December 15, 2011 | Hebrew
Rosetta Stone Skepticism
I find a poor correlation between marketing dollars and learning efficacy.
Since I began this project in the summer of 2009, I cannot tell you how many times people have asked me whether I am using Rosetta Stone. Well done, Rosetta Stone! Everyone seems to have heard of you.
Rosetta Stone at Time Warner Center
Far fewer people I encounter seem to have actually tried out the product, however.
As for me, I have benefited from many materials over the past two and a half years. Although I have logged a lot of Rosetta Stone hours, by far the most significant tool I have used has been Pimsleur.
Hardly anyone has heard of that. When I say the name “Pimsleur,” the response in most cases is, “Huh?”
I then spell the name, but I can see they aren’t processing it. I have to write it down before they register what I am saying. That name—which is, by the way, the surname of the originator of the Pimsleur method—is a marketing challenge in itself.
Rosetta Stone has done a monster marketing job. In New York alone, it is all over the place: I’ve seen Rosetta Stone kiosks at airports, malls, Grand Central, and more. I see a lot of salespeople giving demos, though I don’t think I have ever intersected with someone who was actually making a purchase.
The Originator of the Pimsleur Learning Method
Despite Rosetta Stone’s fame, I find the program merely mediocre as a way to advance my actual practical, usable language skills.
Out of 5 points, I would give Rosetta Stone only a 2.5.
I would give Pimsleur a 5.
So I have decided not to use Rosetta Stone for Hebrew, or for future languages. I feel as though I tend to turn to it when I am being lazy. Pimsleur is fun, but it can be hard work. Rosetta Stone requires less brainpower. But when you use less brainpower for something, you have crappier results. (Compulsively multitasking people should keep that in mind.)
With Pimsleur, I feel as though each little piece of knowledge is carefully selected to advance your skills in whatever language you are studying. With Rosetta Stone, I feel that many elements are repetitious and only marginally useful.
What Rosetta Stone gives me is familiarity and handholding. With its inviting, colorful screens, it seems friendly, and it helps a language seem less strange, which can be especially helpful for languages with different writing systems. I found it kind of comforting for Japanese, for example. Also for Hindi, though I was often confused navigating their writing lessons for that language.
However, I would never consider using Rosetta Stone for a popular European language such as Spanish, German, French, or Italian. For major European languages there is Pimsleur, as well as tons of grammar books one can buy, and other comprehensive programs with which I am unfamiliar (in at least one case, because they didn’t respond to my request for a review copy).
Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone are, as far as I know, the only really comprehensive learning programs with offerings across many languages from different language families. I would guess there are not all that many people in the world who have spent as many hours on Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone in multiple languages as I have at this point. I think my impressions are pretty sound.
Rosetta Stone at Grand Central
Here are some of the many ways I find Pimsleur superior to Rosetta Stone:
1. Conversational skills. Pimsleur dances. It prompts, cajoles, teases, prods you into saying stuff. It is witty. It keeps you constantly on your toes, getting you to think how to use parts of one sentence you’ve learned in combination with parts of another sentence. It translates into legitimate conversational skills. Over and over I have been able to use what I have learned from Pimsleur in conversation in real life. And to build on what I have learned through Pimsleur with grammar books and other materials. That is my preferred method: Pimsleur plus grammar books plus real-life practice.
2. Accent. If you have a good ear for language, Pimsleur can help you develop an exquisitely good accent. You get to repeat words, phrases, and sentences, listening between each repetition to careful, correct pronunciations. You are on your own in terms of comparing what you say with what the Pimsleur native speakers say, so if you are language-deaf, you will face challenges.
Rosetta Stone, on the other hand, often relies on a language-recognition software that—while a nice idea—I found very far from perfect. You are asked to say things, and Rosetta Stone tells you whether you did it right. Although you can alter the setting of the voice-recognition software to make it fussier or less fussy (something that took me months to realize, by the way), there were many times I would end up screaming at my laptop because the software wouldn’t accept something I said that was really, really close to what it was supposed to sound like. And many times where it weirdly accepted sentences I said that sounded nothing like the correct answer.
Rosetta Stone Shopping Bag
3. Confidence. By the time I get past around lesson 45 of Pimsleur for a given language, I start to feel really happy—confident that I am getting somewhere. And I can say some really useful things. And people ooh and ah about how far I’ve gotten. After a similar amount of Rosetta Stone time, I remain pretty much useless. No oohing. No ahing.
4. Retention. I remember better the languages for which I did a lot of Pimsleur. A profound understanding of how language-learning memory works informs every detail of the Pimsleur training. You return to words, phrases, etc., at intervals that are calibrated to maximize retention benefits. My Rosetta Stone skills were always tenuous and rarely lingered long in my brain, unless they overlapped conveniently with something Pimsleur or a grammar book had been teaching me.
5. Customization. Pimsleur seems more customized to language variations—tailored based on the idiosyncrasies of the individual languages. Rosetta Stone has a massive amount of computer programming that is deployed across languages in a way that strikes me as inflexible and sometimes inappropriate. For example, certain concepts seem to get the same amount of time in different languages, even when they are supremely easy in one language and supremely difficult in another.
6. Variety. I felt as if I kept doing the same things over and over again in Rosetta Stone. It was kind of boring, and often felt mindless and not very useful.
7. Simplicity. In Rosetta Stone I found it difficult to understand where I was and where I was going and why I was seeing the same damned picture with the same damned vocabulary that I had already seen five gazillion times. This is largely a consequence of repetition across the grammar, writing, reading, and other units. They just don’t always seem all that different from one another.
In addition, the software takes over your language-learning life in a way that I find unpleasant and perplexing. For example, it decides for you that you need to repeat certain lessons if your score is too low the first time, and then forces them on you unexpectedly again in the future. The problem: it usually wasn’t clear to me when this was happening. Often it just seemed as though Rosetta Stone was incorrectly taking me back to an earlier stage in my language-learning travels. Not knowing where I was, or why I was where I was, made me feel less confident that the software itself knew where it was.
8. Explanations. There is no English whatsoever in Rosetta Stone, and sometimes a simple little explanation would have made my life a whole lot easier. Pimsleur doesn’t stop a lot for explanations, but it inserts them appropriately, and until you get to a certain level, many prompts are in English, which I find helpful.
Rosetta Stone Has Pretty Pictures
8. What’s the opposite of unwieldiness? Rosetta Stone is a sprawling package with many elements. It was too much for me. I never even got to a number of TOTALe elements, including the online language lessons with an actual native speaker. I just really didn’t want to take a language lesson via computer with other people. That would have required scheduling, and planning, and being on a computer instead of on the streets of New York City. And, by the way, I also found the Rosetta Stone setup to be a pain in the butt. Not horrible, but there are discs to install, and it was nowhere near as easy as downloading an MP3 file and pressing Play, which is what I get to do with Pimsleur.
9. Price. Hmm, I was going to say how much more expensive Rosetta Stone is, but it appears they have slashed their prices dramatically since I last looked, from $999ish to less than half that. Self-help language learning is definitely getting cheaper! Since I began this project in 2009, Pimsleur prices have dropped a lot, too. You can now get 90 Pimsleur lessons for $335. So the pricing between the two offerings does not appear to be radically different, but the benefit per dollar is in my opinion way higher with Pimsleur.
10. Portability. Rosetta Stone really ties you to the computer. The company has clearly tried to get more mobile, but fundamentally, its meat-and-potatoes elements are computer-based and require constant clicking. I hate that. Pimsleur is primarily audio and travels everywhere around the city with me. I hope Pimsleur doesn’t succumb to the pressure of a video-game universe where everything needs graphics. I don’t need graphics. I don’t want graphics. I want to close my eyes and be one with a language.
11. Humor. Pimsleur is often sly and funny. Rosetta Stone has games (which I confess I never tried; I hate that kind of thing), but the main content is dead serious.
12. Consistent difficulty. Sometimes I found Rosetta Stone too easy, and sometimes it was way, way too hard. In multiple languages, certain modules were phenomenally difficult. Normally I would get between 95% and 100% in most modules, but then in their writing modules and in review units called Milestones I would get scores like 25%. It was extremely irritating.
Me with Rosetta Stone, 2010
The program simply didn’t prepare you for those modules. The Milestones were poorly constructed. In them you would follow a series of photos illustrating a narrative (one involved people riding a bus, for example) and have to guess at what the people depicted were saying. The voice recognition software would tell you if you succeeded. However, it just wasn’t possible to anticipate and say what would come out of their mouths quickly enough or correctly enough. I can’t anticipate what people are going to say in English, much less Hindi or Japanese!
I would be very interested to see data on how other users performed on those units. They can’t have done well relative to the other lessons. For me this kind of unnevenness was a massive flaw that really damaged my confidence in the product. It suggested a lack of attention to language-learning efficacy and an inability to respond quickly to and change problem areas in the program, perhaps because it had been set up across a gazillion languages already in precisely that way.
A caveat: Pimsleur is difficult, and I would not recommend it for the linguistically faint of heart, but it is reliable and consistent in its pacing.
One of Rosetta Stone’s great virtues is that it shows up to the party, and in a pretty party dress, while Pimsleur sometimes doesn’t show up at all.
What I mean is that for less popular languages, Pimsleur sometimes has minimal offerings. For Polish, for example, Rosetta Stone offers a full three levels of their language-learning approach, while Pimsleur has available only 30 half-hour Polish lessons—just their first level. For other, more popular languages, Pimsleur offers 90 to 100 lessons (three to four levels).
My key problem in my Polish studies was that there were not enough Pimsleur lessons to get me to my desired skill level. I tried replacing it with more Rosetta Stone work, but it just didn’t help at anywhere close to the same rate that Pimsleur would have. I suspect that those 30 Pimsleur lessons got me more conversational skills than triple the Rosetta Stone time did.
Me Working Hard on Pimsleur
And that is why I am spending so much time on Pimsleur now. I hate to bash a language-learning product such as Rosetta Stone, because I think the idea that a company would have a focus such as theirs is amazing and exciting. I mean, how much better a corporate mission is that than making millions of Americans fat on cheeseburgers?
But I think it is time that more people took a hard look at whether Rosetta Stone really works the way it should, or whether its sexy public image has more to do with pretty packaging and ubiquitousness than hard-core skills. People feel excited when they buy something like Rosetta Stone. It is the cool girl at the prom. Pimsleur is more of a wallflower, kind of nerdy and unfashionable, but with substance and depth.
The people at Rosetta Stone have been very nice to me during this project, and I am grateful for that, but after many, many, many hours, and much careful thought, this is where I stand on these two language-learning giants.