In the late 1980s, founder Allen Stoltzfus envisioned a new kind of language program. One that emulates natural immersion by using a sophisticated new computer technology that simulates the way you learn your native language – using images and sounds in context, with zero translation.
What followed was one of the most ground-breaking (and controversial) language programs to ever hit the world of language learning.
So is Rosetta Stone the key you’ve been looking for to unlock all of your language learning needs? Read on to find out in our in-depth Rosetta Stone product review.
Rosetta Stone Review: Overview
Claiming to have the ‘world’s best language learning program’, Rosetta Stone has been heavily marketed for decades, and is now a well-known household name in the language learning industry.
The idea behind the software is to form associations between the target language and pictures/audio clips through a series of repetitive quizzes. Their teaching methodology focuses on the idea of immersion, quite ground-breaking at the time but a method that’s certainly not unique in this day and age.
By not using any English whatsoever or providing explanations, their intention is for you to assimilate the language by forming your own patterns and associations to the images, picking it up intuitively through their gamified language software.
The effectiveness of its execution is up for question, and has caused quite a stir within the language learning community, often criticised for being overpriced and inefficient.
A membership to Rosetta Stone gives you full access to their library of lessons, usually 10-20 units depending on which language you purchase.
The latest edition of the program now includes some supplementary content, including:
*All of this supplementary material comes with the basic subscription, with the exception of the coaching sessions which come at an extra cost. These sessions are 25 minutes each, scheduled weekly and can be shared with up to three other students. The sessions are graded to your level and involve being guided through to additional activities with a native speaker.
However, a membership still doesn’t include:
There is also some talk of new developments that are currently in beta testing. For example, a ‘Seek & Speak’ activity that will be integrated into the app, that uses augmented reality to get extra vocabulary practice through a scavenger hunt, allowing you to point your camera to an object and receive a translation in the target language. Exactly when these new features will become available and their practicality as a reliable learning tool is still uncertain.
So just how effective is Rosetta Stone at getting you to ‘think in your new language’? Can it really be a good use of your time and money, fast-tracking your language learning journey? We signed up for a free account and tested out several of the different languages to get an understanding of whether it really lives up to all the hype.
The Pros: What We Liked About Rosetta Stone
Let’s first take a look at all the things they got right.
Pro #1: A LOT of Content
Once you’ve signed up for a membership you’ll have full access to their entire syllabus. It’s structured very logically and includes all the topics you’d expect to see, gradually increasing in difficulty, from ‘Greetings and Introductions’ (unit 2) to ‘Home and Healthy’ (unit 9). There’s enough content to keep you plodding along for quite some time.
Pro #2: Variety of Gamified Exercises
The style of the questions are very easy for a beginner to use, even for children. You are mostly just matching what you hear to the correct image, or selecting the correct transcript. The questions do vary a fair amount which keeps things interesting, sometimes showing you the transcript, other times not, which keeps you on your toes and gives your listening skills a workout.
Pro #3: Automatically Reviews Previous Content
Each lesson will introduce new words, test you on it several times and then move onto the next set of vocab or verbs. At seemingly random intervals it will loop back to test you on something you’ve already learnt. This helps to transfer the language to your long term memory by repetitively going over the same words/sentences again and again.
Pro #4: Available For Offline Learning, Downloadable Content
Along with the app, the program can be used without wifi giving you extra flexibility to learn on the go and to fit your lessons in around your busy schedule. Furthermore, many of the audio files can be downloaded for you to listen to whilst driving to work, at the gym or on a lunchbreak. A great way to cram in extra learning and review what you’ve learnt.
Pro #5: Diversity of Pictures
It’s nice to see that they don’t just use the same generic images over and over again but instead they are selected from a pool of diverse cultures and ethnicities (indians, koreans, afro-americans, europeans etc. even images of people from the massai tribe!). After all, language represents the essence of diversity – something that’s uniquely human & shared by everyone across the globe, so this was nice to see.
The Cons: The Things We Didn’t Like About Rosetta Stone
Unfortunately, despite all it’s good points, there was a lot of room for improvement. Here’s some of the things that left a bad impression on us.
Con #1: Cookie-cutter Approach to Syllabus Design
Our biggest issue with the program was the fact that the syllabus was clearly identical across all of the languages that they offer. They state that their content is crafted by linguists, however linguists would recognise the need to structure each course differently for each language rather than use the same approach for languages as distinct as Korean and Hebrew.
We see the same with the images, which are recycled again and again. It’d be nice to have images of native food and native people, rather than the same images that feature on every language course that they offer. We feel they missed an opportunity to really delve into the culture through the images and focus on culturally specific vocabulary and phrases.
Con #2: Not Enough ‘Immersion’
The program attempts to give context and ‘immersion’ through only pictures and isolated audio clips. In reality, when we learn through immersion there’s much more that’s going on. We are constantly learning from social cues, body language, situational awareness, personality and character of those we are talking to etc. – not just an isolated generic picture with a pre-recorded phrase.
It’s quite hard to get an understanding of context from just images alone. To improve this aspect of the course, they really need to go deeper & provide a richer immersive experience, perhaps through videos, dialogues, street interviews, movie clips, etc.
Con #3: No Grammar Explanations (or Pronunciation, or Writing...)
It’s very difficult to pick up grammar using only Rosetta Stone. The program introduces many new concepts and phrases without explaining any of how the language works, it’s intrinsic rules or structures. A line or two in some places would have made a massive difference, but instead you are left grasping in the dark, often with unanswered questions. The provided ‘context’ is simply not enough to be able to work out the complex verb forms and tenses, especially for languages that are completely different to English like Japanese or Urdu.
Without any prior knowledge of the language you are likely to spend most of the lessons very confused, with nothing getting properly explained. Likewise, you’ll find nothing on pronunciation. Whilst the audio is very clear, there’s no advice on how to actually make those sounds correctly, like you find in other programs. And regarding the script, it’s very unlikely that you will effectively learn how to read and write Arabic or Chinese without any instruction whatsoever. Simply being exposed to the script in context is not going to cut it.
Con #4: Glitchy Voice-Recognition Software
The voice-recognition software will often mark you as correct even if you made a mistake, and likewise can mark you down even if you know the pronunciation was good. For this reason you can’t rely on the software alone to correct your pronunciation. It does force you to speak under pressure, which is at least something positive, since not all language programs focus enough on speaking, and repeating what you’ve been taught helps you to remember the language more.
Con #5: Old-fashioned Learning Method
The overall process is very time-consuming and feels very repetitive. It can take some time to decipher what the meaning is behind the images. For example, in the first lesson you’ll learn to associate a phrase with a girl running in a park holding balloons. We assume it is teaching us the verb ‘to run’ but it could quite easily mean something about balloons, or being in a park.
Most languages don’t have direct translations into English and the images sometimes create even more ambiguity, making things even more complicated. Furthermore, you are often introduced to several verbs and vocabulary at the same time, which overcomplicates everything. The lessons are long, 30 minutes each. And doing the same exercises for the entire lesson, let alone the entire course, can get very boring.
Con #6: Not Always Real-use Language
Perhaps as a result of the way the syllabus has been designed (or lacks design), the target language is not always based on how people actually speak in the country of origin. Many students who have completed the course have since travelled to the country and failed to understand what locals are saying. Often their reading skills are good but the program did not provide enough conversational speaking skills to be able to effectively communicate.
We also noticed a few mistakes here and there. Perhaps mistranslations or just straight up inaccuracies. On one occasion an incorrect image kept cropping up (plural male instead of plural female). Since I already know the french word ‘les femmes’ I knew this was a mistake, but it kept coming up again and again.
What Are The Lessons Like?
When you first sign up you can select from 3 main difficulty levels (there’s no placement test). You must then select why you are learning the language, for their own internal information I assume. You can then start the lessons.
Lesson one introduces the following target language (the same for every course they have):
- Boy, girl, man, women
- Boys, girls, men, women
- To eat
- To drink
- To run
- To cook
- To swim
- Good bye
You get tested on sentences such as:
- ‘The boy eats’
- ‘The woman swims’
- ‘The boys run’
By the end of the 30 minutes of repeatedly answering the multiple choice questions you have a general idea of plural and singular, some vocabulary and a handful of verbs. It’s not exactly the kind of phrases you’d expect to find in a first lesson like ‘how are you’, ‘my name is’, ‘I don’t understand’ etc. but it does give you a bit of an insight into word order and basic grammar.
The next lesson then introduces vocab such as ‘bread’, ‘coffee’, ‘milk’, ‘egg’ etc. You don’t start making full sentences yourself until quite late in the course. For languages with multiple genders, these are included also, with added questions to teach all the possible combinations.
After the main lesson, you have another vocabulary lesson. The vocabulary lesson is simply a repeat of the same test questions but slightly faster paced, without the time-consuming fade in/out of each question that you normally get. This section lasts only around 25 questions, as opposed to over 100 in the main lesson.
Next you have the grammar section, which consists of 60+ more questions in the same exact same style, only this time they are testing you on the grammar points (singular/plural, male/female etc.) We are now back to the same slow fade in/out of the questions, leaving you wondering when it will end…
What’s The Supplementary Material Like?
Since its original release, they’ve now added additional resources such as reading books, live lessons and bonus videos. Whilst it’s nice to see they’ve tried to diversify the content and add some variety, the supplementary material is still lacking in quantity, paling in comparison to the main syllabus.
The culture videos are a nice touch. You’ll find videos on how to sharpen a knife or fillet a fish, for example. Our only complaint is that they are delivered in English, and that most languages don’t have any. Those that do don’t have many, and they are only 1 minute long on average.
We were delighted to see that they have a section for reading books where you can read the book, listen to the audio by a native speaker, and then record yourself reading it yourself (although, you should really listen to it first before reading to prevent learning the incorrect pronunciation). We really loved how they highlight each word as it’s being said to help you follow along.
The record function records you saying the entire story. If the voice recognition software detects a mistake then it will stop you, highlight in red where you went wrong and prevent you from continuing. This is really annoying since the passage is very long and you are bound to make a mistake or two, let alone the software picking up on non-existant mistakes due to bugs or poor mic quality.
At least it does save your recording, allowing you to playback and hear yourself again. But when you click back to ‘listen’ to listen to the native speaker your recording is lost so you can’t move between them to compare yourself. When we came to the reading we found that there was no English translation!
The book isn’t much use if you have no way of learning what you are reading, and the easiest books are at least at an intermediate level. You can’t even highlight the text to copy and paste into google translate. The ‘books’ are only one page, about 10 short sentences. Not much of a book!
Finally, you also have the audio downloads which are a great help, and the live lessons (we didn’t attend any since there’s only about one per month and they are scheduled at a specific time). You can also book your group lessons (if you signed up for this option). The phrase book contains some useful phrases, grouped into topics such as ‘Shopping’, ‘Getting Around’ and ‘Staying in a Hotel’.
Who Is Rosetta Stone For?
So far it may seem that this review is very negative-heavy, but that’s not to say that it’s not for everyone. In fact, some people love the learning style and swear by it as their go-to resource. Those who might find it useful are perhaps those who:
Who Is Rosetta Stone NOT For?
Those that are likely to not finish the course of to find it of use are those who:
Rosetta Stone Alternatives
The good news is that there’s a myriad of alternative programs out there for you to try out, so you don’t have to restrict yourself to one specific program or learning method. In fact, everyone learns differently and it’s important to experiment with a wide range of different resources and programs until you find the one that you enjoy most and that you find most effective.
Unfortunately, the amount of resources differ from language to language. You won’t find as many resources for Polish as you will for Mandarin Chinese, for example. One of the best things about Rosetta Stone is that they cover over 25 languages. Nonetheless, there are a few other mainstream language programs that are definitely worth considering.
Rosetta Stone vs. Innovative Language
The first one that we’d like to recommend is the ‘Pod’ courses by Innovative Language. It was founded in 2005 and is one of the more well known language programs out there. They teach using very trendy, short & snappy video and audio lessons delivered by a range of different native speakers on a whole load of different topics, from native slang to ordering from a restaurant.
Their biggest difference from Rosetta Stone is that their teaching methodology allows you to mix and match your lessons and effectively tailor your own syllabus based on your interests and learning needs. They also feature voice recognition software and their programs come with a whole suit of extra vocab tools. They currently offer over 30 languages, from Africaans to Romanian. They have a well-developed app and offer offline learning.
We have written in-depth reviews for many of the courses by Innovative language. To get an idea of what the courses are like, here’s out review of EnglishClass101.
Rosetta Stone vs. Memrise
Memrise is very similar to Rosetta Stone in that it focuses on immersion and learning through association, however instead of having only images Memrise displays a wide variety of well-designed video clips of native speakers in the target country speaking the authentic language – a big improvement from the isolated generic images we get with Rosetta Stone.
Rosetta Stone vs. Duolingo
Chances are you’ve heard of Duolingo before. It’s an incredibly wide-spread gamified app that’s very addictive and has a zero dollar price tag. With Duolingo, you can dip into 19 different languages and watch your progress bars fill up, giving you the impression that you are progressing. It’s great fun and a nice introduction to a language.
However, like Rosetta Stone, not enough thought has gone behind each individual course and many errors, over-simplifications and unnatural language has been allowed to creep in. Given it’s free, there’s no harm in playing around with it and learning some of the basics, but for serious language learners it’s best to avoid it.
Rosetta Stone vs. Babbel
Babbel is another well-established big name in the language learning world. Again, they are very similar to Memrise, Rosetta Stone and Duolingo in that they have a series of gamified quizzes to introduce the language and reinforce what you’ve been taught. We liked how they threw you in the deep end from the very beginning by introducing full sentences, dialogues and authentic conversations.
You are not expected to understand everything from the beginning and instead they test you on the overall gist and what you can pick up from context. In our opinion, it’s a far more efficient use of your time than Rosetta Stone, which only introduces short dialogues quite late in the course.
Rosetta Stone vs. StoryLearning
Finally, a language program we can whole-heartedly recommend is StoryLearning. It’s founder, Olly Richards, designed the entire methodology around the immersion method with the key difference being that the entire course is built around a central story that is slowly unravelled chapter by chapter, about a man in a hat. This keeps you engaged for longer and provides all the target language in context before diving into in-depth video lessons on cognates (words similar to English), vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and speaking (all with a native language tutor).
Rosetta Stone Pricing
As we’ve mentioned, it’s not cheap. You have a few different options for pricing (they vary in different currencies):
- 3 month-subscription -> $35.97 (for one language)
- 6 month subscription -> $95.88 (for one language)
- Lifetime Membership -> $179 (for all 25 languages)
- Lifetime Plus membership -> $100 add-on (additional 12 months of weekly 25 minute group coaching calls)
Is It Worth The Money?
If you consider a traditional classroom course or a single semester of university, both of which could cost upwards of $1000, then it is comparatively quite affordable. However, given the amount of alternative online programs do exactly the same thing or better (and for a fraction of the price), we feel it’s grossly overpriced.
Even the additional coaching calls are not all they’re made up to be – they are not private classes as the promotional videos suggest but rather group classes with several other students. The classes last only 25 minutes and the teacher guides you through different games and exercises (not too different from the course itself). The tutor follows a strict schedule set by the company and doesn’t have a huge amount of freedom to tailor the lessons to you, limiting you to the slow pace of the program and the needs of the other students.
The money spent on these group sessions would be better spent elsewhere on one-on-one tutoring on websites such as italki, which is both affordable and fully flexible to your time schedule and learning needs.
Rosetta Stone Review: Conclusion
We approached this review with the highest hopes that Rosetta Stone would deliver, given it’s reputation as a leader in the language learning market. However, unfortunately it failed to fulfill our expectations. It may have been a game-changer back in it’s day, with great intentions backed by an innovative new learning methodology, but it’s executed poorly.
According to Rosetta Stone support, the course takes over 200 hours to complete. The study plan that they put you on is based on 30 minutes of study per day, 5 days a week. Based on this estimation, it’ll take you over a year and a half just to finish the course, which gets you to a lower-intermediate level (or intermediate at best). And that’s assuming that you actually finish the course and not get bored along the way.
Without some pretty major changes to it’s syllabus and the motivational techniques, it’s best to avoid it completely and instead opt for one of the cheaper competitors that feature more modern content with a variety of learning styles and resources. Overall, there are much faster, more effective and cheaper methods to reach fluency in your target language.
Michael has been an avid language learner and traveler for many years. His goal with LanguageTsar is to discover the most fun and effective ways to learn a language. He is currently learning Japanese, French and Indonesian.