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

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?

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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, Software, IT Employment

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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12 comments
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  • Basic fallacy in the concept

    This software is basically a fancy version of the Berlitz method introduced more than a century ago. It is based on the idea that you can learn a new language the way you learned your native language.

    But linguists have proved that that hypothesis is false. Up until around puberty the human brain/mind combination has the inherent ability to learn a language by "osmosis", by creating a set of rules (collectively called a grammar) that generates and can comprehend a language. It essentially reverse-engineers spoken language heard.

    But biological changes occur over time that physically hardwire the brain for a particular language. The hardwiring is why even people with "total" amnesia can still speak and understand their native language. But once the "hardwiring" occurs--around the age of puberty--the brain lacks the ability to learn a language by "osmosis".

    Part of the problem is that our conception of how the reality works is filtered through our language and it is totally subconscious. For instance, Latin, German and Russian are "case" languages. Nouns take different forms depending on whether they are the subject, the direct object, indirect object, etc. For a person raised speaking a case language, learning another case language is easy. For someone raised speaking a language that doesn't decline nouns (e.g., English), unless the concept of noun declensions is expressly explained, the person won't ever understand it, because the basic concept doesn't exist in his understanding of language. Similarly, English, Spanish, German, etc., all have the subjunctive mode ("If I were you", not "If I was you") to indicated unreal conditions and commands ("We order that [b][i]he leave[/i][/b] immediately".) Hebrew doesn't have the subjunctive. So a Hebrew speaker hearing such a language would lack the concept of a separate verb form like that.

    When I took Russian, like Latin, Spanish and German before that I memorized the various verbs. In the third semester they told us, "Okay, now we are going to teach about [b][i]perfective and imperfective[/i][/b] verbs. Unlike Germanic, Romance and many other languages, Slavic languages have two separate sets of verbs--one for completed actions (perfective) and one for incomplete actions. You have to memorize two words for every new verb."

    Really! Nice of you to wait until we have spent a YEAR before you tell us that! Gee, try guessing THAT one by "immersion"!

    What happens with a Berlitz method is that the person really just memorizes a bunch of specific words and phrases with no real understanding of how things fit together. Unlike a baby learning, he starts trying to force what he is hearing to use the grammar rules of his own native language. When he doesn't understand something he concocts his own makeshift grammar rule. Then later he runs into a bunch of exceptions--because his makeshift rule is wrong.

    The fact that these programs are used by the military, etc., is not a testament to their effectiveness, it is a testament to the limited range of programs available. Try finding 15 wordprocessing programs that can spellcheck Latin, Old Church Slavonic or Biblical Hebrew. Same problem.
    Rick_R
  • RE: With TOTALe, Rosetta Stone brings the social web to language software [review]

    Instead of comparing Totale to the boxed version of Rosetta Stone, compare it to the software available for a FRACTION of the price and practice for free online. Learn to Speak and Instant Immersion are just 2 examples of software for less than $60.00 - then you can supplement with films, audio cds, etc.

    Cindy Tracy
    World of Reading, Ltd.
    www.wor.com
    www.worldofreadingltd.wordpress.com
    polyglot3
  • RE: With TOTALe, Rosetta Stone brings the social web to language software [

    Well, with this economy I can definitely not afford RS's
    exorbitant price. You can get a great experience of doing
    lessons online and connecting with native speakers with FREE
    sites like www.hello-hello.com which BTW had their lessons
    developed by ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of
    foreign languages...) Definitely worth a try...
    Calil
  • RE: With TOTALe, Rosetta Stone brings the social web to language software [

    The only way you can justify prices like that is if
    you have multiple users to utilize the program. But
    for an individual you really can't justify more then
    $150 for any software program. In most cases my price
    point is $99 or less.

    Software that is intended for single users really
    needs to be priced at $49 maximum. Some software
    companies are like Bose speakers, they price
    themselves out of the market for most people. So I buy
    from their competitors, even if its not quite as good.
    Buying the best is for the rich, not for the average
    Joe like me.
    shanedr
    • Or.... Pirate Bay ;)

      Ooops. Did I say that?
      jtgsi
  • Enter Skype, etc.

    Before eBay trashed -- er, bought out -- Skype (and
    they're finally getting back out of it, may it recover
    now,) it was commonly used for people wanting to study
    another language with native speakers. There were
    rooms in languages, topics, etc. Was it perfect? No,
    but it WAS a way to hear the language and interact.
    THAT is immersion. Going to the country for a while,
    that's immersion. Paying nearly a dollar a minute for
    some native speaker to be on the cam for a little
    while at a time is not immersion. It's a gimmick.

    Rosetta Stone was an okay method. (I tried a free
    sample out.) But it wasn't great. Some of the
    inconsistencies the author described bothered me as
    well, and interfered greatly.

    Language is dynamic. When I speak French to someone
    in Senegal, it isn't the same as when speaking to
    someone in Paris... or Nice... or a German who happens
    to speak French but not English. This live coaching
    is also flawed that way. Is she from Firenze
    (Florence) or Roma or Milano or Venice, or maybe
    somewhere on Sicily? I don't know, but I'd bet the
    accent, pronunciation and even colloquialisms are
    different. These inconsistencies all come into play
    as they confound the mind until it learns to adjust.

    Rosetta Stone? For $1000, it can bite me. I'll pay a
    foreign exchange student under the table first. Or
    maybe I'll see if Skype has those chat rooms back yet.
    SpectreWriter
  • RE: With TOTALe, Rosetta Stone brings the social web to language software [review]

    Why not review other less expensive of free language learning communities like LiveMocha or LingQ.com?
    lingosteve
  • RE: With TOTALe, Rosetta Stone brings the social web to language software [

    i think RS is a bit old school.. and the new web-based
    offering is slightly better and shows that they slowly
    recognize web is better and disrupt their core
    products. Though, it's still a long way before they
    can convert or migrate their product to be more
    interactive and social through the web-platform as
    they are more or less porting the desktop version to
    make a water-down clone version.

    when chatting with someone from different part of the
    world, some kind of instant translation in a chat room
    would be helpful.. recently i came across one provide
    good full web experience and they also have some
    interesting and handy mobile apps. if you are shopping
    for language learning products, add langlearner
    (www.langlearner.com) to your comparison list.

    or i would also suggest livemocha or some other
    similar clones in europe for some free materials.. but
    they are more of social network sites claiming to help
    ppl learn languages. it's free, you can try.. not
    sure if it's effective but at least you can socialize
    with others who might speak other languages. But if
    you're serious about learning a new languages, check
    out fluenz.com, langlearner.com and a few others to
    see which ones fit your needs
    mjones4
  • RE: With TOTALe, Rosetta Stone brings the social web to language software [

    Rosetta Stone is alright... but it's not worth $1000.

    It doesn't work as magically as the slick marketing would
    have you believe-- learning a language takes a wide
    variety of input and an Zen-like patience for mess and
    confusion. If you pick up Rosetta Stone, you need to be
    prepared to work your money's worth and also branch out
    into other study mediums like using lingq.com, listening to
    berlitz mp3s, or poking around in a good, old-fashioned
    dictionary.

    And for the record-- while the speaking exercises can be
    frustrating, the artificial Milestone exercise is supremely
    frustrating and doesn't even come close to creating an
    immersion experience.
    wondershot
  • RE: With TOTALe, Rosetta Stone brings the social web to language software [review]

    Thank you! This article gives me inspiration! Hope in the study to you! Sorry, the advertisement!
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    christianjordan
  • RE: With TOTALe, Rosetta Stone brings the social web to language software [review]

    Err I dont think my previous post showed so I'll post it again. If it does pop up then I apologize for the repost:

    Here is another review of Rosetta Stone TOTALe that compares it to the previous versions. I hope this helps you all with your decisions.
    http://geekmontage.com/texts/rosetta-stone-v4-totale-review-discount-demo/
    bhaberle111
  • There is so much more out there

    Take a moment and realize how the advances of the internet and technology give you cheaper alternatives to software and classes. There are many resources that have plenty to offer for pennies on the dollar in comparison to Rosetta Stone. Simply Google "learn a language" and figure it out for yourself.
    @...