the problems with Rosetta Stone

There was a question on the HTLAL forums about why a lot of people were against Rosetta Stone, and my response to the question sorta grew into a giant post, so I thought I’d stick it here too. enjoy.

Over the years I’ve dabbled in a lot of languages, and I fell for the Rosetta Stone marketing in about 2002 or so. I bought German,Japanese, and Spanish, if I remember correctly. I now speak German, but only because of considerable effort 8 years later using totally different methods. I’m not necessarily a “hater”, but I usually recommend people away from Rosetta Stone.

Here are my main problems with it:
1) it doesn’t give beginners what they need to feel more comfortable
2) it doesn’t have enough content to take you to an intermediate level
3) the content is boring
4) it doesn’t help you develop the skills that you will need in order to get through intermediate and advanced levels (because this would contradict the promise that buying Rosetta Stone gives you EVERYTHING YOU NEED!)
5) it’s expensive

I’ll go through these in a minute, but firstly let me say that I’m still impressed that they continue to tell people that there are different ways to learn languages, and that languages can be learned by “absorbing” things without necessarily fully understanding them in an academic / mathematical sense. These are important concepts. Now, onto my beefs.

1) “They don’t make beginners feel comfortable.”

I think that when a lot of people start learning a new language, they want something that makes sense, something they can hold on to and feel secure. This makes it hard to advocate that they start right away with an “absorbing” method where there’s a long period of semi-confusion before the full absorption has occurred. For that full-absorption to happen, the learner has to listen to hundreds of hours of content in order to feel secure in the language. Most
beginners are going to give up long before then, because they don’t know how long they might have to wait, and they’re unsure about their progress.

As an alternative, what I like to suggest to beginners is to do a “bootstrapping” phase, where they get themselves a little bit familiar with the language and start to feel more comfortable with it. I think it helps to just know what’s out there, what types of things exist in the language. Do some reading ABOUT the language first, like what types of sounds exist, what types of grammar ideas exist (like
genders, cases, etc), how the language relates to other similar languages, how the writing works, who the famous authors are, what the history is.

None of this bootstrapping phase should be about memorization or perfection, but rather just about getting a little bit of familiarity. There’s no test on this stuff, just read it and explore a bit, and see what’s interesting and unique. This gives you a bit of grounding in the language and makes you feel a bit more at home. It helps give a framework to relate things to.

One of the ways I like to do this (which I did recently with Swedish) was to find a book like one of those “Essential Grammar” books that tries to cover every topic. Instead of memorizing or doing workbook exercises or trying to calculate out my own unique sentences, I merely read the examples. Just look at all sorts of different example sentences in there, to try to get a sense for how things work
generally. Ideally you want to be able to say “oh neat, I see how that sentence is put together now”, but there’s no need to be able to put together your own sentences yet.

An exercise like this lets you see a new sentence with all sorts of strange words, but it will still feel a little bit familiar because you can kinda see how it fits together. You can’t create yet, but you can recognize a little bit, and this makes you feel more confident. It generally takes very little time to get to this point.

Rosetta Stone did not give me this feeling at all. I just felt confused, until I got bored and quit.

2) “It doesn’t have enough content”.

In order to really absorb a language, you need to expose yourself to a lot of real content. Just to give you a sense of the scale, you probably will have to read a few hundred thousand words in that language (I like to aim at 1 million, personally), and listen to hundreds or maybe thousands of hours of audio. This is what I think you need in order to reach some sort of basic fluency…if you just
want to ask for train tickets, then clearly a lot less work is required, but if you want to talk to cute people in a bar about things that interest you generally, then you need wide-ranging comfort in the language and that comes from lots of input.

Rosetta stone just doesn’t have that much in it. I think it’s good that it has a lot of stuff that might not be in a typical textbook, or maybe it comes at it from a different direction with a different conception of what’s “hard” and “easy”, but in total I just don’t think it has enough substance.

To get real substance and to make real progress to fluency, you need a way to get lots of interesting native content. And the word “interesting” is key here, which leads to my next point.

3) “The content is boring”

To make progress in a language, you need to maintain your motivation. For me, this has been the single biggest obstacle to learning other languages, because when I get bored of the content I tend to jump to the next new shiny topic. I used to spend a few weeks on one language, then I’d get bored and stop, and a few weeks later I’d pick up a new language because it was bright and shiny.

Rosetta Stone didn’t help with this. Seeing these dumb pictures and simple sentences about counting tennis balls, and which color the clown’s hair was, did not keep me interested and motivated, so I’d usually give up after a while. What really interested me was reading books (especially fantasy novels) in other languages.

I thought it’d be super awesome if I could read alternate language equivalents of Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien. I wanted to find cool books like that in German and Spanish. I also developed an interest in poetry after reading a dual-language English/Spanish book of Pablo Neruda poems, and wanted to find more like that….but listening to a bunch of lame sentences with funny pictures didn’t really help me get there…

4) “it doesn’t help you develop skills”

Rosetta Stone markets itself as an all-in-one package that will teach you the language. When I used it, I really felt that I had to force myself to work through it from start to finish so that I’d get awesome! They didn’t give any suggestions about how to work from other materials using their ideas.

Also, because their sentences were generally stupid and boring, and all isolated from each other, with no sense of context, it kept me thinking about learning in a counterproductive way. I was still thinking in a textbook mindset, where I had to master simple context-free examples before I could tackle real native content, which I think is totally backwards.

Now I think that context is king. It doesn’t matter if you understand every little detail of a sentence in a book as long as you can get the general idea from using the context. Reading a book is not an exercise in perfection, but actually starts like a picture loading on the internet. First you get a blurry approximation, and then you improve over time until you see a precise image. You still get a lot
of good information from the blurry approximation, but it doesn’t work too well when you just read one sentence at a time that is totally separated from everything else.

5) “It’s expensive”

This one is a no-brainer. Back in 2002 I spent hundreds of dollars buying Rosetta Stone in German, but it got me basically nowhere. I couldn’t converse, I couldn’t read a book, I couldn’t understand TV. In 2009, I spent hundreds of dollars buying DVDs of my favourite TV shows dubbed in German, like 150+ hours of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, along with some CSI and South Park, etc. I also bought a bunch of Harry Potter books with the audiobooks.

This stuff was all fun and very interesting to me. It was very challenging at the start, but I found that by doing a lot of listening and reading, combined with some occasional dictionary lookups (but not too many), then I made steady progress. I spent less money than I did on Rosetta stone 7 years before that, but I had way more fun and got way better results.

Now I’m off in Germany (actually, technically I’m in Austria this week but I’ll be back in Germany soon), and I’m speaking with cute girls in a bar about general topics of interest. Mission accomplished, no thanks to Rosetta Stone.

In summary: you need lots of content, it has to be fun otherwise you’ll quit, and Rosetta Stone doesn’t give you these (plus it’s expensive). If you really want a very structured approach to starting a language, I recommend Assimil, because it mostly solves the 5 problems I listed above. It helps beginners feel comfortable, has more content, is more interesting, it helps you develop skills that will enable you to move quickly to real native content, and it’s not as expensive.

6 Responses to the problems with Rosetta Stone

  1. Alicja says:

    This pretty much coincides with my experience with Rosetta Stone as well. One can’t help but wonder if there’s ANYONE out there who’s achieved fluency using exclusively RS… 😉

  2. Olle Kjellin says:

    IMHO you are both wrong and correct. Individual learning styles are varying, and some aspects may suit some people better than others. I tend to basically like Rosetta Stone, particularly for a beginner. The original versions were better than the present one, which does make it boring, yes. The previous simple 4-picture guessing layout where you quickly reached much better results than chance alone could explain, appealed to the brain’s reward systems and made you keep going. That was part of the fun. You are right that we need fun to keep going. And although the tedious repetitions are correct neurophysiologically, it does get too boring. But quite soon you can skip many intermediate steps and challenge the advanced lessons with complicated sentences with subjunctives and what not, and the fun will come back again.

    The process and the results are partly in the eyes of the user. You can take any recording, e.g. save some news you can grab on the internet, or even RosettaStone passages of course, and use it for learning after adapting it as suits you the best. I do. As far as I can, I follow the advice I wrote myself in this published article:

    • doviende says:

      Thanks again for the comments, Olle. I’m still working on fully synthesizing your paper’s contents. Some of the recommendations have worked their way into my standard practice, but not all. One of my upcoming projects is to work in more practice around auditory feedback with repetition of a single phrase that has already been heard many times. I’m curious how far the individual learner can go without the immediate “acceptability” feedback that you mention is required from the teacher. I’ve tried to educate myself about the theory of Swedish prosody and phonetics, but I have yet to work out a way to get decent feedback from a native speaker that may be completely unskilled in teaching.

  3. Olle Kjellin says:

    Oh, I forgot… Tele Tubbies! Perfect! It makes you learn like any native toddler!
    One morning in Amsterdam I watched Tele Tubbies in Dutch, and I learnt so much so I was surprised myself. They repeat the same things several times, and always make it clear what it’s all about. Unfortunately I had no chance to continue in the same way, but I remembered that much Dutch for several months afterwards. Some of it even now after almost a year. One single program! (and I’m 62…) Any links to TeleTubbies programs in various languages will be greatly appreciated.

  4. Kyle says:

    Very good. I feel the same way. I think people at Rosetta stone should be aware of this. I’ll admit searching the web for context and meaning gained me more results than RS. I was simply lost only to be reduced to mere guessing.

    Great work!

  5. Another problem with Rosetta Stone (and a lot of similar software) is that it does not take culture into account. In fact, RS is intentionally culture-free to make it cheaper to produce content.

    I am a firm believer that we need to teach language and culture together, both because culture provides context for the use of language, and because language is just one piece of the communication puzzle – and communicate is generally why you learn a language. The US military has been using this approach in a series of systems called VCAT to prepare soldiers to go to a foreign country with great results.

    (Full disclosure: I am the founder of a start-up called that provides a consumer service that uses exactly this approach.)

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