Thursday, May 30, 2013

Rosetta Stone Version 4: French, and a little Mandarin, Review

The Magic of Languages
There is a magic to communicating with someone in her native language. We've all seen it: a person who lacks fluency, or even struggles, with a English turns around and speaks in her native tongue with a vibrancy you'd never have thought possible.

Living in a very diverse city with numerous immigrants, many of who speak English as their second or third tongue, I have spent my entire life seeing this event play out on a daily basis. If you've ever visited a foreign country, chances are that you can empathize. Speaking in a tongue you do not believe you are fluent in can sap your confidence and make you feel small. Pick up the phone to call home, your voice suddenly comes to life, you smile, you laugh, and you speak with strength.

My Failings with Language

One post ago, I went into this occurrence and the importance of language in detail. To reiterate, I have some facility with three languages with one obviously being English and another being French. The latter of which was studied for seven years in elementary school, yet my skill level is still that of a first grader. I have tried self-study through exercise books, novels, television, and general reading with limited success. To make things a bit more interesting and to try something different, I decided to splurge on Rosetta Stone language learning software.
Rosetta Stone Unpackaging
Rosetta Stone: French with Levels 1-5 Version 4
Regular Price: US$ 499

I paid $400 during a sale and I've been receiving numerous marketing materials after signing up my email for pretty significant discounts. At the time of writing, the French version is on sale for US$ 349 and I've seen it for as low as about US$ 320.

First things first: sorry, but no screenshots. I really don't feel like getting a copyright violation email despite "fair use". Just check out the official website's literature and demo. Also, the first part of this review is a description of what the software's about rather than a critique. You will see some tidbits of critiquing throughout, but I tried to save most of it for the end. I will also throw in bits about the Mandarin package when convenient to illustrate points.

Rosetta Stone Microphone
Rosetta Stone: An Overview
You may recognize the name from the numerous infomercials and 30 second spots on television for the software. Or you may have just heard about the historic Rosetta Stone, which was a stone tablet found to contain the same script in three languages: known and unknown at the time of discovery. It became the key to deciphering the unknown one, which was written Egyptian. Pretty clever name.

The software is an interactive package that allows a user to practice reading, writing, listening, and speaking a language. In the French package, there are five levels with four units each. Each unit is further broken down into about five lessons with a few dozen exercises including a varying number of activities. I believe the five levels configuration is the common setup with the more "popular" packs like English, Spanish, and Mandarin. Other languages available may have one to three levels, last I checked.

Take a look yourself to see what's available and check out the free short online trial. At the time of writing, there are over 20 language packs available.

Purchasing and Installation

Language packs should be available for purchase as either a physical CD-ROM or through online download. And each level should be for sale separately. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method of purchase, so check the official website before deciding on which to get. From my experience with buying French physically and Mandarin digitally, the biggest differences were the inclusion of a microphone and discs in the physical copy -- double check the official website in case I'm missing something. Both of my copies allow for each license key to be used on two separate computers.

There has also been an online, subscription based license available for some time. Both of my packages came with three month trials to the online product. From what I remember, you still get a time based subscription that includes all five language levels standard in the "normal" product. However, additional features include access to paid tutors who speak the languages natively, online games to practice with other Rosetta Stone users, chat rooms, etc. I didn't really bother with this, so do your own research.

For the digital download, I was very impressed, especially not having to swap discs five or six times throughout the process. With the CD-ROM package, I began by installing the base Rosetta Stone software, then added the five language levels located on separate discs one at a time. This was a bit tedious and I wish they would have just put it on a single DVD. However, seeing as how they sell the levels separately, it makes sense from their perspective to just print everything on CDs. Levels could then be packaged separately depending on the product (e.g. single level, levels 1-3, or levels 1-5).

Update: I ran into a 4111 error in a level of the French package. This error reported when a few exercises did not work or load resulting in lessons that couldn't be completed. There are official directions on how to fix it online, but they didn't work for me. What did partially work (fixed some, not others) was removing the individual level with issues and reinstalling from the CD.

Basic Setup: Levels and Lessons

What do you get for over $300?

Below is a list of some of the level and unit names in my French package:

  • Level 1, Unit 1: Language Basics
  • Level 1, Unit 2: Greetings and Introductions,
  • Level 2, Unit 1: Travel
  • Level 3, Unit 1: Home and Health
  • Level 4, Unit 1: Tourism and Recreation
  • Level 5, Unit 1: Business and Industry
  • Level 5, Unit 4: Family and Community
As you can see, the software's learning plan is structured to introduce the basics at the beginning, and then it moves on to more advanced topics.

So far, I've only gone through level 1 on the French version. Topics covered have included colours, numbers, basic locations, questions, everyday items, how to ask and answer questions, and other conversation basics. Sentences were relatively short with few adjectives and adverbs. If I had to match it to a k-12 grade, I'd say it's around the kindergarten to grade 2-ish level of difficulty.

There are about four core lessons and one milestone lesson per unit. From my experience with level 1, each lesson introduces new material with a mix of older material that helps to reinforce previous teachings. Lessons include, off the top of my head, around 30-40 activities each. And finally, each lesson is supported by a varying number of exercises to support the core lesson. These exercises have around 10-20 activities a piece.

Exercises and Learning Style

Supporting exercises are generally broken down into multiple choice, fill in the blank, speaking, and typing activities. The meat of the Rosetta Stone experience, the activities, is based on matching photos with words.

For example, you can have a picture of a person pointing to a blue ball, and your task would be to choose the write answer from four choices (e.g. "This is a blue ball."). Another activity may be a fill in the blank with the same photo, and you would choose the word "blue" or "ball" out a list of three or four words. Later on, it may be necessary to type out the entire phrase from scratch when you're giving the picture. Spoken exercises could require repeating a word or phrase into a microphone after listening to the software. The software checks your pronunciation and there is a feedback meter to indicate how far or close you are, which should help with fine tuning your speaking.

An exercise usually focuses on items such as vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, speaking, listening, and pronunciation. Every so often, old exercises are pulled and repeated for review. Each exercise usually contains a mix of activity types. However, I've found that pronunciation and writing exercises focus on, duh, listening and speaking, and writing activities.

All of the photos that I've experienced in level 1 thus far have been high quality. Yes, there are actors using blue/green screens or fake backgrounds, but they look good and do their job, for the most part. Occasionally, it can get confusing as to exactly what is being asked or shown because the photo is ambiguous. These occurrences are in the minority from what I've seen -- honestly, I can't tell if it's because my language faculty stinks or if it's the picture. If I had $400 to blow on Rosetta Stone English, I could probably put together a much better assessment and review.

There are different "difficulty" settings for things like grammar, course material, and spoken accent and tone matching. I haven't played around with different settings much, so I can't tell you the difference between them.

How well does Rosetta Stone work? My experience.

Hopefully, the mass of text above gives you an idea of what the Rosetta Stone software is like, and you've given the online demo a shot. If not, here we go anyways.

The first thing I noticed when I fired this thing up was the clean, professional looking, and intuitive interface. This included both the menus and the actual activities. The learning curve was very short for me and I got going quickly without having to read a manual or take a long tutorial.

Once I got down the going through the activities, I felt engaged by the mix of activities. They were honestly "fun". As time wore on, it wasn't as "fun" and it felt more like school, but I haven't felt like it was a major chore half a year and two levels (one Mandarin, one French) later. Everything builds on previous exercises, it doesn't feel like a final semester exam, it is possible to review and repeat things any time, and there is no fixed pace.

I will note that my French ability was somewhat competent before starting this software, so it did make things easier. However, I knew nothing about Mandarin and my experience was mostly similar, but things were definitely harder and I felt more frustration. Having gone through the French lessons first helped a lot by knowing what answers to look for and what the pictures were supposed to mean. The difficulty and one's experience probably depends on the language itself as much as one's competency. For example, French, Spanish, and English share words and some structure due to Latin and a shared alphabet. Asian languages share virtually nothing with completely different sounding words and tones, and no alphabet to sound things out using.

Out of that frustration, I noted that it would be very useful if an English translation was available on demand with the pictures during activities. Again, my French is somewhat competent, so I came up with this idea while using the Mandarin package. Somewhere I read or heard that the core of Rosetta Stone's presentation and learning style is an attempt to match the way kids first learn their very first language (i.e. word association with images and actions since they have nothing to fall back on). However, this is software marketed as much at adults as it is to kids. Translations are amazingly useful as long as you know one other language well. I very much like the way the software works as is, but a translation might be able to make things even better.

The learning style has been effective without translations. All that's required is to go through exercises in more detail and to redo some of them. With Mandarin, I knew next to nothing and can now form some basic sentences. My listening ability stinks, reading and writing ability is next to non-existent, but I am beginning to recognize words, and I can pick up some words here and there.

And while we're on the topic of repetition, one of the greatest strengths of this software is the ability to repeat, especially spoken words. For the price of clicking an icon over and over again, it is possible to hear the same phrase or word spoken ad infinitum. Try that with a tutor or an instructor in front of a class full of students and let me know how that goes. There is a built in voice analyzer that helps you to practice your pronunciation, but while it works, I've been able to mumble and get passing grades -- this was done using the included microphone. The ability to work at any pace in privacy is the greatest perk of this software in my view. This feature has allowed me to pick up on nuances in pronunciation and work on my listening ability by differentiating words out of sentences. Otherwise, I'd have to rewind a tape or video repeatedly.


About six months and two language packs later, I can say that I am pretty impressed and would recommend Rosetta Stone without much reservation -- I would suggest you wait for a sale though. I haven't tried other language software packages, so I can't say if this one is better than others. What I can say is that it does appear to work for both beginners and those looking to brush up.

I don't think that it is an end all and be all for learning a language, but it should serve as one important tool out of many. Short of immersion, which involves living among native speakers, learning their culture, being corrected one hundred times a day, being forced to pull enough words together to get out of a bind, and having no alternative fall back, there is no single ultimate tool. And note how many individual "lessons" immersion involves. Without formal study in a school setting, even immersion may be inadequate to achieve fluency.

The point is that one should not expect the world out of Rosetta Stone. It's good, but I don't think it's possible to learn a language doing one thing alone. If you're trying to justify the cost, look into how much a tutor, other software packages, and formal courses at your local college cost. Last I checked, neither tutors nor college courses are cheap. My knowledge of other software platforms is lacking, so do your own research. All I know is that I am more than satisfied with Rosetta Stone and think that it is worth a shot.

Related Stuff:

Rosetta Stone: Anthropology and an Intro to Rosetta Stone: French
Rosetta Stone Version 4: Mandarin Review
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