This is the second of several reviews and articles on learning Spanish — or another language. Without a doubt, language immersion is probably the most effective way to learn another language: such as extended travel to a Spanish-speaking country. This is not always the most practical solution.

There are a number of other options, such as taking night classes, using your smartphone apps, listening to Spanish radio or television, or a computer software program. Using multiple approaches tends to reinforce what we have learned.

In this article, I will discuss Rosetta Stone. Over the last few years I have spent quite a few hours on the Rosetta Stone language immersion course (in my case, trying to learn a little Hebrew).

There are some things in life that require self-discipline. Learning a language is one of them. Rosetta Stone gives us many tools to make language learning fun and productive. I had the previous version of Rosetta Stone which consisted of a computer software program and MP3 audio files. I want to thank Rosetta Stone for providing the newer version for me to use in this review. Rosetta Stone has added an app, a place to play games and meet others who are learning, an even a virtual classroom.   

Computer software

Rosetta Stone is truly an immersion program. We only hear and see the target language we are trying to learn. For instance, if we are learning Spanish, we will see a photo representing the target word or expression, accompanied by the pronunciation of the same in Spanish. Little by little our vocabulary is added to. We may see a woman and hear mujer, and then we see a woman drinking, la mujer bebe.

Whenever possible, it is better to have a photo representative rather than a written or verbal description in our own language. The idea is to associate the word in Spanish directly with that item, rather than have to take multiple steps. Instead of seeing a horse and translating that into our minds, “ah, a horse, horse means caballo” we think caballo right away.

Rosetta Stone teaches the target language with native pronunciation, and provides plenty of vocabulary to form a base from which to expand to other areas of interest. In one of the screens, for instance, we may see four photos: a boy drinking, a boy eating, a girl drinking, and a girl eating. Even though we may not have previously been taught the full expression, we can figure out what it will be by the time we get to that screen. Before we know it, our mind begins to make grammar rules and think in the new target language.

For the most part, Rosetta Stone does a very good job of building from one word, or short expressions, to longer expressions. So you know la mujer, then la mujer bebe, and finally, la mujer bebe leche (the woman, the woman drinks, and the woman drinks milk). It is very nice to learn how words work in context, rather than as a vocabulary list. In this way we will learn to follow proper grammar rules almost effortlessly.

Rosetta Stone will also test our knowledge and review earlier lessons as we move on through the course. This process helps to keep the vocabulary active in our minds. And of course, we can review any particular lesson as many times as we wish. After I had completely conquered a lesson, I found it very useful to completely turn off the sound on the computer so that I was not just repeating the lesson, but testing myself. I used this in two different ways. One was to assess my reading skills and another to see if I had really internalized the expressions.     

Next version

Photos. In the very best of cases, it is not always easy to learn what a photo is trying to indicate. For instance, it takes quite a bit of creativity to provide the contextual clues that show the difference between say, a sister and a friend. The quality of photos in Rosetta Stone is uneven. Some photos are not only pleasing to the eye but very clever in their design. Others are poor in quality (both composition and lighting). This is not a fatal flaw, as either way, sooner or later we begin to uncover the meaning of the puzzle. Perhaps Rosetta Stone could provide, hidden under an icon, the meaning of the word or expression in the target language. It would be wonderful if the photos had more face validity, so that one could imagine that the people in the photos are from the target language one is learning.

Vocabulary. Rosetta Stone would be even more powerful if it was designed to increase or decrease our exposure to words and expressions as we make mistakes or learn them. For all practical purposes, one has to repeat the complete lesson rather than focus on target vocabulary.

Speed. Rosetta Stone moves somewhat slowly to the next screen after receiving our input. Although we are talking about fractions of a second, it sometimes feels like the lesson is dragging.

MP3s

Rosetta Stone provides the lessons in audio files. At first I was surprised that these were completely in the target language. At one time I had used Language 30 audio, which would provide the word in the known language, and repeated twice, after a pause, in the target language. Over time, I have come to find great value in the Rosetta Stone immersion approach and the importance of listening to these audio files. As we listen to the audio files during commute, exercise or at other times, our brain will pick up certain words and expressions. It does not matter at all if we know what a particular word means. As we come across that word or expression during our regular computer practice sessions, we will learn these faster. Also, these audio files are an excellent review of materials learned.

TOTALe App.

One of the great advantages of an app, over a computer program, is that one can study when there are a few minutes available, here and there. Rosetta Stone provides a free app, as part of the TOTALe learning process. This permits the user to study even when there are only a few minutes available. The app is designed to mirror the computer lessons.   

Suggestions for the next version:

The app is free for three months. Because users can still use the regular computer lessons, Rosetta Stone might consider an option of selling the TOTALe app to interested users who do not continue the subscription process. In addition, Rosetta Stone has the opportunity to develop a different app, one where the users can practice vocabulary words and expressions based on their own special interests. For instance, a user may wish to learn his or her numbers. Rather than learning a few numbers here and there, an app would be the perfect place to practice a more extensive set of numbers. But then, excellent low cost apps to do just that already exist, and they work well with or without Rosetta Stone. Two such examples are AccelaStudy and Byki (see my smartphone app review).

Rosetta World.

Rosetta World provides users the opportunity to play language-related games online and listen to stories in the target language. One of the games I particularly liked meant clicking on the correct photo and matching it to the spoken word. In theory, users can also play games against other learners. At this time, at least in Hebrew, there are few opportunities to find other users to play with. But if we make a request, the Rosetta Stone concierge team will plan for a game day for your target language. 

Online classroom

Fear of embarrassment sometimes holds us back from trying to speak a new language. But when we do have a conversation with another person, the motivational boost can lift us to new levels of skill and confidence. I have saved the very best item for last: the Rosetta Stone Studio online classroom. Despite my unfounded apprehensions about participating, I jumped in with both feet. The maximum number of students that can join the virtual classroom at one time is four. This way each learner gets lots of opportunities to participate. With the very best motivational and teaching techniques available, coaches greet the participants and engage us in conversation for fifty minutes. In order to improve success rates, Rosetta Stone encourages participants to complete the related computer work for that unit and lesson. The coaches are courteous, kind, motivating, and patient. We are exposed to a photo and are asked questions about the same. If everything else fails and we blank out, the coach offers us a few suggestions. For instance, a photo may show a boy running. If the correct answer escapes us, the coach may ask something like: ¿el niño bebe? o ¿el niño come? o ¿el niño corre? Ah, that is it, we recognize it, el niño corre. So we repeat el niño corre.

The instructors are so very positive, that if someone gets it even partially correct, the coach makes sounds of approval and encouragement, and repeats what we have said, making a correction if necessary. For example, we see a woman swimming and say, elmujer nada. The answer is almost perfect, so the coach says. ¡Bien! La mujer nada. What was most surprising to me, was that with few exceptions the students got a better than average grasp of the proper pronunciation. I believe that the main Rosetta Stone computer course was responsible for that. Participants can take each lesson as many times as they wish.      

Prices

At this writing, to purchase the program ranges from $179 (Level 1) to $300 (Levels 1 & 2) to $450 (Levels 1 through 5). Learners keep use of the main software and MP3s, but the online materials require a subscription after the first three months have expired. To extend the learning process through the online features, such as the TOTALe Companion, the online classroom and games, it costs $25 for one month, $49 for three months, $75 for six months, and $99 for 9 months. If a person takes advantage of one class per week for a month, the cost turns out to be equivalent to $6.25 for each fifty minute class. At the same study rate, if and individual signs up for the 9 month program, it comes to about $2.5 per class. There is no limit, of course, to the number of classes we can take.  

Summary. The newest version of Rosetta Stone with the various TOTALe components provides a powerhouse of learning opportunities. The traditional software helps learners pick up vocabulary and grammar naturally, the way we picked up our native tongue. The various TOTALe components provide lots of motivation as we make our way through the difficult process of learning a new language. I was impressed by the people who work for Rosetta Stone, from the people giving the introductory talk that explains the various learning options, to the invaluable asset that Rosetta Stone provides through their effective and positive teaching style and committed instructors. Learning a new language has never been easier, but it still takes effort and commient.

Gregorio Billikopf is a labor management farm advisor for the University of California. He may be reached at gebillikopf@ucdavis.edu.