Rosetta Stone Japanese Review

Brent Van Arsdell by Brent Van Arsdell

Why You Won’t Learn Much

Would I recommend Rosetta Stone for learning (or trying to learn) Japanese? No. Especially for a beginner, no!

However, Rosetta Stone is very good if you already know Japanese, as a refresher course. You can easily toggle back and forth between spoken and written in Romaji (Roman letters) and Kanji and Kana (Japanese characters and syllables). I have found no other program that allows that, although there may be some.

I found Rosetta Stone’s native speakers can get your ear attuned to hearing the language the way it is spoken, in word clusters. I found it helpful as a refresher before a recent trip to give a talk in Hiroshima.

It can be useful if used with the help of a teacher. With my students, I hide the screen while they hear and then say a word, phrase, or sentence. They then repeat, give the English translation, and then I let them look at the screen. Over time, they build up a vocabulary and can pronounce and understand the words.

But to learn to conjugate verbs and some adjectives, parts of speech that are not used in English, word order, and to practice conversation, my students need me.

Let me offer my credentials for having an opinion about learning Japanese and the efficiency of Rosetta Stone in that effort.

I learned Japanese in the Military Intelligence Language Schools during World War II after qualifying for the program in an intensive cram-course at Stanford. Total time: almost two years, six or seven hours a day, with native Japanese teachers.

I lived in Japan the first year of the occupation, part of the time immersed with a family who spoke no English.

After all that, although I am fluent (which only means that words flow easily) but by no means a native speaker, Japanese is not a slam-dunk.

The military likes to rank its graduates, and I was ranked in the middle of my class, average. But, unlike the children in Lake Wobegon, everybody who tries to learn Japanese will not be above average.

If I learned Japanese during World II, you may have guessed I am getting on. You guessed right. I’ll be 90 in a few months. I mention this only because I teach Japanese today and am restoring my college French. So if you, too, are near 90, or on your way, don’t let that deter you from learning a new language. My father who lived to 92 spoke six languages because nobody told him he couldn’t. My view is that no one has a language block at any age.

First, a word about learning Japanese. Most students fade away after a few weeks, not having had an inkling of what they got themselves into and are unwilling or don’t have the time to continue. Learning Japanese takes major commitments of time (and money).

About Rosetta Stone. What I have to say about Rosetta Stone’s promotion and methodology for Japanese probably holds true for other languages.

Rosetta Stone’s promotion is very skillful, promising you can learn the “natural way,” the way you learned your first language, without bothering with grammar or memorization.

This is misleading on all counts.

You never learn a second language (at least as an adult) the way you learned your first language. When you learned your first language, you probably had a personal tutor (your mom), and you spent many of your waking hours learning her language.

Scientists (I am told) doing research on the way the brain works believe there is a Golden Age for learning a language that diminishes after age seven. It doesn’t mean you have a language block after that, but language is learned differently as an adult.  Also, you usually don’t have the opportunity to be immersed.

Learning a language as an adult is in some ways easier than learning your first language was as a child, because you can organize a learning plan.

But you may never lose your accent or perfect the rhythm patterns of your second language.

Rosetta Stone is not a ‘‘natural” way. There is nothing natural about sitting in a front of a computer screen, and it is definitely not immersion.

No need to learn grammar? True, you learn your first language without knowing the rules of grammar by learning grammar in context. For example, after you first learned to say “I go today,” you might then try to say, “I go-ed yesterday.” Your mom will correct you to say, “I went yesterday.”

Yes, a full-time tutor who lives with you can help you speak grammatically without learning the rules of grammar.

There are no rules anyway. What grammarians call “rules” is simply the customary way the educated class speaks.

The fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey says “ain’t,” which was OK in his English upper-class environment at the time Dorothy Sayers created his character.

I find that it’s a big help to learn grammar, and my adult students agree. Especially for Japanese, since you may not find a word in a dictionary unless you know the abrupt infinite, or the “dictionary form,” of verbs or the stems of one class of adjectives that are also conjugated.

No need to memorize? Come on! Language is all memorization. You need to memorize at least 5,000 words or you can’t get anywhere. A few simple phrases like “Where is the nearest restroom?” will get you by on a trip, but you will not be able to carry on a conversation. If you have a graduate degree, you probably know 20,000 words to pluck from your data bank instantaneously, arranged in the right order, to express the mood and tense of the moment. You need to have the vocabulary to decide (generally with no conscious thought) whether to say “It was a dark and stormy night” or “Rain fell in sheets as a dark cloud passed before the moon.”

Rosetta Stone’s methodology is deceptively simple.

Four images appear on a computer monitor’s screen. You can hear or read (or both) the word or words that describe one of the images. For example: A boy, a girl, a man, and a woman will appear, one in each of four squares.

You hear or see (or both) the word for boy (otoko-no-ko in the Japanese version). If you click on the picture of the boy, you hear a pleasant sound, and then the next set of four images appears on the screen. If you click on the wrong image, you get a buzzing sound and have to try again. It’s obvious that on each guess, your chance of guessing it right gets better. On your first guess it’s 1:4, then 1:3, then 1:2. On the last try, 1:1. Bingo!

So, Rosetta Stone can be thought of as a computer game. You can learn to game the system. That means it’s easy to learn to guess right on the first guess based on the pictures, without learning the language, at least not Japanese. Kids, I find, are especially prone to game the system.

Could Rosetta Stone be improved? Definitely. If they offered a User’s Guide which included a glossary, a grammar, an explanation of the code to decipher the Kanji and a table of pronunciation of the Kana, the syllabary of sounds. To read a newspaper you need to know at least 1,945 basic Kanji and all 101 of the Kana written in two sets of symbols. A Japanese schoolboy or girl learns only 76 Kanji in Grade One, then an average of 184 per year through Grades Six, and the last 949 in the three years of Middle School. It’s a nine-year proposition to learn all 1,945 Kanji in Japan, and even a first grader already knows Japanese.

But if a User’s Guide were offered it would contradict and invalidate the hype in selling the program: With Rosetta Stone, learning a language is promoted as always easy. You learn, according to the ads, with no effort, by sitting in front of your computer screen, and letting it all soak in.

Maybe some kind of a User’s Guide is now offered with Version 3 (I bought Version 2 when it came out), but probably not, and I am not willing to spend the money to find out.

Rosetta Stone’s tech support was no help. They could not answer some very fundamental questions: How many words are in the vocabulary? Are they, or do they include the 2,500 most frequently used words in newspapers? Do they include the 1,945 basic written Kanji? I asked if someone would find out and call back, but no one called back. When I asked what could be expected of the Japanese program for Rosetta Stone, I was told that after 45 minutes a day in front of the screen, one could carry on a conversation after nine months.

If Rosetta Stone can produce someone who has done that with their Japanese program, I’ll eat my Version 2 discs.

Forgot your Password?
Remember Me