Walt Mossberg

Language Learning, the Natural Way

Americans are lousy at foreign languages. I myself took French for years and years, and still can barely tell a Paris cab driver where I want to go without stumbling into English, and earning a Gallic glare.

There are various reasons for this. Compared with Europeans, most Americans have many fewer chances outside classrooms to practice languages other than English, and much less need to do so. But one cause may be the way we teach foreign languages, with mind-numbing drills and long lectures on grammar.

One computer language program, however, continues to garner popularity for its very different teaching style. The Rosetta Stone language program aims to make learning easier and more effective by scrapping dense explanations in favor of a visual teaching style featuring pictures, audio and text.

A Spanish Level 1 screen from the Rosetta Stone language learning program.
A Spanish Level 1 screen from the Rosetta Stone language learning program.

Created by Fairfield Language Technologies in 1992, Rosetta Stone has been adopted by West Point, NASA and over 10,000 schools, according to the company. You might recognize the product if you’ve passed by one of the company’s kiosks in an airport or shopping mall.

The product’s teaching method attempts to emulate the experience of a native-born speaker by immersing you in one of 29 languages using photos, spoken phrases and written words. Unlike most language classes, you don’t memorize vocabulary or verb conjugations. There are no explanations, and no definitions. You just plunge in. Skeptical? So were we.

So, this week, my assistant Katie Boehret and I did our best to learn Spanish and Italian with Rosetta Stone. Katie minored in Spanish in college, so she approached the language from an educated perspective, trying advanced Spanish. Then, she sampled the starter lessons in Italian, a language she didn’t know. I, being much dumber at languages than she is, tried Spanish at a beginner’s level.

Overall, we liked Rosetta Stone, which works on both Windows and Macintosh computers. We found ourselves catching onto words and phrases by association — just from seeing a photo, hearing a pronunciation, and figuring out what a certain phrase meant. The more familiar we became with each language, the easier it was to grasp the self-guided lessons. We didn’t have enough time to fully evaluate the program, but it was easy to start using and simple enough to use regularly, without feeling overwhelmed.

If Rosetta Stone’s methodology doesn’t have you scratching your head, the price tag might. Individually, the first and second CD-ROMs cost $195 and $225, respectively, and a third disc, which is available only for those learning English and Spanish, costs $245. You can opt to buy the first and second discs together for $329 (saving you about $90) or all three for $499 (saving about $160). But many folks might be hesitant to invest that much money in a program that they don’t know will work for them.

An online subscription is also available for levels one and two, but these are restricted by time limits. Subscriptions for one-, three- or six-month access cost $50, $90 and $150, accordingly.

We ordered three beginner CD-ROMs — two Spanish and one Italian — as well as Level 2 and 3 Spanish CD-ROMs for Katie. Each box comes with an application CD-ROM, which saves your test scores and data on the computer, as well as the disc with lessons and an instruction booklet. We loaded the discs onto our computers (I used a Mac and Katie used a Windows PC) and got to work.

One thing about Rosetta Stone is that you can move at your own pace — you control how fast or slow you learn. This is probably a plus for many people, but some students who need a more regimented program may have trouble with self-guided software.

Throughout the program, various learning methods are divided into five skills: reading and listening, listening, reading, listening and repeating out loud and writing. Many of the lessons involve visual learning — looking at photos and deciding which written or spoken situation best describes the image.

The program never offers direct translations of words or phrases, but this is deliberately done to mimic living in a non-English-speaking environment. Nonetheless, this still might drive some people crazy.

When learning Italian for the first time, Katie preferred the reading and listening exercises best, as the audible speaking imitated real-life scenarios and the written text gave her an idea of how to spell the words she was hearing. After a little more practice, she liked just listening.

I found that learning Spanish was easiest for me when I worked through the audio and photo exercises. These helped me to pick up phrases and to intuitively grasp how verbs worked, just by listening to a phrase and then choosing which of four photos matched it. Some of the scenes in the exercises were a little odd, though — not always the sorts of things you’d often encounter in real life. For instance, if I’m ever in Mexico and see a boy crouching underneath an airplane, I can proudly point to him and say: un niño debajo de un avión.

Within the five skills, variations of the same method are used so you won’t get bored with a single learning format. For example, in the reading section we could either match a line of text to one of four photos or match a photo with one of four lines of text. Three challenges can also be applied to each lesson: a timer, a delay or a test. The delay makes each lesson slightly harder by doing things such as hiding photos while text is read, forcing us to remember what we heard. The test format gave us only one shot at each question, instead of letting us try again.

To save our test scores, we had to first log into the software. We did so by simply typing our names whenever we opened the Rosetta Stone program on our computers. Our cumulative test scores could be viewed on a Web site, or exported to save on a computer.

Katie, who used three Spanish CD-ROMs and one Italian on her laptop, had only to log into each Rosetta Stone program using the same name, and all of her test scores were saved on one screen according to language and disc level. Details about each test were recorded, including the date, chapter, score, time spent and activity number in relation to the lessons.

We worked through various lessons, learning basic vocabulary for objects, verbs, numbers and times. At any time, you can skip ahead in lessons or repeat lessons using a different learning method. One thing that Rosetta couldn’t test us on was our ability to regurgitate what we had learned. Katie pointed out that her 10 years of Spanish classes taught her a lot, but living in Spain where she was forced to speak the language out loud was even more useful.

The closest Rosetta comes to that is its speaking exercises. These force the user to listen to a sentence as it is read out loud, then repeat the sentence into the computer’s microphone. The sound pattern of the student’s voice is displayed next to the pattern of the program’s audio, so students can compare how their pacing, pronunciation and accent differ.

Katie was especially impressed by the Level 3 Spanish CD-ROM, as it included various videos and reading comprehension exercises for real-world situations including transportation, housing, shopping and employment.

If you’re used to learning a language by memorizing lists of vocabulary, you might have a hard time adjusting to Rosetta Stone at first. But if you give it a little time, this program can really grow on you.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret

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