Katherine Boehret

Lost in Immersion: Speaking French on the Web

MOSSBERGjp

The home page of Totale shows your learning progress and options for playing language games by yourself or with other students.

If you’ve ever learned a foreign language, you know the vast difference between completing workbook activities and speaking with others. The latter experience can involve sounding out unfamiliar accents or guttural pronunciations and, though intimidating, is ultimately more rewarding. By immersing yourself in a language and navigating through situations, you learn how to speak and eventually think in that language.

Rosetta Stone (RST) has long used visual learning without translations by pairing words with images—one of the ways a baby learns to speak. For the past week, I’ve been testing its newest offering: Rosetta Stone Totale (pronounced toe-tall-A), which is the company’s first fully Web-based language-learning program. It aims to immerse you in a language using three parts: online coursework that can take up to 150 hours; live sessions in which you can converse over the Web with a native-speaking coach and other students; and access to Rosetta World, a Web-based community where you can play language games by yourself or with other students to improve your skills.

Totale costs a whopping $999, so if you aren’t serious about learning a language it’s a tough sell. Rosetta Stone says this program is comparable to an in-country language-immersion school. The company’s most expensive offering before Totale was a set of CDs (lessons one, two and three) that cost $549, included about 120 hours of course work and had no online components.

The Totale Package

Since Totale is Web-based it doesn’t come loaded onto several disks in a yellow box like the company’s previous products. But despite this digital transition, buyers of Totale will still receive Rosetta’s familiar yellow box, now filled with a USB headset and supplemental audio discs for practicing away from the PC—mostly while in the car.

I’ve spent over eight hours learning French in Totale throughout the past week, and I have to say that I’m surprised by how much I feel I’ve already learned. I realized this when I spent a 30-minute car ride listening to one of the supplemental audio CDs. I mentally identified and translated practically every vocabulary word and phrase, and I repeated the words aloud with what I thought sounded like a pretty decent French accent. This was after just four hours of work online.

MOSSBERG

Totale users can speak with a coach and three others in studio sessions.
Intensive Coursework

The core of Totale is the time-intensive online coursework. But even though this takes a lot of effort, its layout is attractive and each screen has only a few things on it so it doesn’t feel overwhelming. Lessons include identifying photos of objects or situations as they are described aloud, writing phrases (my least favorite part), and using deductive reasoning to construct and dictate your own sentences about a photo. Totale’s headset comes in handy during exercises that require you to repeat words or sounds out loud into the microphone.

Activities in Rosetta World—including solo, two-person and group games—were addictively fun. One game plays like Bingo: I listened to someone speaking French and marked words on the board as I heard them, racing to get five words horizontally, vertically or diagonally before my opponent beat me to it. I waded into these games cautiously at first, playing alone before I got familiar enough to challenge another Totale user.

Helpful indicators show how many people are available at any given time for each type of game in Rosetta World—meaning that person is logged into Totale and studying the same language as you. I never saw more than five people in the community, and it gets a little old playing (or worse, losing) to the same person after a while. Since Totale was only recently released, this community should grow over time.

A chat window at the bottom left of the browser window reminded me of Facebook’s built-in instant-messaging program, listing users against whom I competed in online games. But unlike when I’m on Facebook, I didn’t feel comfortable instant messaging with these people.

No Flashcards

Rosetta Stone’s methods, while natural and easy to pick up, aren’t what my brain expects when learning a different language. I minored in Spanish in college, learning in traditional classroom style by studying verb conjugations on flashcards and vocabulary definitions in English. So at certain times throughout Totale’s French-only lessons, a part of me wanted to know the exact definition of a phrase or the reasoning behind why something was the way it was.

The moment of truth came when I attended a real-time, 50-minute studio session online with one of the live coaches—all of whom are native speakers—and two other students (four students is the maximum allowed per class).

Rosetta Stone recommends that students complete an entire unit before joining one of these studio sessions, and the only language you are permitted to speak during the studio is the one being studied. I proudly remembered all of my new vocabulary words as our coach pointed the cursor to animals, colors and clothing, asking us questions and prompting us to ask one another questions. The coach kindly corrected us when we made mistakes, made jokes about words and used an on-screen tool to type out a few of the harder phrases.

But I fumbled around trying to remember the correct phrases and grammar to go along with my vocabulary.

I frustratingly realized that I didn’t even know how to ask my coach in French, “Why is that blanc and not blanche?” Our coach eventually answered that question and some others without anyone’s prompting because it was obvious that none of us knew what forms of some words were right or why; Totale’s coursework doesn’t include explanations. A few of the phrases our coach explained still puzzled me and I was starting to miss my flashcards from Spanish class.

Team Effort

Rosetta Stone is determined to make sure you don’t feel like you’re alone as you work through the Totale program. A “Customer Success Team” representative calls you within a day of your product purchase to answer any questions or concerns about how everything works. And this team keeps calling or emailing (you tell them which contact method you prefer) whenever you have passed a milestone in the program—or to encourage you to pick it up again if you haven’t logged on in a while.

Even for $999, you can go back in and re-use every feature in Totale, but only for one year. You can reset your scores and completely start over, attending online studios again and playing games in Rosetta World as many times as you like. But once a year is up, you’re finished with the program.

Rosetta Stone Totale works on all major Mac and Windows PC browsers, though participating in a studio session while using some browsers requires you turn off their pop-up blockers.

I still have work to do in Totale, but I’m looking forward to it—even though I find some aspects to be a bit vague. This program does a terrific job of immersing you in a language and may be the next best thing to living in a country, surrounded by native speakers. Best of all, unlike my semester abroad in Spain where college friends gave me my daily fix of the English language, Totale never lets you slip out of using the language you’re studying.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg. Email Katherine Boehret at
mossbergsolution@wsj.com.


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