation may be a more precise and faster and way to understand, but also a faster way to forget - having to guess the meaning of a word or sentence by associating it with images may have a greater impact in the memory. However, I can’t see any harm in using translations as a last tool to confirm what is difficult to guess.
DIFFERENT LEARNING STYLES – IS ROSETTA STONE FOR YOU?
Some people like to have everything explained explicitly right from the beginning. They don’t like the “guessing game” of Rosetta Stone in which you have to use your intuition to understand - they claim it would be much easier and faster to have things just explained. And if they don’t understand something, they get stuck and feel frustrated with the program – they will probably give up.
I myself hate having to read or try to understand explanations especially when I don’t know the language very much. I prefer to USE THE LANGUAGE rather than analyze how it works. I’m not really interested in knowing why things work this or that way when I actually haven’t seen them working at all. I prefer to make things work first, and then learn how they work. For me, having grammar explanations when I actually cannot use the language is like learning how the motor of car runs without actually knowing how to drive. I prefer to drive first.
Guessing game: love it or hate it!
I like to see the learning process as a game in which I have to put together the pieces of a puzzle, only using my intuition to decode the language. I will work harder this way to have my reward: the understanding. If I don’t understand something, I just go ahead and try to understand later. I don’t feel any frustration because I’m sure I’ll understand at some point in time, also I don’t believe I need to understand everything. But when I finally understand, it is so much rewarding that it will be hard to forget! I feel more challenged this way than just having things given away. I can’t see much challenge or reward in just having some straight explanation given to me. That probably won’t cause much impact in my mind and I’ll easily forget. Straight explanations take away the fun of the “guessing game”. But that doesn’t match everyone’s learning styles - some people just hate to play that game.
VERDICT: If you like to have everything clear and well explained right from the beginning, you will probably hate Rosetta Stone. But if you don’t like explanations and prefer to use your intuition to decode the language, Rosetta Stone is for you.
WHAT ROSETTA STONE LACKS
As I said so far, Rosetta Stone lacks grammar explanations and translation. But this can actually be something positive depending on the person’s learning style. Now I’ll mention things that Rosetta Stone lacks that cannot be positive for any learner.
No immediate focus on conversation
If you are going to a foreign country, say, next month, and just want to learn some key sentences to communicate, I wouldn’t recommend Rosetta Stone. The program won’t teach you essential sentences for conversation right from the beginning. So if you are looking forward to learning such sentences right away, this course isn’t for you.
In the beginning, you will learn things like: the sky is blue, the grass is green, the ball is red, the boy is running, the woman is swimming, etc. Such sentences aren’t very useful for a conversation, but they show grammar and vocabulary in a simple way and sooner or later you will have to come across them if you want to learn more than just basic conversation.
VERDICT: The first few lessons of Rosetta Stone don’t focus on conversation. Instead, they bring simple sentences to introduce grammar and vocabulary notions. So if you don’t mind learning these things before learning essential sentences for conversation, maybe you’ll enjoy the program. Anyway, you will sure practice conversation in future lessons - so this cannot be considered an absolutely negative point of the course.
No cultural aspects
As many people point out, this is one of the biggest problems of Rosetta Stone. They use the same set of pictures for different languages. So you’ll learn Italian, for example, looking at pictures from the United States, mostly I guess. Then you’ll move on to French, or German, and you’ll see that the pictures and situations are the same. When we learn a language, generally we are also interested in knowing about the culture associated with that language: the food, the clothes, the places, the monuments, the religion, the ideas, the habits, etc. You will not learn any of these with Rosetta Stone.
VERDICT: The developers or Rosetta Stone definitely failed when they overlooked cultural aspects related to each language. But this is not a major problem for those who intend to supplement their study with other materials that are culturally relevant.
No authentic material in the language
With Rosetta Stone, you will only be in contact with a very strictly controlled spoken language and artificial dialogues recorded in a studio. You will never be in contact with authentic material where the language presents itself in real life. When we study a new language, it’s very important that we get used to authentic material, because this is where we’re are really going to use the language: reading real texts from magazines, newspapers, internet… watching videos, movies, the news… talking to real people. We study a new language to use it in real life, right? So we need to learn it with samples extracted from real contexts. Of course we can benefit a lot in learning the basics from an artificially controlled language sample, but in more advanced studies we get to a point where being in contact with authentic material is the only way to achieve a high level of proficiency. The limited structure and method of RS does not permit such approach.
VERDICT: Rosetta Stone only brings a strictly controlled language recorded in a studio, which could be positive to learn the basics. It never brings authentic material, which is essential to reach a higher level of proficiency.
No colloquialisms or idioms
With Rosetta Stone, you’ll never learn idiomatic expressions and other similar peculiarities from the language and culture you are interested in. Colloquial language or informal language is what people use most of the time in their normal everyday lives with their family members and friends.
After I finished Rosetta Stone, I moved on to other material, and I learned idioms like the following from the beginning:
- Grazie mille (literally: thank you a thousand times) – thanks a lot.
- Siamo al verde (literally: we are in the green) – we have no money.
- Il film è un giallo (literally: The movie is a yellow) – The movie is a thriller/detective story. A famous publishing house in Italy started publishing a collection of detective stories in books with yellow covers. So the word for “yellow” (giallo) refers today to this kind of story.
- Lei recita maledettamente bene. - Literally: She acts “terribly” well... that is, she is extraordinary.
This is the kind of language people use in real situations and which you may be very interested in learning. Rosetta Stone will never bring you those, since all courses are mere translations from one another, so it cannot deal with such language peculiarities. You will only learn the formal language.
VERDICT: Not teaching idiomatic expressions is another major negative point of Rosetta Stone. Again, supplementation with other materials become necessary.
IS ROSETTA STONE WORTH THE MONEY?
Rosetta Stone may be very expensive comparing to other language softwares. But, comparing it to what language schools and what private teachers charge, at least where I live, it does not seem that expensive.
The online course in Brazil is being sold at R$849,00 for 12 months – with online practice with a native speaker. I contacted a language school in my city just this week and asked about their prices – the student will have to pay exactly R$1238,00 for one level or school semester (four months of study, two classes of 1h15min per week). Private teachers charge from R$30,00 to R$50,00 per hour. In the end of the day, Rosetta Stone costs a fraction of that. Of course these are very different kinds of learning experiences – so it’s necessary to balance the pros and cons of each.
VERDICT: Rosetta Stone is expensive comparing to other language softwares, but not so expensive compared to what language schools and private teachers charge.
IS ROSETTA STONE THE FASTEST WAY TO LEARN A LANGUAGE?
I spent around 130 hours (in five months) to finish all five levels of the course. But is this time really worth it? I do believe there are faster ways to learn a language (and less expensive too). But how many hours of study are necessary to learn a language? "Cambridge ESOL said that each level is reached with the following guided learning hours: A2, 180–200; B1, 350–400; B2, 500–600; C1, 700–800, and C2, 1,000–1,200". Wikipedia
Considering we need more than 1000 hours of study to speak a language really well (reaching level C1 or C2), I can say the results with Rosetta Stone were satisfactory after 130 hours, because I can communicate in the language, and my test results reflect what is expected from the program (Level B1 entering B2 according to the developers of the course). Of course we have to consider that these online tests which I took may not be very reliable, also my native language is Portuguese, so probably I'd need less time to reach a certain level of Italian than an English native speaker would need. But by studying less than one hour per day, it's possible to finish the course in five months (following the standard curriculum). Who doesn't have one hour a day to study? Five months is a short time. So I guess the biggest issue is not really the "time", it's all about discipline - that's the most difficult thing (at least for me!).
VERDICT: Cambridge ESOL said that we need from 180 to 200 hours of study to reach level A2. I finished Rosetta Stone in 130 hours and did well in exams of level B1 and B2. So I have to say this amount of time was satisfactory.
CAN I RECOMMEND ROSETTA STONE?
As we can see, Rosetta Stone has several shortcomings, but we can make up to all of them by looking for other materials to enrich our learning. So I wouldn’t recommend that people study solely with Rosetta Stone. I can recommend it as a start. After finishing it or even while studying it, you have to be ready to look for other materials.
So if you don’t intend to look for a supplementation later, maybe you should look for something more complete: something that brings more dialogues, texts, explanations and cultural aspects. Video courses are generally the best: you will see the actors simulating real life situations you are likely to encounter in the language-speaking world you may want to take part.
Homeschool (for parents)
I recommend Rosetta Stone for parents who want their children to learn a new language. The program is easy to follow without a guide or a teacher, so you don’t need any experience in teaching. Your only job will be to get your children to sit in front of the computer and hit the start button. The program will do the rest. The activities are very intuitive, so hopefully there is very little need of instructions on how to do them. The program generates a detailed study report, so parents can always keep track of their children’s progress, their grades and how much time they spent on each activity. So there is no way children can skip things or pretend they are studying.
However, I wouldn’t recommend it for very small kids, but rather for young teens. I have a teenage niece who lives with me and I am making her study English for about 30 minutes a day. At first, she didn’t want to study, even after trying to explain to her about the importance of it. So I decided to cut out what apparently she can’t live without: the internet. I changed the wifi code every day and only gave it to her after she finished the Rosetta Stone activities I assigned. It was her choice: no study, no internet! Well, she is already in the middle of level 2 – at this point she’s got used to it and I don’t even need to ask her to study nor do I have to cut the internet. At first she was mad – today she comes to me and proudly says she is one of the best students in her English class at school.
VERDICT: Rosetta Stone may be a good start. So I can only recommend it for those who will be ready to supplement their learning with other materials. It’s also a good tool for parents who want to
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