Don’t Buy Rosetta Stone: TOTALe
by Liam Rosen
Rosetta Stone is a visual program. For those who have never used it, a typical screen looks like this:
You are presented with four pictures. Depending on the mode, you may be asked to repeat audio describing the picture, type text describing the picture, match pictures with text, or match pictures with audio. The new version, TOTALe, adds multiple things: after each lesson, you may schedule a video chat session with a native speaker, who walks you through the lesson, reviewing key terms, just like in a classroom. There are also six different games: one of them based on Concentration, some based on chatting, some based on describing pictures. You can play games solo or with partners.
I found the program woefully inadequate. Three reasons:
The theory of Rosetta Stone is based on how children learn their native language. They get no grammar lessons, there are no flash cards, they just learn. This is all true; the gap, however, comes when one applies this theory to adults. We are simply not capable of learning languages like children. Our brains are too advanced, too stuck in our native languages, and too developed. It is possible for us to learn this way, it’s just slow.
This theory was the most frustrating part of my Rosetta Stone experience. It is incredibly laborious to learn grammatical concepts through pictures and limited text. Often, when learning a new concept, I asked myself “Okay, I understand that this is correct – but WHY?” Just taking one glance at a grammar textbook could have given me the answer I needed in less than a minute, yet learning a grammatical concept (like adjective endings in German) could take up to two hours of intense study in Rosetta Stone. For example in Dutch, “zullen” is a conditional marker for verbs (would be, would do, etc.) but also means should. I was able to figure this out by referring to a Dutch grammar website, but I don’t know if I ever would have gotten it if I had just used Rosetta Stone to try and learn it. Introduction of grammatical concepts inside Rosetta Stone often leads to frustration at not being able to learn the theory behind why a language feature exists.
The program itself
Not only is the theory fundamentally flawed, the program is so simplistic that I can’t believe the company employs as many people as it does. The stock photography (mostly taken near the company headquarters in Virginia) is used across the board in every language. This means you can be learning what a house looks like in Chinese and be seeing an American house. In a critical review, a learner using the Russian version remarked that one of the pictures prominently featured paper towels as part of a concept, but noted that in Russia, no one would know what a paper towel was. It is difficult to make semantic connections in other languages when a fat African-American man, an Asian woman, and a white teenager are smiling in a soccer field, “speaking” in Gaelic.
The program is also incredibly repetitive and simplistic. I often found myself reviewing flash cards in another window, because the interface takes too long to switch between scenes. At the start and end of every lesson, the program makes you repeat the word for goodbye TWICE, something which is completely unnecessary. I only need to learn the word for goodbye once, and I’ll know it forever. But if you’re going at the program’s pace, you’re going to need to repeat it every thirty minutes. One time, I completed a set of cards, and the next screen was the same set of cards, as a “review”. Additionally, I found that 90% of the time when I got an answer wrong, it was because I was unsure of what the picture should represent. For example, when the person inside the picture is talking, a small speech bubble is drawn to the text. When not, the same text stays, but without the speech bubble. This leads to confusion as to whether you should use the first or third person when responding to the program’s query. There are also situations where multiple answers are possible, but the program only accepts one.
The price tag
$999. For basically a couple thousand screens with pictures and audio. Plus, this only grants you access to the program for one year.
The bottom line
Rosetta Stone have created a brand name. When you think of language learning, you think of Rosetta Stone first. The brand has such incredible equity that people don’t even realize that they just spent $400 for something they’ll likely use for three weeks, get bored, and quit. It is possible to learn languages with Rosetta Stone. But for the price, it’s not worth it. Anyone could learn a language in half the time with a grammar reference, flash card program, YouTube videos, and a web forum. If you would like suggestions for any of these things, that might be a Facebook note for another time.
If after reading all this, you still want to try it out, please don’t pay for it. Just use BitTorrent. Until the company can deliver a quality product, they don’t deserve your money.