Summary of This Review:
Rosetta Stone rarely works. I can say this with confidence because for years I’ve traveled the world, gotten a lot of stamps in my passport, and talked with thousands of language learners.
Every time I met someone who had learned a new language, I asked them how they learned it. When I asked people who were trying to learn Spanish, French, German, or some other language with Rosetta Stone, they never could say more than a few words. They couldn’t even ask a useful phrase like “What’s your name?” in their new language.
So if you’re asking yourself, “Does Rosetta Stone work?” my answer is, “For almost everyone I’ve met (and I’ve met hundreds, perhaps thousands of language learners), Rosetta Stone does not work.”
In 2015 I finally met one guy who told me that he had learned a new language entirely with Rosetta Stone. See his story below.
Summary of this Rosetta Stone review: “Rosetta Stone doesn’t work for most people.”
I wish I didn’t have to say that, because the people who work at Rosetta Stone are a great, talented bunch of people. Hopefully they will eventually develop language-learning programs that really work.
What Works Better Than Rosetta Stone?
Two companies offer programs that work much better than Rosetta Stone. They are Pimsleur and Language101.com.
You can find a link to my Pimsleur review near the bottom of this page, and it’s not an affiliate link. We like Pimsleur a lot, even though we don’t get a penny from them.
If you are learning Japanese, you will want to read our Rosetta Stone review for Japanese. There’s a link to it near the bottom of this page.
The comprehensive Rosetta Stone review starts just below this.
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Want to know who wrote this review and why? Read “Why I Wrote This” at the bottom of the page.
The detailed review starts here:
You Can’t Learn Like a Child Unless You Are One
Rosetta Stone used to claim that you, an adult, can learn a foreign language the same way a child would, if you just bought their program. Then the company got a huge amount of well-deserved criticism. So they changed their ads—just a little.
They now say that if you use their program, you will be “learning a new language the way you learned your first.”
It’s the same bold claim, and it’s still wrong.
Your Brain Is Different Than a Baby’s Brain
To understand why Rosetta Stone’s claim is not simply an advertising exaggeration but 100 percent wrong, you have to discover a little bit about the difference between the brain of an adult and the brain of a newborn baby.
From the age of one month to three months, a baby will respond to all the phonemes (language sounds) that he or she hears. Any child can learn any language that he or she hears.
But by age 1, the baby’s brain has already built special neural processing circuits, and the baby will no longer perceive phonemes that are not in his or her native language.
Guess what? As an adult language learner of Spanish, for example, you will not even hear phonemes that are not in a language you already know well.
I am paraphrasing a lecture from Stanford biology professor Robert Sapolsky. Watch at least five minutes of this lecture to see what I am talking about.
You cannot learn a new language as an adult the way you learned your first language as a child, because your adult brain is different than a child’s brain!
You Shouldn’t Have to Guess
Have you ever seen a toddler point at a dog and say, “Look, Mommy, a cat!” Children do a lot of guessing when they learn a new language. It also takes children several years to learn their first language. They waste a lot of time, even though they usually have two full-time, live-in language tutors called parents.
You’ve already learned English, so you shouldn’t have to start learning your next language by guessing and making all of your childhood mistakes over again. If you copy the learning methods of small children (as Rosetta Stone suggests you do), you will waste a lot of time.
Adults and children who are old enough to read a newspaper don’t need to guess what foreign words and phrases mean. They can use translations to understand the meaning the first time, without guessing.
Why Rosetta Stone Doesn’t Work Well for Children
You might reasonably ask, “Does Rosetta Stone work for children?” Sadly, the answer is also no, but for a different reason. Rosetta Stone’s format of using pictures and having you match them to foreign words makes it very easy for children (and, in fact, for anyone) to remember the picture and get the answer right but without really knowing the foreign word or phrase.
If you have ever remembered a person’s face but couldn’t remember his or her name, you know what I’m talking about.
Rosetta Stone’s program design accidentally makes it easy to “cheat” and get the right answer without really knowing it. Children are especially prone to doing this. The pretty pictures actually slow down a child’s learning.
Rosetta Stone Pretends to Be What It’s Not
Q: If you call a sheep’s tail a leg, how many legs does a sheep have?
A: Four, of course. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.
You see, it doesn’t matter what you call something, because things are what they are, not what you call them.
Rosetta Stone markets its program as “Interactive Language Immersion,” but unfortunately that’s just a slogan. You can’t sell language immersion in a yellow box.
What Is Real Language Immersion?
Real language immersion is full time and hardcore. You can’t create language immersion by using a computer program for an hour a day.
You can get it by going to a place like Middlebury College, where you will sign this pledge:
“In signing this Language Pledge, I agree to use ______________ as my only language of communication while attending the Middlebury Language Schools. I understand that failure to comply with this Pledge may result in my expulsion from the School without credit or refund.”
You can also create a language immersion program by living or working in a foreign country. Anything short of that is not immersion. Sorry, Rosetta Stone.
Starting With Useless Words and Phrases
The Rosetta Stone Spanish program starts with a list of words like man, woman, and so on. It also uses short phrases like “The man eats” or “The man drinks.”
These are things that you will eventually need to learn, but you should start with useful phrases like “What’s your name?” and “What is this called?”
Next in Rosetta Stone, you will go on to phrases that are also not especially useful. For example, in the Rosetta Stone Russian program, there is a picture of a boy lying face down in a park with a soccer ball balancing on his back.
The sentence you are supposed to learn is: “The boy is under the ball.” How many times in your life will you need to say that? How about this phrase from the Korean program: “The people have a pen.”
Rosetta Stone does offer some practical phrases like “What’s your name?” The problem is that they aren’t anywhere near the beginning of the program.
Sadly, many people will quit before they ever reach the practical phrases they should have learned on their very first day.
If you do try to learn with Rosetta Stone, don’t give up because of the boring list of vocabulary words you will have to start with.
Is It Possible to Be Worse Than Useless?
Actually, it is possible to be “worse than useless.”
A “worse than useless” program not only fails to teach you anything useful, it also convinces you that you have no talent for language learning.
The Story of the Man Who Learned English With Rosetta Stone
In March of 2015, I finally met someone who said that he had learned a language with Rosetta Stone. Here’s how it happened. I was in the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine, where English speakers are rare. One day I hailed a taxi, and much to my amazement, the driver spoke excellent English.
When I meet non-native speakers of English who speak English well, I always ask, “How did you learn English?” He told me that he learned it with Rosetta Stone. But later in the conversation, I learned that he had studied English from age 10 to 17 in school and that he loved watching American movies with subtitles.
A few days later on a different taxi ride, I found out that he had also studied English at the Ukrainian military language school for more than a year. I believe that he told me he had learned English with Rosetta Stone because it was simpler than giving the longer, more detailed answer.
So, yes, if you study a language in school for seven years and pay attention, and then if you fall in love with foreign movies in that language, and then study your language full time for a year at a military language school and also use Rosetta Stone, you’ll probably speak your new language pretty well.
Small Progress – An Online School
Rosetta Stone has added an online school to their offerings. So while the software itself has arguably gotten worse over the years (you now have only two images to choose from instead of four), signing up for their online school might help you, especially if you like the teacher and find the human interaction to be motivating.
High Prices and the Never-Ending Sale
Rosetta Stone gets a lot of completely unjustified criticism for being expensive. These complaints are usually made by people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Learning a language well (or even badly) really improves your life. If Rosetta Stone works for you, it’s a screamingly good deal, and it would be cheap even if they charged ten times as much. Unfortunately, for most people it really doesn’t work.
This “Rosetta Stone is expensive” whining I see on the web also ignores the fact that Rosetta Stone software is on sale at very big discounts most of the time.
So if you want to get that pretty yellow box on your desktop and have it start gathering dust at a lower price, just go to the bottom right of their home page and sign up for their email newsletter, and you will be offered much lower prices soon after.
I Don’t Like Writing This
I don’t like writing about Rosetta Stone’s lack of progress. I would have much preferred to write, “The software is getting better.” But sadly, it doesn’t look like it is.
The people who work there are decent human beings. I’m sure they would throw me a life preserver if I were drowning or buy me lunch if I were hungry.
The company’s marketing people are both decent human beings and geniuses. It’s time for Rosetta Stone to hire some educational software geniuses to work with the marketing geniuses in developing new products.
If that happens, it will be a winning combination.
Who Should Use Rosetta Stone?
It might be OK to try Rosetta Stone if:
- You can keep your enthusiasm for foreign language learning and then go on to another program if Rosetta Stone doesn’t work for you.
- Your only other language-study tools are books. For example, if you are learning Spanish, we still think that Rosetta Stone Spanish is slightly better than trying to learn Spanish with only a textbook.
- You don’t mind if your study program only teaches practical phrases near the end of the course instead of at the beginning.
What’s a Better Way to Learn Your Language?
Language101.com is quite a bit more effective than Rosetta Stone. But we suggest that you shouldn’t believe it just because we say so. Try our free demo and their free demo, and then buy the one where you can remember more after 30 minutes. In fact, we are very confident that you will remember much more of what you learned with our program several days after you studied with our program.
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We strongly recommend Pimsleur if we don’t offer your language. No, it’s not an affiliate link and, no, we don’t get any money from them for saying it. But you may like Pimsleur. It does work, especially for going from knowing nothing to being minimally conversant.
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Why I Wrote This . . .
by Brent Van Arsdell
I really do like the people who work at Rosetta Stone. They are a smart and talented bunch.
I wrote this review in part to inspire Rosetta Stone to the greatness that the company is capable of. Someday they may develop software that really works.
Fortunately, in response to this review and others, they no longer advertise that adults can learn like a child with their software. I commend them for that. But they haven’t significantly changed the software. It still doesn’t work for most people.
Of course, I also wrote this review for the thousands of people who have tried to learn a language with Rosetta Stone and failed. If you are one of those people, I want you to know that your failure is not your fault.
The methods you were told to use just don’t work. In fact, you might even be a language-learning genius and not know it yet, who knows?
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This critique is based on using Rosetta Stone Spanish 1, 2, and 3 in 2013. Sadly, not much has changed since we first tried it in in 2006.
Rosetta Stone uses the same program for all languages, so this is also a review of Rosetta Stone French, German, Russian, Italian, and Japanese. If you are interested in learning Japanese, you will probably enjoy our
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Last Updated: December 28, 2015