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October 13, 2014

Rosetta Stone Running Columbus Day Sale

I have mixed feelings about Rosetta Stone, mostly on the negative side. As they're doing a sale you might be interested in, I wanted to post a review.

On the good side, there are people who swear by it. Their basic pedagogy is sound enough -- it's the same sort of thing you'd see in most other online courses. They present pictures of an apple, say, and then you listen to someone say the word "pomme" in French, and you see the word "pomme."

They use repetition to teach you. So much repetition; but this is true of any language course. Repetition is terrible and boring, but it's the only way to learn.

They build up a basic vocabulary -- never using any language but the one it's trying to teach you -- using pictures to express the ideas, not words in English (or any other language).

Ultimately they build up to fairly short, simple sentences.

On the downside, there are limits to Rosetta Stone's insistence that it will never teach you grammar lessons in your native tongue. Rosetta Stone's theory is that you will naturally intuit the grammar, by comparison to your own, or just seeing it in operation.

To some extent, this is true. You will probably easily pick up on the idea that, say, "il dit" is the present tense of "he speaks," but "il a dit" is the past tense.

But in important ways it's not true.

The French Subjunctive mood is one of the trickiest bits in the language -- something even native French speakers have adopted alternate ways of saying the same thing in order to avoid the subjunctive -- but Rosetta Stone just introduces it, without explaining why the verb "fait" (do or make) is suddenly being rendered as "fasse."

And they do this fairly early, too. I think it's because they're trying to use the word for "although," which in French is expressed in "bien que." However, due to the French's determination to confuse anyone who tries the speak their language, any verb in a clause introduced by "bien que" must be expressed in the subjunctive, not the regular moods we use in English.

I think this was the point in the program in which they introduced "although" for any language, and even though "although" is an unreasonably confusing word in French, they decided to keep with the plan and introduce it the same time they introduce it in other languages. (Most other courses I've seen deliberately keep away from "bien que" because it's tricky; they just avoid saying "although" until students have learned the less tricky verb formations.)

I already had a fair amount of contact with the language when this came up from other sources so when this weird -- and unexplained -- change of "fait" to "fasse" began coming up, I realized, "Oh, bien que is one of those phrases that always requires the subjunctive."

I have no idea how someone without prior knowledge of the subjunctive would have figured this out. Again, the course presents no grammar lessons, none, zilch, and relies upon the learner to figure this out for himself.

The subjunctive is something the learner cannot possibly figure out just for himself. Past indicative tense, future indicative tense, sure.

The subjunctive isn't the only tricky business Rosetta Stone presents without explanation. French marks what is called "the narrative past" by using the present tense of a helping verb, to be or to have, plus a past participle. This past tense is used to narrate specific events happening at discreet times in the past.

But French also uses a continuing-action past with a different method of forming the past tense.

An example would be:

Quand j'etais petit, j'ai ete tres malade une fois. (Accents omitted.)

When I was little, I was very sick one time.

The first bolded term means "I was..." in continuing action, not in a discrete event. It sets the general past conditions for the rest of the sentence. The second bolded term means "I was..." (or I had been) as regards a specific, discrete event.

Rosetta Stone doesn't explicitly explain this. I don't really know how a learner would just figure this out on his own, except by looking it up at some other source.

On this entire point, I have to say, it's not the biggest complaint at all. It may sound like a huge complaint, but really it is more of an annoyance. Because even though Rosetta Stone doesn't explain why "bien que" takes an odd verb mood, and even though it doesn't explain continuing-action-past vs. narrative past, it is easy enough just to look this stuff up on line anyway, and furthermore, I doubt any learner is going to rely on one source to teach him the language. (Well, I guess you'd have to know to look up "subjonctif" -- if you don't know what word to search for, then I guess you wouldn't necessarily be able to easily find the answer here.)

So I guess I'm complaining here that Rosetta Stone is incomplete. But this incompleteness is hardly a dealbreaker. With a small amount of effort, a user could just get the external grammar explanations he needs.

Now, when I bought this, I got some kind of online subscription allowing me to play their word-based games online, and also giving me something like 60 days in which I could connect through their software to speak to native speakers of the language you're learning, and play various simple language-based games with them.

I think this last thing is important, though I personally never took advantage of it. Like many people, I was just too afraid to try speaking in an alien language. So I never used this important feature, and that's my fault, not theirs.

However, looking at the deal, it does not appear you get that with their $229 deal. Because I also see on the page a 36 month "online subscription" for $159 (and shorter subscriptions for less money).

So I think that what is being offered for $229 is just their program without these online games and without the call-in-to-speak-with-native-speakers feature.

They say they're reducing the price of this program from $499 to $229.

However, on Amazon, it seems to cost $249, and that seems to include a three-months subscription to the online stuff and "live chat" with native speakers.

I don't think much of the "online interactive games" overall but the part of it where you speak the language is important.

I don't know if Amazon's deal is also time-limited. That seems cheap to me -- I think I paid like $325 or $350 for a similar deal.

By the way, though, I do have to caution buyers: You may think that the 1-2-3-4-5 steps means that by step five you'll be pretty familiar with the language, that level 5 represents a high degree of fluency.

I think they do that to suggest the way language speakers are classified as 5/5 for native level fluency in writing/native level fluency in speaking.

It doesn't mean anything like that. 1-2-3-4-5 are just the five levels of a fairly basic course on the language. To be conversational, you'd need a lot more practice -- a lot -- and to be fluent, you'd need years of frequent use and further study.

This is true of pretty much any language course, though, except for expensive true immersion courses.

I get nothing from noting this. I have no connection to Rosetta Stone.

I don't even really think it's a great system. (But I have to again say that I did not take advantage of one of the most important parts of it, the opportunity to speak with native speakers.)

But it does seem like they're discounting it a fair amount. So while I didn't love Rosetta Stone, I do know that many people do, and this seems like a decent price.

Rosetta Stone's "sales clock" says there are eight hours left on this deal. I don't know if Amazon's price is a special deal or if $249 is now their everyday price for the course.

Is it great? No. Is it useful? Yes. And at least for today, it seems fairly cheap.

So, if you were considering it anyway... $249 seems like a fair deal.

Alternatives: For the investment of zero dollars, you could also try DuoLingo.

DuoLingo is basically a stripped down, occasionally not-very-well edited version of Rosetta Stone, with some game elements added.

For example, you actually buy "extra lives" with which you can cancel out errors on quizzes. You buy these extra lives by doing things in the system, not with money.

One thing I like about DuoLingo is that it gets you using the language really quickly by, get this, translating foreign language Wikipedia entries into English. If you ever read a Wikipedia entry about a foreign TV show, and that article seems to written by an idiot -- that's probably because a DuoLingo user translated it.

But it's a cool thing, to start translating stuff so early, even if you really don't know what the hell you're doing and all of your idiotic translations are later corrected by people who know better.

Or sometimes people who don't know better -- sometimes low-level speakers come in and change your good translation into a stilted, error-ridden bad translation.

But the point is that it's getting you to use the language, and to use it for an actual useful purpose -- making foreign Wikipedia entries available to English speakers.

DuoLingo isn't great either, and also provides no grammar lessons, but I do like the game-like elements and the translation stuff. And for zero dollars, well, you can't beat that.

Update: Commenters tell me DuoLingo isn't free anymore, but costs something like $5.

digg this
posted by Ace at 04:26 PM

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