Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Rosetta Stone: the goods and the bads :)

As I am almost finishing the complete Rosetta Stone language course (I took Spanish levels 1-3) I think I am in a position to more or less summarize my experience, the goods and the bads, so to say.

The goods (in no particular order):

- once you've got a subscription, you can access the course from every computer, every operational system which has sound input/output and graphics;

- you can train your pronunciation for the given language;

- the learning sequences are created in such way that you really barely need any explanation while learning new words and even phrases;

- you'll get a good (although very basic) set of really "common denominator" words and standard phrases, including everyday vocabulary (e.g. basic colors, parts of the house, furniture, body parts, common activities etc);

- you will pronounce, hear and read the same words and phrases so often that you will definitely remember some. Repetition is the mother of learning;

- with some luck, you'll be able to pick up some grammar features: tenses, cases (if applicable), mood etc.

- at the end of the course (complete 3 levels) you'll seem to arrive somewhere in between A1 and A2 levels (see explanation of them here). You will be able to understand basic stuff and even utter some very basic sentences. Of course, if you will stop using the language every day, you'll forget it very quickly, but that's another story.

The bads (also, in no particular order):

- The context. The principle of Rosetta Stone (hence the name) is that all languages are treated exactly the same way: you'll get learning sequences describing the everyday situations in the context which is supposed to be standard Western life environment, but to me, it seems that it is US urban life environment in particular. I mean, it doesn't look European enough :) Jokes aside, you are learning the language completely separated from the native language context. It is OK to have this knowledge if you are going to talk to, for example, French or Chinese people who have emigrated to US, probably. But expecting to use it in the land of the given language seems to be a bit far call.

- Logically follows from the previous one: you learn the very standard vocabulary, no colloquial words or phrases, and practically no synonims. That's enough to make yourself understood but not always enough to understand (unless the other person is ready to help) - exactly the description of A1 language competence level.

- "No explanations" principle doesn't work well for the grammar (especially for the complicated parts, like tenses and moods of the verbs). As I've already mused in my previous post, you'll probably create some system based on what you have been exposed to (and it's way less than the real child would be exposed to in the real life!) but there is practically no guarantee that this system would correspond to the real grammar 100%. Remember, when you have been a child you went to school and got grammar lessons in your own language. And even before that, when your mother or father spotted what they perceived as a systematic mistake in your speech, they not only corrected you, but probably also tried to explain the rule behind it (e.g. "when you talk about what one person does, put an "s" at the end of the action word: Pete reads but we read" - or something like that; I do not know exactly how English-speaking parents do it, but I am almost confident that they do it.).

- The clarity of the course seems to dwindle by the end, plus the learning curve becomes too steep (not enough data for the real osmosis, see above). You simply don't have time to figure out how on Earth all these tenses and mood are constructed. As a suggestion for improvement, I would propose adding formal grammar reference in some form.

- You don't really exercise in speaking (i.e. in creating phrases yourself): you are always supposed to create phrases according to very rigid patterns (which does not require extremely advanced speech recognition software, as far as I know :) ) - no synonyms, changing the order of the words even if it's valid, etc. A bit boring.

Summary: Rosetta is a reasonably acceptable tool for getting the very basics of the language and/or memorizing some everyday vocabulary. If you want anything more than that, you have to get it from somewhere else :) E.g. if you want to get a feeling of the language, you need to try putting yourself into the context (and if we are talking about "osmosis like a child does it", books for little kids are a great resource). Otherwise you'll learn a projection of the real language into a different context, if that's what you need, fine, but you'll encounter the limits as soon as you try to get beyond social trifleties and start speaking/reading/thinking about Stuff That Matters.

Important: The price of 6 months subscription for Rosetta Stone is 180 euro (last time when I checked). It is a bit at the high side but still not skyhigh. I've got the subscription through my employer though.

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