I recently decided to try out a free online demo of Rosetta Stone to refresh my Russian, which I haven’t actively used in a long time other than using my excellent dictionary and reading some other basic things. I’ve heard the family of my ex-”fiancé” babbling away in Russian with no respect for the fact that a native English-speaker was there, but that didn’t Magickally get my skills up to the level they used to be. These people never got the memo that it’s considered extremely rude to speak a foreign language in front of people you know can’t understand you. They can pretend they never left the USSR all they want when they’re in private, but when there’s an American guest in their home, it’s time to make the effort to tailor their behavior.
I was booming out the answers on the demo, but only because I’ve been studying the language on and off for 20 years. If I’d never had that base to make so many inroads in my memory, I would’ve been so lost. A lot of the pictures are so unclear, and I only picked the right one because I knew what the Russian phrase meant, like “She needs a map.” Otherwise I would’ve wondered what that picture really meant. Other times it was unclear what they were even asking you to do.
I later tried a demo in Greek, a language I’ve never studied, other than knowing the Greek alphabet and being well-read enough to know some Greek words and roots that made it into English. I got more things wrong, since I didn’t understand the grammar or context. It was also impossible to do the writing section, since I couldn’t figure out how to do a Greek letter with an accent mark.
I then tried a demo in Swedish, a language I only know a tiny little bit of but would be interested in learning someday. (Though probably Norwegian is my best bet, since it’s considered the middle Scandinavian language and the most mutually intelligible with Swedish and Danish.) I scored about the same as I did on Greek.
Finally I did a Spanish demo, since I had 7 years of Spanish but haven’t actively used it in awhile. I got almost perfect on that, except for one screen where it was completely unclear what they wanted. The phrase was “Yo como (I eat),” and it could’ve been any of the three pictures. I got it wrong; apparently the one I clicked was supposed to be “Él come (He eats).” How the hell am I supposed to guess that?
Since then I’ve been reading a lot of honest reviews of Rosetta Stone, and have found much the same sentiments. Issues like:
Poor customer support
Paranoid anti-pirating policies making it impossible to install on other computers or resell
The same template for every language, not taking into account culture or grammar
Culturally inaccurate pictures, like Nordic-looking kids in the Japanese program, African tribesmen in Dutch, and Asian women in Spanish
No translations or explanations of anything
Bad voice recognition that often doesn’t even pass native speakers
Phrases that aren’t useful, like “The boy is under the aeroplane” and “The plates are dirty”
Boring and repetitive
Teaching a very formal, robotic language, not the informal, casual language of the street
At best, this could be a decent supplementary aide for someone who just wants a refresher, or a resource in addition to a class, tutor, or textbook. But on its own, this isn’t anywhere near close to effective language-learning. It’s not even real immersion. There are some awesome language immersion programs, not to mention traveling to a foreign country and staying outside the Anglo bubbles, but this ain’t it by a long shot. Real immersion also involves learning real language, not phrases you might use to talk with a three-year-old.
Grammar is huge in learning a second language. It has to be explained so you can internalize the rules and naturally conjugate verbs or decline nouns after enough time with the basics. It helps knowing if a verb or declension is irregular, what patterns the grammar follows, how pronouns work, if the language is gendered, etc. Some languages need more attention to verbs, while others are heavier on declensions. That can’t be taught with a cookie-cutter approach.
Also, adults don’t learn language the same way kids do. Our brains are wired differently. Children pick up language naturally through immersion, but they also make a lot of mistakes and don’t know everything right away. For example, many young kids use overextension (e.g., “I throwed a ball” or “We goed to the store”) and call every man Daddy. They have to be corrected until they understand. We also don’t stop learning language after we can talk in complete sentences. A lot of the words I know and love using now weren’t words I learnt till high school English classes.
Russian (or any Slavic language for that matter) can be a real bitch to learn because of all the noun declensions, seven cases’ worth. Verb conjugation also gets trickier as you get further in, because of things like conditional and reflexive verbs. It’s sort of like a much-more-foreign Spanish—the language starts out easy and then gets harder, as compared to French, which starts out hard and then gets easier. Luckily, an adult has the advantage of a highly-developed brain, and can understand the explanation of why the endings on words are changing depending upon their location in a sentence. It starts making sense after enough time.
One of the numerous languages I’ve studied is Japanese. I’ve forgotten a lot of what I used to know (including all the characters I used to know), but one of the things I still remember how to say is, “What is that?” That phrase takes three forms, depending upon whether the object is closest to you or the other person, or if it’s far away from both of you (like if you hear fireworks but can’t see them). Rosetta Stone wouldn’t explain that at all. I’m told counting in Japanese (and Korean) is a real bitch, and that isn’t explained either. Different languages have different rules, and you can’t just expect people to naturally pick them all up by guessing at the meanings of pictures.
These are the languages I’ve formally learnt or taught myself bits and pieces of over the years, in roughly the order I began. I’m not making a claim to be fluent in all of them, or even able to speak on a basic conversational level!
Hebrew (Everyone in my community was so amazed how I took to the alphabet like lightning at age 18, as compared to how long it took some other people to learn it as adults. I suppose already having learnt the Cyrillic, Greek, and Armenian alphabets helped with my language skills!)
I think that’s about it to date. I can also read some Catalán, Portuguese, and Ladino based on my knowledge of Spanish and the other Romance languages.
All of those languages I picked up just fine teaching myself, watching programs on TV, taking classes, reading simple stories and dialogues, and using dictionaries and instructional volumes. Not through clicking on pictures with meaningless phrases like “The women drink” and “The horse swims under the purple aeroplane.”