Language Software Review: Rosetta Stone in Arabic
I finished Rosetta Stone Arabic. I didn’t speak Arabic when I started, and I don’t speak Arabic now.
Before you go “well, duh, no software program could –” let me interrupt you and say no, this is in fact the claim made by the company and by many, many reviewers. When you finish Rosetta Stone, you’re told, you’ll have – if not fluency – then at least two solid years of college-level foreign language learning under your belt. It’s not advertised as a _companion_ to a course or a book or an immersion language experience; it’s advertised as the new and best way to learn a foreign language, period. I didn’t go through it with that expectation, but I’m going to review it on those terms because that’s what people who pay for it think they’re getting.
And pay for it they do! My goodness. Prices range from $199 for one level to $999 for their “TOTALe” package. The version I used (version 2, levels 1 and 2) would have cost about $450. I say “would have” because I borrowed it from someone who was stationed in Iraq. (The military produces a special version of Rosetta Stone in Arabic, but the version I used was the regular, personal one. There’s also another version for homeschoolers. The TOTALe package isn’t available in Arabic, but it does now have a level 3, which didn’t come with the older version I used. So YMMV, I guess, but I can’t imagine by much.)
First vs. second language learning
Rosetta Stone uses the immersion method, which means that aside from the instruction booklet that comes with the CD, there is no English anywhere. Not even a glossary. People who are excited about this method inevitably argue that that’s how babies learn languages. Infants don’t have dictionaries! They don’t study grammar! They don’t need to know what “of” means! This is true, and would be relevant if only Rosetta Stone constituted a true immersion environment and the people who used it were infants. It would also be helpful if you, the learner, were content to study the language all day every day for seven years and end up with a second-grade vocabulary and second-grade reading skills. You know, like you did in your first language. Unfortunately most people have more ambitious goals, and less time to meet them.
Luckily, there is a solution! It’s called “grammar”! People who love Rosetta Stone rave about not getting “bogged down” with all that “tedious” grammar. This is idiotic. For adults, studying a second language’s grammar actually makes learning easier. We’re building on the knowledge we already possess.
For example, in Arabic, present-tense verbs in the masculine singular all begin with the “y-” sound. Using Rosetta Stone it would take hours to sort out what I just told you in one sentence. Obviously you wouldn’t explain it this way to a toddler, because toddlers are stupid and they don’t understand grammatical rules. On the other hand toddlers are way more tenacious than you are, plus they don’t have jobs, so they can devote the better part of their day to figuring out how to communicate. Your 30 minutes a day with a software program doesn’t even begin to compare to the kind of work toddlers are doing. That’s why you’re better off with shortcuts. I realize that learning the ten forms of the Arabic verb doesn’t feel like a shortcut when you’re staring at a chart with tears running down your cheeks, but compared to learning the same information “inductively”? Please.
Obviously none of this negates the value of immersion generally. You would of course learn more Italian taking a class in Italy than you would taking the same class in the United States because you would be hearing Italian spoken on the streets by native speakers and you’d have a chance to practice it every day. But if you really wanted to become fluent, you would, at some point, have to sit down with a book and figure out the rules. Literate people do this even in their first language; witness the nerdy popularity of spelling bees. In the U.S. kids take English all the way through their senior year in high school, even as things like math and history become elective.
(This, by the way, is why ESL instructors favor bilingual education programs as the fastest and most efficient way for students to learn English. It is not, as conservatives insist, because they want to bankrupt schools, make Spanish our official language, or because they’re so blinded by multiculturalism that they don’t see the benefit of learning English. Rather, it’s because developing proficiency in your first language makes it easier to learn a second. It’s also why learning your fifth language is easier than learning your second.)
It helps if you enjoy Dali and dada
I’ve read some reviewers who say they know all this, but they use Rosetta Stone to develop a foundation in a language they plan to study for real later. I think this is probably the worst way to use it. Here’s how the program works: you’re given a sentence (simultaneously spoken and written at the top of the screen) and shown four pictures. You choose which picture goes with the sentence. When you get it right, it gives you another sentence, you choose from the remaining three pictures, and so on. Essentially each screen is a multiple choice game with four possible answers; when you’ve answered all four correctly it moves on to a new set of four pictures. Variations include showing you one picture and four sentences (written), one picture and four sentences (spoken), hearing the sentences without seeing the writing, and so on. But it is always a multiple choice of four, with the same sentence matched to the same picture.
If you already know some of the language this can be a useful way to review, for several reasons. One, you’re hearing the language spoken by a native speaker. Two, the speakers vary, so you hear slight variations in how different individuals pronounce the same words. Three, it solidifies pre-existing knowledge: I might already kind of know the word for “basketball” or “surprised,” but connecting it to a picture helps me lock it in. Four, you get used to the rhythm of the language. (For me that was especially useful, because word order in Arabic is so different from English and German.) Five, you pick up little things, like which prepositions are used with which nouns.
If you don’t know the language at all, however, it can become a high-priced version of a matching game. Several times I found myself thinking, “Okay, the really long sentence goes with the picture of the guy on the horse” or “The sentence that starts with ‘la’ goes with the picture of the funny-looking door.” I wasn’t learning Arabic at that point, I was just matching one random thing with another random thing. If you’ve got money to burn and nothing else to do, have fun. But keep in mind it’s easy to get a pretty good score on each section without really learning much.
This is complicated by the fact that information isn’t presented in any logical order. (It’s inductive, see: logic is the enemy!) If you were to do the first few lessons, which start out with basic words like “man,” “woman,” “boy,” “dog,” and go on to “the car is blue,” “the car is red” and so forth, you might be fooled into thinking the whole program builds, gradually, on basic vocabulary. It does not. Around the middle of level 1 the sentences start introducing several new words in one go, which makes it difficult to connect words to meaning. In the beginning, if I see four pictures of cars and hear the word “siara” in each of the sentence choices, I can put together that “siara” must mean “car” and that the word that’s changing refers to the color. But if you give me a picture of, I dunno, two kids at a desk, a picture of a church, a picture of a woman walking with an umbrella and a picture of a woman walking without an umbrella, together with a sentence with four new vocabulary words….. uh? This happens all the time. And there’s no order to it. It goes from easy stuff to hard stuff to easy stuff back to hard stuff. Not because it’s reviewing old material, mind you. It’s true that words are repeated, but not by any systematic progression. Unit 17 consists entirely of captions to Saturday Evening Post cartoons, which are difficult because they are abstract, followed by Unit 18 — the second to last unit in the program — which introduces simple words like “foot” and “kitchen.” Why is it in that order? Search me.
The pictures, I think, have been updated in newer versions. That’s good, although I really can’t complain about them given the challenge of the task. When I first heard this was a program that utilized NO translation I thought it would be all nouns and maybe 10 verbs that are especially easy to illustrate. But I was impressed with the way they were able to communicate things like “never” vs. “sometimes” and “he lied” vs. “now he tells the truth,” using only pictures. Not that this was always apparent immediately — there were many instances in which I had to run through an exercise more than once, not because of anything to do with Arabic, but because I was sitting there going what the hell? at the illustrations. A lot of the photographs have extraneous information, so it takes some guessing to determine whether the Arabic sentence is referring to the library, or the people in front of it, or the woman wearing a yellow raincoat, or the fact that it’s afternoon instead of night. Remember that vocabulary isn’t introduced in any logical order, so it’s just one damn thing after another. This, I’m sure, Rosetta Stone would defend because “that’s how babies learn!” God, babyhood must be surreal.
In Rosetta Stone, the world is flat
The other problem with the pictures, which might really be the problem with the whole program, is that they use the same photographs, and, it seems, the same vocabulary and basic overall structure for every language. I fooled around with the trial version in German, just to compare how it treats a European language vs. how it treats Arabic. There wasn’t much difference, though it’s clear that the European versions were developed first.
This means you have to know the Arabic script before you begin, because they don’t teach that at all. It means they don’t spend much time on structures specific to a particular language, especially non-European languages. (Example: In my second semester Arabic class we spent quite a bit of time on the different ways to express “to have,” which in Arabic is done through prepositions rather than a verb. Rosetta Stone glosses over this, presumably because it’s not confusing in Spanish, German, etc.) The scenarios and photographs are also generic. This means I now know how to describe skimpy swimwear and how to make the linguistic distinction between a woman’s husband and her lover — two situations I’m unlikely to encounter in an Arabic-speaking country — but I don’t know any of the myriad ways to ask after the health of someone’s mother and every member of her extended family, or how to bargain in a taxi. I can name the materials you would need to build a house in a country where it rains a lot, but I can’t tell you why it is necessary that you stay for tea despite your repeated protestations. And so on.
Of course to some extent this is irrelevant, because this is formal Arabic rather than one of the spoken dialects, but it’s still vocabulary you would encounter in books and on the news, where formal Arabic is used. In other Arabic resources I’ve used, words like “government,” “law,” “politics,” and “revolution” are taught right away, because it’s assumed you’re going to want to read the papers. In Al-Kitaab, the book used in most U.S. Arabic classes, the word for “United Nations” is taught in Chapter 1. With Rosetta Stone, you learn words like “balloon” and “giraffe.” I can see why that would be a friendly approach if you only want your 8-year-old to pick up some phrases here and there, but it was sort of irrelevant for my purposes and for the purposes of most people I know who are taking Arabic because of an interest in politics, religion, or literature.
Game the system
Ironically, the people who are going to want this most are students of non-European languages, because there are fewer resources out there for learning something like Farsi or Swahili compared to those for learning French.
So let’s say you’re going to use it anyway. You paid for it and don’t want to waste your money. Or somebody else expects you to have mastered it, like the army, or your mom. Okay. In that case:
- Learn the alphabet first with a book like Alif Baa. Rosetta Stone gives you the option of using voweled texts or unvoweled texts, but their font makes it hard to read with the vowels, so you’ll want to turn that off. Make sure you learn how to vowel from some other source.
- You’ll also have to learn to write somewhere else. For languages with a Latin script, Rosetta Stone has a writing section that asks you to type words out. In Arabic — at least in version 2 — they have you move bits of the text around with a mouse, so even the writing section is essentially a reading section. You won’t learn to spell here; you’ll just learn to recognize words.
- Concentrate on learning pronunciation. The DVDs that come with books like Al-Kitaab are nowhere as rich as Rosetta Stone is, so it’s good for that purpose.
- The more grammar and vocabulary you learn before using Rosetta Stone, the better. Then you’re free to concentrate on the little things that Rosetta Stone says you don’t need to know anyway, like prepositions and conjunctions and the various ways Arabic handles possession. These things are hard to learn from a book.
- Before you purchase it, see if you can borrow it from your library.
- If you join the army, you can get it for free!
If used in conjunction with a class, or even with other methods of self-study, I think it has its uses. It’s not worth a thousand dollars, but it’s not a complete waste of time, either. I did finish it, after all, and I feel like I got something out of it. But the difference between what it promises and what it delivers is quite staggering.