Language Learning Tools: Rosetta Stone

I’ve been casually learning Mandarin for a while, nothing consistent, a patchwork of formal classes, conversation exchange meetups and holidays in China. As a native English speaker, and someone who speaks a couple of other European languages, I find Mandarin an interesting challenge. With its four tones and vast alphabet of characters, it is very alien and inaccessible. Obviously nothing takes the place of actually living in a country where your target language is spoken, but that’s not always possible. One of the best tools I’ve used to learn Mandarin whilst here in London is the Rosetta Stone language learning software. In this post I’d like to share why Rosetta Stone is useful.

The bedrock of the Rosetta Stone learning approach is “natural learning”. What this means is that you learn language in the same way that you first learned language as a child: with no translations or grammar explanations. This may sound easier said than done, but the execution in the software is actually very slick. You are presented with pictures and an audio recording of the word, and from this information, you must deduce the correct word for one of the objects in the pictures. Once you have figured out what the word for, say, “shirt” is, then you will be presented with four pictures of shirts where each shirt is a different color. Again, based on this information and an audio recording, you will deduce the word for“green”.

This may sound like a very trial-and-error heavy approach, but the lessons and examples are carefully structured so that you use vocabulary and grammar knowledge acquired in previous lessons to eliminate wrong answers. This also means that you are constantly recapping previous lessons and building on your foundation which I find boosts my retention of information significantly. I very rarely find myself completely guessing, and when I do it’s usually about a something very specific.

Generally speaking, the pace is good. I get extremely frustrated with slow language classes (which, apart from the monetary and time costs, is one of the reasons I prefer learning on my own), but the Mandarin course structure is demanding. Sometimes it feels a little slow, but I would say I was content with the pace 85% of the time.

Now, be aware that Rosetta Stone comes with a hefty price tag – check out the website for the latest, but we’re usually talking around $300. I think one of the main reasons for this high price is the oral component of the software. Lessons always contain sections where you have to say words and sentences outloud, and what you say is analysed by the program for accuracy (so obviously you will need a microphone – most laptops have one inbuilt anyway). For a tonal language like Mandarin, where the same word can be said four different ways resulting in four different meanings, this is invaluable. Being a stubborn git, I often find myself convinced I am saying something correctly, however Rosetta Stone offers you a playback function for what you just said, and shows the pitch of your voice graphed against how a native speaker would say things. Faced with this crushing (but extremely useful) evidence, even I have to admit when I’m wrong.

I don’t have many major criticisms of the software. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think the pace is perfect, but it’s good. I suspect the pace would be too slow if I were learning a familiar, European language – something to be wary of if you are thinking of buying the version for a language not too different from your native tongue. The lesson structure is fairly formulaic and not massively exciting but I think it’s effective and that’s what matters. The writing sections are limited because you can’t draw characters on the screen (if I was running Rosetta Stone I’d be thinking about a version that made greater use of touch screen functionality) – if your main focus is on learning to write the characters, this isn’t a good bet. If your focus is on listening, reading, comprehension and speaking, the Rosetta Stone package is good.

On balance, it’s a good investment. I’d say you get at least 100 hours worth of tuition, potentially double that depending on your pace. Consider how much 100 hours of classes would cost you before you balk too much at the price. Also, the freedom of being able to start learning whenever suits your schedule is not to be understated.

Not a tool to be omitted from your language-learning inventory.

Note this review is of an older version of Rosetta Stone – newer versions now have live sessions with a teacher giving you the chance to interact with a native speaker directly.