With TOTALe, Rosetta Stone brings the social web to language software [review]

Summary:Rosetta Stone TOTALe combines the company's signature instruction methods with the social web. It's incredibly comprehensive, but is it worth $999?

Rosetta Stone's latest iteration of its popular language learning software, TOTALe, crossbreeds the company's signature instruction methods with the social web. It's incredibly comprehensive, but whether the $999 sticker price gives you goosebumps or a heart attack depends on how you look at it.

If you've ever considered learning a new language, there's no doubt you've noticed Rosetta Stone's iconic yellow boxes grouped at a kiosk at your local mall. For years, the company has pushed its unique approach to language instruction, eschewing classic methods that plainly outline sentence structure and verb conjugation for "immersion" that allows you to parachute into the language without knowing its rules to learn with the help of visual and aural aids.

If you've ever learned a foreign language, you know that immersion -- including conversing with others -- is a much different experience than working from a classroom textbook. Rosetta Stone introduced TOTALe (toe-taal-eee) in late July 2009 to take advantage of the increasing networking of computers and people and inject a bit of Skype-like conferencing to its otherwise straightforward, 1:1 software.

In another move mirroring the latest technology trends, the software is based entirely online. That's right -- the yellow box is no longer needed.

[Image Gallery: Rosetta Stone TOTALe]

A lack of box aside, TOTALe costs $999, an astounding figure for anyone used to purchasing consumer software but a relative value for anyone considering a semester-long college-level language course. It also doubles the price of the company's top offering; the former flagship box (three levels on CD, no online components) costs $549.

The company says the experience is comparable to a local language immersion school. So I spent a few months with the Italian version to find out.

(Why Italian, by the way? Like many Americans, the language of my immigrant ancestors was lost to assimilation. Here was a chance to give it a go.)

MAMBO ITALIANO

The first thing you'll notice is that Rosetta Stone barely gives you any instructions. It just hurls you headfirst into learning. The entire experience takes place in the browser -- meaning you can learn anywhere, anytime -- and the software tracks your progress automatically. It's surprisingly snappy for a web-based endeavor.

The first screen prompted me with separate slides of a man and woman eating and drinking. You must pick out the panes that correspond to the prompt. That's the first thing you'll notice about Rosetta Stone: it thrives on trial-and-error. This is not your typical language instruction course in college -- Rosetta Stone wants you to guess incorrectly, and there's no timer to worry about. Like a child learning words for the first time, it's those mistakes that propel your progress forward.

Luckily -- or to my detriment, with consideration to my point above -- I was a French major in college, so the words were similar to those I already knew. After choosing the correct panes (it moves them around so you can't play the elimination game), the software makes you repeat them verbally, using a microphone headset included in the box.

Consecutive slides switch the approach up. Sometimes you use visual cues, sometimes you use aural clues and sometimes you must speak, using your microphone headset, instead of select with your mouse.

Here's where I found a bit of a communication breakdown: using the Rosetta Stone-provided headset, some of my pronunciation attempts were not recognized correctly by the software, which marked them wrong, much to my frustration.

(Before you suggest that I simply spoke with a poor accent, I verified my attempts in person with an Italian-speaking friend, who said I spoke them correctly.)

In several cases, I had to say words with theatrical emphasis -- placing undue stress on the "ci" in "cucina," or the "nuo" in "nuotano," for example. Occasionally I had to shout a little for the software to register, much to the amusement of my Italian-speaking friend in the room adjacent to the room I was working in.

My pronunciation frustrations came to a froth when I had to shout the "pa" in "palla" -- Italian for "ball" -- six times to move on.

For the most part, the images Rosetta Stone uses as visual cues were clear, but sometimes the "real-world" photos weren't clear as to what they were signifying. For example, one slide asked for me to find the "me" in the photo, but the person shown pointing to themselves was a subtle detail.

Overall, the software is a breeze to use, and flows evenly as you make progress, using inference and intuition as a guide. It introduces new words and constructions by keeping just-learned words constant.

The first unit in the first lesson progresses like so:

  • First a core lesson of basic words (could be nouns, verbs or pronouns);
  • Then pronunciation (using microphone);
  • Then speaking (with words in front, then without, then answer conversation without; using microphone);
  • Then a short review of everything in mixed but ordered fashion;
  • Then reading (more exacting pronunciation: an Italian example would be "chi" and "ci," which in English are pronounced the opposite);
  • Then writing (typing words out onto a screen, like an e-mail);
  • Then a "milestone" narrative slideshow review of the entire unit, which I found very difficult.

As you can see, Rosetta Stone does a good job ensuring you review what you learned. Each section itself uses repetition to reinforce learning, there are review sections built into the overall progression, and best of all, the software automatically prompts you with a five-minute "adaptive review" if you've spent more than a week away from the software, which I found quite helpful.

One nit-picky thing about the "writing" section: the software marks your response wrong if you don't capitalize the first word of a phrase, even if it's not a proper noun. Like my difficulties getting TOTALe to register my spoken words, it's an aggravating little thing that impedes the learning of the language by requiring you to spend time learning the software.

ROSETTA STUDIO

After all that, you're faced with the TOTALe portion of the software: the in-person "Studio" portion, in which you work with an actual language instructor. (There's one per unit, or four per lesson, for a total of twelve.)

Here's where the extra $500 comes into play. You have exactly 50 minutes with a native-language instructor -- in person, via videoconference -- to review what you've learned and even go a little off topic a bit. In my lesson, I reviewed colors, pronouns, basic sentence structure (I + verb, you + verb, he or she + verb) and numbers.

Unfortunately for myself and Giuliana, my instructor, I had waited several weeks after I completed my basic training to leap into the tête-à-tête Studio portion. Having forgotten most of what I had learned, I struggled to come up with words and phrases I knew I had learned earlier. Giuliana gave me her best shot with a smile, using tools and on-screen cues (arrows, little text boxes to write out what she meant) to prompt me. The experience is just like trying to ask someone for directions in another language: there's a lot of hand waving, a lot of impromptu comparisons made, and a whole lot of repetition. It was a little embarrassing, but mostly fun, and the content often moved beyond the slides to personal interactions, just like a classroom ("I am wearing a blue shirt," "I am wearing two black socks," "I have a gray cat," "There are no horses in New York.")

I had 50 minutes with Giuliana. Excluding the ability to retake that session, multiply that by the twelve scheduled studio sessions, and you've got yourself 600 minutes with native speaking instructors. It's like having a private tutor, and it's the best thing you can get without hanging out with native speakers, a particularly important thing for those of us who live outside major urban centers.

ROSETTA WORLD

"Rosetta World" is an online social game environment that exists to take what you know and move it into practice. The section provides interactive games to play in three categories: solo, duo and "simbio," which is an opt-in, crowd-sourced way to learn with others. Imagine your favorite online Texas Hold 'Em poker game turned into an actual language game with other learners.

I took the solo game "Gambo" -- Bingo, basically, for words and phrases you know -- for a whirl to see if I could catch recognizable words in dictation. I had fun with it, and did fairly well based on what I had learned in Lesson One, Unit One. You can see it in action above. (There are several other games to play.)

TOTALE IN PERSPECTIVE

It's interesting to note that Rosetta Stone never gives you the translation of the words you just learned. Instead of linking the new language's words with your current language, it links them to visual and aural cues -- just like real life.

The Rosetta Stone software is incredibly comprehensive. To give you a sense of what you're buying with this software, I completed Level One, Unit One, which consisted of two hours and 10 minutes of instruction divided into four core lessons (themselves divided into 30 sub-lessons) and a final milestone review.

That's just one unit in one level. Each level has four units, and TOTALe includes three levels' worth of instruction.

In practice, it took me about a week or two to finish the unit, working the instruction around my personal schedule. It's also not easy to simply whiz through the units -- like an intensive class, it becomes exhausting enough after a point to need to give your brain some fresh air.

You can go back in and reuse all features in TOTALe for a year, and the software allows you to reset your scores and start over with a fresh "install," if you will, as many times as you like. But after a year, your $999 expires, which is disappointing but understandable as software moves toward a subscription pay model.

Rosetta Stone TOTALe works on all major browsers, for Mac or PC.

$1,000 SOFTWARE: SI, OR NO?

A four-digit price tag is a major hurdle with Rosetta Stone's TOTALe, but it all depends on how you look at it. Compared to the price of your antivirus software, TOTALe's $999 retail price is enough to make you choke on your lunch.

But compared to a college-level language instruction course -- which requires you to be in the same place, same time, every week, in person, with other people -- it's a relative deal, particularly for executives who want to learn a language on the fly or for people who want to learn a new language as a hobby.

The problem with such freedom, of course, is that you need to have the personal conviction to keep going. I found myself drifting away from Rosetta Stone and getting wrapped up in my other weekly activities, and I wish the company had been more persistent -- pestering, even -- in e-mailing me with reminders. (Rosetta Stone e-mails you a congratulations when you complete the first unit.)

A note about the Rosetta Stone method: The "immersion inference" way of instruction is a great way to keep your native language out of the equation, but in doing so, it mixes new nouns and verbs and endings all at once in batches without teaching you the rules outright. That means you don't necessarily know how to build sentences and speak with people in the early stages -- your knowledge base is as patchy as a newborn's hair at that point -- which can be frustrating.

What that means is that the software's "natural" way of learning is more difficult to takeaway in incomplete pieces. Compared to traditional language instruction -- where you learn structure and syntax and essential verbs and endings first to open more doors into new nouns, verbs and tenses -- learning things in piecemeal meant I couldn't really speak properly immediately.

For example, during my Studio session, I couldn't speak in complete sentences -- just words and phrases. So instead of "The man is wearing a blue shirt," I could only say "Man? Blue shirt." It's almost as if traditional language instruction is designed so that you can say a complete sentence no matter how little (or much) you've learned. Even after an entire unit with Rosetta Stone, I still don't understand the verbs "to be" or "to wear" or "to read" fully -- I have only partial knowledge of their many forms.

I do understand Rosetta Stone is designed to teach language differently. However, that delayed gratification may frustrate some who are looking for quicker results from such expensive software.

THE BOTTOM LINE

There's a reason the Rosetta Stone box is yellow. It's the gold standard of language learning, and it puts into question the several hundred dollars per credit I spent learning French in my undergrad years. TOTALe ups the ante by allowing significant, real-time interaction with native speakers from the comfort of your own home.

Rosetta Stone isn't the only game in town, either: Smaller outfits such as Livemocha, BabalaH, Palabea, Busuu and Learn10 are also making online plays for your interest.

But is TOTALe worth the extra $500 over Rosetta Stone's traditional offerings? That's a more difficult call to make. The lion's share of the software only costs $500 if bought à la carte. With a $500 upgrade, you are essentially paying for human help and semiprivate lessons.

Is it worth the extra? For some, the doubled price tag won't feel worth it. Some folks will rather just have the language software and go it on their own.

But for others, $500 is a small price to pay for several hours of face-to-face interaction with a native-language instructor.

Have I learned enough to swap stories with my extended family members in Italy? Not yet, but I'm working on it. With a slick, intuitive web interface, Rosetta Stone TOTALe helped me have more fun learning a language than I had during college. And that's pretty great.

Topics: CXO, IT Employment, Software

About

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. He is also the former editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation. He writes about business, technology and design now but used to cover finance, fashion and culture. He was an intern at Money, Men's Vogue, Popular Mechanics and the New York Daily Ne... Full Bio

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