Rosetta Stone? Rosetta Stone is very well-known series of language-learning programs, available for more than a dozen languages. It is a program that can either be installed on your computer or accessed on all your Internet-connected devices if you opt for an online subscription (which also allows you a bit of personal instruction). In this short review, I will go over Rosetta Stone’s strong and weak points and discuss what sort of learner will have the greatest chance of success with it.
What’s my opinion worth? Besides being an Arabic teacher, I have a lot of experience with Rosetta Stone, having completed about half of their 12-unit Polish course (i.e., half way through level 2), and quite a bit of the Swahili and Mandarin courses years ago. I am also familiar with the content of the Arabic course, as I was once writing a companion book for it. (It is a little-known fact that the entire course contents can be downloaded in the form of a PDF from the Rosetta Stone website.) I personally like Rosetta Stone, but I only recommend it for a specific type of learner: someone who already has some background in the language, is familiar with the sorts of grammatical concepts the target language will present, and has the perseverance to complete a course that is culturally unaware and that many find boring.
Carefully structured and entirely in Arabic. There are many language-learning methods out there, and even software-based courses can differ widely in terms of both content and methodology. Whether you love it or hate it, Rosetta Stone is unique. Each course is carefully structured and strictly direct-method, instructing you entirely in the target language with the help of specially designed photos and audio. So, in Rosetta Stone Arabic, the only English you will ever see is in the interface, such as “stop”, “start”, and “pause”. Literally everything else will be in Arabic. You will be guided through activities that develop your listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills, but no point of grammar, spelling, or pronunciation will ever be literally explained to you. Rather, the idea is that being presented with the right examples, you will figure out the rules of the language on your own, perhaps without even consciously thinking about it.
Learning activities. You might be wondering about what kind of learning activities could be included in a lesson. Here are a few examples:
- You are presented with a screen featuring four photos. You hear sentences and have to click on the picture being described.
- You hear a short sentence and are asked to type it.
- You see a photo with a short sentence describing it. A voice reads the sentence and you have to repeat it. The program rates how well you did.
- You see three pictures describing related situations, say, “she’s eating an orange”, “he’s drinking milk”, “they’re eating bread”, and then you have to say the sentence describing the fourth picture: “he’s eating an orange”.
What’s it really like? If you’d like to get a feel for what it’s like working in Rosetta Stone, here is capture of the first “core lesson” block of unit 1 that someone was kind enough to post on YouTube. (Each unit includes four of these longer “core lesson” blocks and 29 shorter practice blocks.) It’s quite long, so you won’t want to watch the whole thing, but it will give you an idea about the activities.
From the horse’s mouth. Before I get into my own review, let’s first let the people at Rosetta Stone explain the program in their own words and give you a little sales pitch:
What kind of Arabic? As with any Arabic course or textbook, one of the most important questions to ask is what kind of Arabic it is. What is taught in the case of Rosetta Stone is a quite formal variety of Standard Arabic. Most of the case and mood endings are pronounced which aren’t normally pronounced in informal Arabic. For example, the word رجل ‘a man’ is pronounced rajulun (with the nominative ending ‑un) rather than the more informal rajul, even before a pause. Many other modern methods eschew this formality and teach you a variety of Standard Arabic that is a bit closer to the modern dialects that people actually speak.
Common gripes. First, let’s touch on some common complaints you’ll read in reviews:
Price: A few years ago, the full course would set back around US$500, but nowadays a one-year subscription can cost as little as US$115. Even if you zoom through this course without having to repeat anything (which won’t be the case for most people), you will spend over 75 hours going through all the activities. If you ask me, that’s money well spent.
No cultural content: The photos and thematic content is uniform across all Rosetta Stone language courses. Every culture has its own foods, holidays, customs, and other distinctive features, but you won’t learn about them in a Rosetta Stone course. So, for Arabic, you won’t learn many of the words and phrases related to Islamic culture. You won’t learn the names of foods you’re most likely going to be eating in Egypt or Saudi Arabia. You won’t even learn how to deal with Arab currencies. This is a real drawback. If you’re going to use Rosetta Stone, you will need to learn culture- and country-specific vocabulary elsewhere.
Rigid methodology: The idea of learning everything in the target language is appealing, but certain things are just next to impossible to learn without at least a little bit of explanation. For example, are you really going to figure out all on your own that (Standard) Arabic has three cases (nominative, genitive, and accusative) just by hearing nouns in different contexts? Will you really figure out that the “they” form of the verb could actually be four different forms depending on whether the subject is masculine, feminine, exactly two, or more than two?
The rigid direct-method nature of Rosetta Stone’s approach makes it a poor choice for a total novice learning a grammatically complex language. If you already speak Spanish, you will probably do well learning Portuguese or Italian using Rosetta Stone, because you are already familiar with most of the grammatical concepts you will encounter. But try to learn Russian or Irish and you probably won’t get very far without consulting outside sources.
Oh, and with the Arabic course, the writing system is also taught by sink-or-swim. From the very start all of the Arabic—individual words and whole sentences—is written entirely in Arabic script, with no introduction showing, for example, that the short vowels aren’t written or that a single letter can have various shapes. Good luck with that! (For a book that systematically teaches the writing system, see my book Bite-Size Arabic.)
Perhaps boring: Rosetta Stone requires you to sit for many hours at your computer or glued to your tablet or smartphone. Many people have done enough of that during their workday and won’t have the stamina to spend even more screen time with a language-learning program. Furthermore, the course does not have characters, story lines, or even locations that help you connect to it. For most people, traditional classroom instruction or private instruction is going to be much more engaging and give them more drive to finish the course.
Live instruction? I have never made use of the live instruction, where you schedule a short appointment with a Rosetta Stone instructor over VOIP, but from what I read about it in reviews, it’s often fraught with scheduling issues and other frustrations. I haven’t read anything really positive about it, but maybe you will have better experiences than those people did.
Positive points. As I mentioned at the beginning, I actually like Rosetta Stone, which I have used to improve my Polish. Here’s what I like:
- Everything’s in the target language. If you’re already familiar with the grammar, what better way to refresh and reinforce it than by engaging in activities entirely in the language that focus on those points?
- It gives you things to practice speaking about, even when you’re all alone. For many activities, if you get used to clicking on pause, you can go back and describe all of the pictures that were just used without looking at the text. Behold, you are talking about pictures without thinking in your native language at all!
- It forces you to speak. While I find many of the exercises too easy, the speaking exercises often catch me off guard. It takes practice being able to respond within the time given, and that’s good practice!
- The written exercises are constantly turning up misconceptions I have about how certain words are spelled or pronounced. These exercises are rather unforgiving. I learn from that!
- Certain topics, such as telling time, are too tedious repetitive to do with a live teacher. Practicing them on your computer is more comfortable.
- As I mentioned, my experience is with Rosetta Stone Polish. I have actually studied quite a bit of Polish already, and I find Rosseta Stone a great way to reinforce or review what I learned earlier with other methods. I think it’s really great for review.
My recommendation. The Rosetta Stone Arabic course would likely be good for you if:
- You are already familiar enough with the writing system that you can read whole words.
- You already have some background in Arabic grammar: you have seen how verbs are conjugated in the present and past tenses, you know that there are two genders and that various parts of speech need to agree with the noun, you know that there are both duals and plurals, you know that nouns can appear in three different cases.
- You have a strong determination to finish the course and are sure you will not drop it after the novelty has worn off.
- You are comfortable using multiple resources rather than relying solely on Rosetta Stone to teach you everything. You will need consult other sources for explanation of grammar points you can’t infer on your own from Rosetta Stone, and you also need to read other material to learn about culture-specific vocabulary, phrases, and background.
I hope this review was useful, whether or not you decide to use Rosetta Stone. Are there aspects I haven’t covered here? Leave me a comment and I’ll update this review.