This is a review of the language-learning software called Rosetta Stone. This review focuses on the Complete Course retail box version of my chosen language, Swedish, but Rosetta Stone software is available for a long list of languages including: French, Spanish, English (British or American flavour), Italian, German, Arabic, Mandarin, Greek, Hindi, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, and a few others.
The Rosetta Stone concept is the same for all of the languages, so this review should be of some interest regardless of which language course interests you.
The idea behind Rosetta Stone software is that you are immersed in your chosen language, with absolutely no translation or reference to your native language. Your link to understanding the alien sounds and words is imagery: photographs of objects and scenes, each of which you must link to a word, sentence, or paragraph presented to you.
For example, one of the early lessons will include a page which shows you six photographs such that each image focuses on a single colour. Then at the top of the window a word will appear which represents one of these colours, and a voice will speak that word to you. Now you must click on the photograph which matches that word. At first you must simply take a wild guess: if you're correct you'll move on to the next word; if not you'll keep guessing until you find the match. The thinking seems to be that you'll learn more from your mistakes than you would from simply being given the answer, and that associating a new word with an image is more powerful than giving a translation into your native tongue.
This concept is used throughout, and the Complete Course contains three levels, each containing four units, and each unit contains around thirty lessons of different types:
Each lesson has several pages of photographs and at the end of each lesson you'll be given a score. If your score is below a certain percentage you'll be prompted to retry the lesson, again learning from your mistakes. If your score is suitably high then you'll be prompted to move on to the next lesson. If it's been a few months since you last completed a lesson then you will also be prompted to revisit that lesson in what Rosetta Stone calls "Adaptive Recall", helping to refresh your knowledge of words and grammar that you might have forgotten over time.
Rosetta Stone is available in three formats: online subscription, desktop download, and retail box. This review is based on the retail box which provides the desktop version on a set of CDs, and also includes a bundled USB headset, plus a CD which includes an "Audio Companion" collection of MP3 audio files. The desktop and retail box purchases give you an enduring licence for up to five people (within the same household) to use the software on a compatible Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac computer.
The online subscription gives a one or two year licence for one person to use Rosetta Stone through any compatible web browser, and also adds premium services such as live group tutoring with a native speaker and language-related games and mobile apps. Having purchased the retail box version, I have no experience with the online version or its premium services.
It looks like Rosetta Stone is moving away from the retail box version, as their website only offers the online subscription and desktop download versions for purchase. (The retail box can still [December 2015] be found at third-party vendors such as Amazon.)
I started the Rosetta Stone Swedish Complete Course late last year and reached the final unit after six months. I was taking a very casual approach, but I reckon someone strongly motivated could complete the course in three months or less (which would mean completing one unit each week, one level each month).
It's very easy to get started, with Unit 1 (Level 1) beginning with single terms such as "a woman" and "a man" in one lesson, and items such as "bread" and "tea" in another, and you simply have to click on the photo which matches the text, or vice versa. As mentioned above, Rosetta Stone never translates anything into your native tongue, so in fact "bread" is never, ever mentioned in the Swedish course, only ever the Swedish word "bröd", and rather than "a woman" you will only ever see "en kvinna". And always there will be clear photographs to associate the new words with something you recognise.
I found it very enjoyable to complete a core lesson and learn new words and structures. Once you have a few words in your vocabulary you'll find that when new words are introduced it will be easy to guess which is the matching image, because your existing knowledge allows you to rule out the other photos. For example, the new word might be presented in a sentence involving a man, and only one of the photos will show a man. Then you can study that photo to understand what new object or action that man is demonstrating, so when you proceed to the next page of photos you'll have a good idea of what this new word means.
This step-by-step introduction of new concepts means you should find that you're rarely lost, though it does occasionally happen that your only option is to take a wild guess and learn by trial and error. Either way, this sort of deduction helps to create a clear association in your mind. And the lessons which follow the core lesson repeat these tests (in different ways, depending on the lesson type) to burn the new ideas into memory.
In fact, I was surprised by how well the process worked in storing new vocabulary. Despite each core lesson introducing a number of new terms, I could recall almost all of them days later, and would wander around with the Swedish words popping into my head as I encountered items in the real world. This sort of recall has usually eluded me when I've tried to learn vocabulary from a language teaching book (which simply translates foreign words and lists them in a table on the page). The image association process does seem very effective.
The speaking lessons will present you with familiar text and wait for you to speak that word or sentence. A speech recognition feature judges whether or not you have spoken the expected text correctly. In later lessons some tests will simply show you a pair of photos, one with lead-in text, and the second without, and you must speak the sentence which fits the second picture. In most cases it's obvious what the missing sentence is, but if you fail to find the correct text three or four times then the text will be displayed above the image so that you can simply speak the words.
The speech recognition feature is useful but certainly not flawless. It's not always able to tell when you say the wrong word or the wrong sound, and mostly seems to judge your speech on the number of syllables uttered. So you can say completely the wrong thing and still be judged correct. Equally, you can say exactly the right thing and have one or two words marked in grey to show that the speech recognition did not judge that you said them clearly or accurately. (For some reason, it would usually judge that I was failing to pronounce the word "här" correctly, no matter how I said it.)
Even with the quirks of the speech recognition feature, the speaking lessons are important because they force you to get into the habit of forming sounds and sentences in your chosen language, and offer a crude measure of feedback to help you hit the right rhythm. If you want to compare your effort with the native speaker's then you can click on the audio-wave symbol and you'll be taken to an audio comparison page where you can vary the speed of the native speaker's audio clip, play back the sound of your own speech, and see how the waveform of your speech compares in shape.
One thing that was less impressive was the headset which came included in the Rosetta Stone retail box. While the headset does function as a pair of headphones and a microphone, it's pretty ropey in quality. Instead of using this headset, I switched to separate headphones and a dedicated microphone.
While the speaking lessons are fairly lax, the writing lessons are very strict. You're expected to type in the word or sentence that matches the current image, and any spelling or typographic error will lead to that answer being judged incorrect. For this reason, the writing lessons were pretty much the only lesson type I found myself having to repeat because of a low score on the first attempt.
If you hunt through the Rosetta Stone settings you can choose how strict the writing lessons are. You can tell it to ignore the difference between lower-case and upper-case letters; and/or ignore the difference between accents and diacritics (so that you could type "a" when in fact "å" was correct); and/or ignore punctation marks. I'd recommend turning off the checking of punctation marks, because it's annoying to be marked incorrect simply because you've used a period when an exclamation mark was expected. But leave the accent and diacritic checking enabled, because these letters are fundamentally different, so it's good practice to think about the correct spelling of the words you're learning.
The text entry in the writing lessons is different to your usual keyboard layout, with some keys remapped to include letters found in your chosen language. For example, in the Swedish course three of the symbol keys have been remapped to become the Swedish letters 'å', 'ä', and 'ö'. There is also a graphic diagram of a keyboard which you can click to type in a letter, and I often found myself using this graphic keyboard because I could not initially work out where certain letters or symbols were being remapped by the software. (This problem is likely worse for me because I use a non-standard keyboard with a non-standard keyboard layout, so keys are not where most people or software applications expect them to be.)
Between the strictness and the challenge of typing certain letters and symbols, the writing lessons are probably the most arduous of the lesson types in the Rosetta Stone course. But it's another important process because it engages your brain and makes you recall the spelling of the words you have learnt and used in other lessons, often revealing that you've had the wrong spelling in mind previously.
After you complete the tests on a page the default behaviour is for Rosetta Stone to automatically take you to the next page. This can be a nuisance if you want the chance to examine the answers (which are shown above each image when you complete a page) but you can visit the settings and turn off the auto-next feature to require you to click on the arrow at the bottom of the window to advance to the next page. This gives you a chance to peruse the answers, which is handy for the longer sentences which come in the later units. However, as soon as you complete the final page of a lesson the scoreboard appears and covers up the answers, and it would be nice to have the option to avoid this and make the final page clearly visible at the end of the lesson.
Another minor bugbear is that many photographs relate to text in the first-person ("I am", "I want", etc) and so the photo has a speech-bubble type of speech arrow pointing to the person in the photo who is doing the talking. In photos with a bright background this white arrow often becomes almost invisible, so you don't realise you're looking for a text option in the first-person, and you might wrongly pick a third-person answer ("she is", "he wants", etc). So it would be nice to see a future version of Rosetta Stone add a fine black outline to the speech arrow, to make it clearly visible against a bright background.
The milestone which ends each unit starts off fairly easy, but can be a little tricky in later units. The milestone tends to be a slideshow of photos which form a story (for example, a couple getting ready to go to a parade, then meeting people at the parade, and so on). Usually you must speak the text which goes with the current photo, using the question from the previous photo, or the response in the following photo, as your guide. Most of the time it's fairly clear what you are expected to say, but a number of times it felt like there were numerous perfectly reasonable responses and guessing the correct one was pure luck. This wasn't a major problem, however, as the milestone is fairly lax (like the speaking lessons) and you tend to complete it with a good score even if you had to take two or three attempts at some answers. And the milestone lesson is fun because it simulates the sort of conversation you would have in a real situation, calling on you to recall the things you learned in the current and previous units.
One final curiosity: the course teaches the number system, from ones to thousands, but at no point does it go through the pronunciation of the alphabet in your chosen language. This is the sort of thing which would be handy because many things require that you speak one letter at a time, be it verbalising an acronym or clarifying the spelling of a person's name. It would be nice to see the alphabet introduced in a future version of the course.
Possibly of interest is the "Audio Companion" which comes with the retail box. This is simply a CD full of MP3 audio files which contain the speech samples from the interactive lessons, read out one after the other with pauses in between. This much more closely resembles the language courses of old, where you mimic each phrase you hear. The lack of interactivity means that this is far less useful than the software, but it might be of use to someone who wants to keep their ears in training while they travel.
I've become a big fan of Rosetta Stone for getting started in a new language. The photos are high quality throughout, the speech samples are clear, and the process of introducing new words and concepts one step at a time works well to build up a strong base of vocabulary and grammar.
There are three levels in the Swedish Complete Course, and I would have happily seen another level or two in the course. (Some of the languages offered by Rosetta Stone do have four or five levels, and it's disappointing that some languages stop at three. The Rosetta Stone website doesn't seem to state exactly how many levels are included in the course for each language.)
I think it would be wrong to say that you'll achieve fluency by the end of the Complete Course, because I believe that fluency requires that you immerse yourself in the new language: engaging in conversation with native speakers, watching television shows and movies, listening to radio, and reading newspapers and novels until you can effortlessly understand native speakers and express your exact thoughts clearly in speech and in writing.
It is true that by the end of the Complete Course you will be able to recognise and respond to a sizable core of everyday subjects. Plus, very importantly, you'll have a clear understanding of the pronunciation of your chosen language, something that I always found very frustrating when learning about languages from books which can only describe the pronunciation approximately. Most importantly, the process is enjoyable and satisfying; I think it's a great way to get a solid start in a foreign language.
This brief section is not related to Rosetta Stone, but offers some hints for people who are learning the Swedish language and have finished the Rosetta Stone Complete Course.
A good way to challenge your understanding and keep the language in mind is to start reading newspapers and novels in the new language. A quick online search (for "svenska nyheter" in the case of Swedish) should provide links to the online editions of newspapers, but here are a few that I've found after some searching:
There are a number of Swedish bookstores online which sell e-books in EPUB format (which can be read on a Kobo eReader or a desktop computer, or an Android device, but not on an Amazon Kindle). My preferred online store was BokBorgen.se, but sadly that site is no longer online.
If you are reading novels on a Kobo eReader then the built-in dictionary should be a blessing. However, Kobo do not currently offer a Swedish-English dictionary, and adding one yourself is a complicated pain in the neck (though it can be done if you search around online and put in some effort). For general-purpose translation you can use Google Translate (though it's not always spot-on with Swedish phrases) and other online dictionaries such as The People's Dictionary.
If you want to watch Swedish television then take a look at SVT.se which has an "SVT Play" feature that lets you stream Swedish programmes, though not all are available: for example SVT co-produces the excellent TV show "The Bridge" ("Bron") but SVT Play does not allow this to be streamed outside of Sweden. Though it's probably best to start with children's television shows, which should be simpler to understand.