Don’t Buy Rosetta Stone: TOTALe

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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:

Theory

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.

12 Responses to “Don’t Buy Rosetta Stone: TOTALe”

  1. Chris Van Vechten Chris Van Vechten Says:

    I disagree on the point that adults cannot learn foreign languages as native children learn, without flashcards etc. I certainly failed 3 years of french in high school, and 1 month of Spanish in college because I could not apply verb conjugations to my long-term memory. I dropped out of UPS, went to Puebla Mexico, moved in with a non-English speaking host family, and enrolled in the Spanish Institute of Puebla. After two weeks, I was – again – at the bottom of my class, because even in Mexico they wanted to teach me verb conjugations and not how to read bus routes so that I could get back to my host family in less than 6 hours. So I dropped out again, hired a private “tutor” for $3 an hour and took long walks with her around the city. 3 months later, I returned to the US, took the UPS Spanish proficiency exam, and pro-ed out of Spanish. I admit, I did use flash cards and a dictionary while down there, and I wasn’t totally divorced from grammar instruction. I read a lot of newspapers and watched movies, but it was largely trial and error.

    I agree that online languages courses tend to be seriously flawed and not particularly relevant and this seems true of TOTALe based on your description. Additionally, $999 is a rip-off, you could spend 2 months in Mexico for that and learn far more (look at the costs without instruction)
    http://www.sipuebla.com/costs.htm

    Reply

  2. Liam Rosen Liam Rosen Says:

    Chris,

    That’s a brilliant story! I never knew that you dropped out of UPS to go to Mexico.

    I think at the end of the day, it depends on what type of learner you are. I certainly lead towards the side of grammar charts when I want to find something out. I realize most people aren’t that way.

    I still think that minimal grammar clarification is needed when learning a language, and I feel that by excluding it entirely, Rosetta Stone is doing language learners a large disservice. To use my “zullen” example in Dutch above, a short note that “this can mean should and is also a conditional marker” would have sufficed, but instead they deliberately talk around the subject using pictures. It’s definitely possible to learn grammar through immersion after a while, but the time spent doing this would be much better used by cracking open a textbook every once in a while.

    Reply

  3. Krain Krain Says:

    Bravo!
    Nicely said. Couldn’t have described it better myself. Have you seen their commercials? Anyone who tells you that those testimonials are either not actors or not being paid by RS is giving you one huge steaming pile of BS. It’s a horrible program, with an equal horrible price tag. I think those small minority of people who defend it (assuming they don’t already work for Rosetta) are subconsciously attempting to justify their own stupidity for spending over FIVE HUNDRED dollars for this P.O.S. Looks like their stock isnt doing too well either. From $30 at initial public offering over 2 years ago to currently under $8. That’s not even to mention all the other free and sane options out there. Rest in peace, Rosetta. Your time is almost up.

    Reply

  4. Aussum Aussum Says:

    Wow dude. This was a damn good review and spot on actually. The program is sooooo garbage. They are so lucky to have that brand name though. If I had a crappy product that dominated a niche advertising arena. I know I’d be raking in the dough.

    Reply

  5. Angie Angie Says:

    So… is there something comparable that any would recommend? Specifically for younger audiences.

    Reply

  6. Pedro Pedro Says:

    Guys,
    the post above and the comments that follow are extremely well-written and with well constructed compelling arguments. I sincerely agree with most of them, specially because I faced the same difficulties now and them with the program. However, overall I had a different experience.
    I am a Portuguese native speaker, therefore, after testing Rosetta’s courses on French, Spanish and Italian, it was a piece of cake, easy and fun. Plus with the audio companion, the knowledge got stuck in my head. I became nearly fluent in French after 3 months, and I didn’t go past Level 3. But, I have to consider that the proximity between those languages and my own put me halfway there.
    So, when I started the Russian coure, than I had a reality shock. It became really dense and tiresome to deal with all those cases and declensions (Russian Grammar is extremely complicated). The alphabet and the phonetic are the least of the difficulties. That’s when I realized that I would not be able to learn Russian by relying only on Rosetta. At this point, I continue to use Rosetta, but with the support of 2 Russian Grammar books that I have at hand while taking the course. It helps. But it did cause me a certain frustration like Liam Rose described, that in certain instances you can rely on the application alone. However, even when it is the case, I believe it’s still worth (the trouble and the time; not the money) it.

    Reply

  7. Pedro Pedro Says:

    To Angie,
    I can only say from my experience. If you have any familiarity with the language (either by similarity with another language in which you’re already fluent or because you’ve taken classes before), Rosetta Stone will be really worth your while. As you can see above, it’s very visual, and the knowledge builds intuitively, in a gradual immersion in the language.
    However, if you are a complete beginner in the language you want to learn, Rosetta Stone will be very time (and patience) consuming. It’s still doable, but in such case you’ll need to lower your expectations regarding time and productivity, because it will be more demanding and require external support, such as a reference book (dictionary and/or grammar).
    Good luck to you!

    To all, I’m just sharing a personal experience, with deep respect to any member with whom I might have disagreed.

    Best to all.

    Pedro.

    Reply

  8. Thomas Thomas Says:

    I used Rosetta Stone Totale online while on deployment in Afghanistan and when I returned 7 months later, I was able to read, write, understand, and speak a good amount of Hebrew. What I found is that it was frustrating not understanding the “Why?” on occasion but as you go forward the “Why?” reveals itself and that is when I did the most learning. Grammar and spelling and culture are incredibly different in Hebrew/Israel not to mention learning a completely new alphabet and I did just fine. Since then I have recommended Rosetta Stone to friends and look forward to starting another language. I think that if you get past the first few lessons and open your mind to not getting it completely at every step that the learning process will prove much more valuable than traditional language learning.

    Reply

  9. Samira Samira Says:

    Hi
    My name is samira

    Reply

  10. Charlie Charlie Says:

    I’ve recently returned to using Rosetta Stone after a period studying second language acquisition theory and during every pause when the screen changes, my brain is asking why the hell I’m sat here doing this. It’s owes a lot to audio-lingualism, an approach that fell out of favour over half a century ago in academic circles but still has a lot of influence in classrooms. So I’m wondering what theoretical basis it does have. Certainly the Rosetta Stone approach is NOT how children learn their mother tongue. In any case, children get maybe 12 hours of exposure to their mother tongue every day for several years. I don’t have that much time! Some research suggests that adults are actually more efficient language learners than children because we use our more advanced analytical skills to work out how the language works. What I can’t believe about Rosetta Stone is how slow it is – its like doing a language version of Groundhog Day, forever repeating what I just did. Yes, the grammar may eventually emerge, but, yes, checking out a grammar reference is far quicker. I’m trying to learn Russian which, as another poster commented, has complicated grammar. One lesson in RS was trying to make me see the difference between the normal and reflexive personal pronouns, but I didn’t see it, so I looked it up and got it. Children aren’t so good at this, so it seems that Rosetta Stone is just forcing adults to avoid using our strengths in favour of a supposedly child-like approach which is not even based on reality.

    Instead, I went to a Russian website with some simple texts and quickly learned a lot more words including – importantly – some adverbs, connectives and prepositions, the kinds of words that Rosetta Stone avoids in the early stages but which are vital to language comprehension and language use.

    I’ll abandon RS’s ‘fun’, ‘visual’ ‘easy to use’ but bloody boring approach in favour of something messier but more effective: texts, videos and a bit of chat.

    Reply

  11. Adam Adam Says:

    I’m not saying that Rosetta Stone is a great program and worth the money, but just from quickly reading your review, it’s obvious to me that you only completed a very tiny fraction of the program, in fact, you didn’t even get past the first 4 lessons. Here are my problems with the review:

    1. You are not always presented with 4 pictures. For a start, the amount varies, but there are also milestones which are structured differently. I bet you didn’t even get to the first milestone.
    2. You don’t schedule a Rosetta Studio session after each lesson, you schedule one after each unit.
    3. While the pictures are often the same between languages, sometimes different pictures are used.
    4. There’s something wrong with your computer/internet connection or maybe it was a problem with Rosetta Stone during the short time you were using it, but the program should only take a couple of seconds to transition to the next screen, no where near enough time to review flashcards.
    5. The program DOES NOT ask you to repeat ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’ at the start and end of every lesson, they only do that for the first 4 lessons, so you clearly didn’t get any further.
    6. I have never, ever come across a situation where more than one picture is possible. It’s your misunderstanding of the sentence if you find this is the case.
    7. $999 – This price is woefully out of date, it’s much less now.

    Please get your facts right and use the program for more than a few hours before posting a review.

    Reply

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