Surely you've seen the TV commercials, mall kiosks, and online ads for Rosetta Stone. It is the 800-pound gorilla of language-learning software. But is it any good? The answer is yes, particularly if you are brand new to a language and want to develop a strong base of vocabulary and grammar, as it's well structured and moves at a reasonably slow pace. Use Rosetta Stone every day for a few months and you will learn to speak, read, write, and understand basic words and phrases. Don't expect to become fluent, though, even with the optional live e-tutoring. Fluency is unlikely with any software alone. When considering all the online language-learning options, Rosetta Stone is the best full-featured package for learning a new language, and it's our Editors' Choice among paid programs. Duolingo is our Editors' Choice for free language-learning programs.
Not counting programs for American and British English, Rosetta Stone has courses for 28 languages. They are Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Dari, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Pashto, Persian (Farsi), Polish, Portuguese (Brazil), Russian, Spanish (Latin America and European), Swahili, Swedish, Tagalog (Filipino), Turkish, Urdu, and Vietnamese.
Rosetta Stone covers a wide range of languages, but if there's one you need that's not on that list, I would recommend looking to Transparent Language Online. It has programs for more than 100 languages. Courses for languages that are not in high demand can be short, but many of them are quite robust.
There are two other places to look for hard-to-find language-learning courses: Pimsleur and Mango Languages. The excellent Pimsleur has 50 language programs, but it's almost completely audio-based. I don't mind that, but some people prefer a more interactive course. Mango has programs for learning 68 languages, including some that Transparent doesn't (American Sign Language, Cherokee, Dzongkha, Igbo, Javanese, Malayalam, Punjabi, Shanghainese, and Yiddish). I don't recommend starting with Mango, as it's one of the weaker programs I've tested, but it is an option if you're in a bind.
Duolingo has 15 fully developed courses: Danish, Dutch, Esperanto, French, German, Irish, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, and Welsh. It also has another four courses that are in beta (Hebrew, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Vietnamese) and seven more in progress.
You can buy Rosetta Stone Language Learning as an online subscription, as a digital download, or on CD-ROM. Rosetta Stone isn't cheap, but there are a number of different packages to choose from, and many of them seem to be on sale continuously.
Twelve-month online memberships for one language have a list price of $299, though they regularly sell for $199. A six-month program costs $239 (but really, expect to pay as little as $169), which isn't a terrific value. The best value is the 36-month online membership for $499 (often marked down to $249). But how can you know you'll stick with a language-learning program for three whole years? The company also offers a free demo. Definitely give it a spin before you buy.
If you'd rather have CD-ROMs or locally installed software that doesn't require the Internet, you can buy them instead of paying for an online account. Either way, there is one hitch: You get a three-month trial of some online-only features, such as live Web-conferenced tutoring classes and games. After that trial, you'll have to pay extra to keep those components.
A Level 1 downloaded or CD-ROM package sells for $179; a Level 1-2 for $299; and a Level 1-3 for $399. For languages that go all the way up to five levels (not all do), you can download the 1-5 package for $499. Again, these prices are typically discounted heavily, with the 1-5 package usually selling for $249.
Transparent Language Online is competitively priced and charges close to what Rosetta Stone does. An annual subscription for personal use costs $199.95 up front. If you'd rather not commit to 12 months, you can pay $29.95 per month instead.
Living Language has a Platinum package for $179, which gives you one year of access to the online course for the language of your choice, plus 12 e-tutoring sessions. The e-tutoring (or webinar-style) classes held via video conference are a huge value-add. Rosetta Stone also includes some e-tutoring, but not as much. Fluenz, which is somewhat similar to Rosetta Stone, costs $218 for levels 1 and 2 plus two years of online access.
A totally different program called Yabla, which teaches by letting you watch videos in the language being learned, has a $9.95-per-month subscription fee or $99.95-per-year charge. Yabla is better, in my opinion, for people who already have some experience with the language they want to study.
As mentioned, Duolingo is 100 percent free, and it's one of my favorites. A lot of people end up using Duolingo in conjunction with another program or classroom-based learning. It's worth checking out even if you decide to pick a paid package, too.
Another way to get language-learning software for free is to check whether your local library has an option for patrons. I've seen several major US libraries with licenses to Mango, Transparent Language, and even Rosetta Stone. Typically, you sign in through your library, but you then get the same experience as if you had bought the software yourself.
My Experience With Rosetta Stone
Over the past decade, I've used Rosetta Stone personally and to test professionally quite a bit in French, Brazilian Portuguese, German, Turkish, and English. To test it this time, I returned to German, and I dabbled in Russian, too.
If you've ever used Rosetta Stone before, or even had a free trial, the current iteration of the product will look very familiar. No matter which language you choose, you're going to see a lot of the same images—the same goldfish, the same green bicycle, the same bowl of rice. You'll also see the same general look and the same overall structure to the course. On one hand, Rosetta Stone is very consistent, predictable, stable, and reliable. On the other, it leaves out cultural context.
There's a lot of drill-and-kill style teaching, which isn't necessarily a bad thing for new learners. You'll be exposed to the same new words over and over again. Sometimes you're asked to simply listen to them, sometimes to say them, sometimes to write them.
You learn very basic words: girl, boy, man, woman, eat, run, swim, drink, water, milk, cat, dog. If you're hoping to use Rosetta Stone for a few weeks before taking a holiday hoping to pick up "Where is the bathroom?" and "Excuse me. Could I have two beers, please?", that's not going to happen. To learn a handful of travel phrases, I'd recommend Rocket Languages (the audio session, mostly) or a program that's specifically designed for travelers. Living Language Passport is one good option. Some of Pimsleur's programs are also aimed at travellers.
In terms of design, Rosetta Stone is a work of art. The interface is not only the most polished of all the language-learning programs I've seen, it's also more graceful than most other software, period. The online version runs smoothly. Setting up microphones and running sound checks was always simple and successful in my testing.
The program is extremely intuitive with almost no written instructions. There's no second-guessing what you're supposed to do. Lessons appear in a sequential order on a dashboard. If you move between the Web app and mobile apps, your progress is always saved and synced. It's easy and downright enjoyable to dive right in. A sense of play surrounds the interactive experience without being juvenile.
Rosetta Stone prides itself on its immersion approach. Help menus, settings, and title screens are just about the only parts written in the learner's native language. But "natural language acquisition" doesn't accurately describe what you do in the program.
After a few weeks, some users may experience fatigue from heavy repetition, which is necessary to some extent in language learning, but here it comes without any cultural context or explanations. When you begin, you see pictures and either see or hear (or both) words that are associated with that picture. After being exposed to them several times, you'll then be asked to speak or write the word. For example, you will see a man smiling and waving, and then hear and see the German Guten Tag. A few screens later, this same photo will appear, and you'll hear Guten Tag. This time, you're prompted to say it, too. A voice-recognition system decides whether you've said the word correctly. Later in the program, the photo will appear yet again, and you'll have to type the word. That's the gist of it.
Deductive reasoning is another core component of learning in Rosetta Stone. You might see a picture of a sandwich and hear the word for sandwich twice. Then you'll hear the word for sandwich a third time and be prompted to pick the corresponding picture. This will happen all over again for the word egg. Finally, a brand-new word you've never heard before will appear alongside a picture of an egg, a sandwich, and a coffee. Deductive reasoning will tell you that the new word must mean coffee. It gets a little more complicated when you have to suss out new verb forms or plurals (such as "he ran," "she ran," "they run"), but it's never difficult.
The deductive approach leaves a lot to be desired, though. For example, there's no way of knowing whether "Erwachsene" means "people" or "adults." Is "Guten Tag" formal or informal, or does it not matter? Is "kaffee" filter coffee or any espresso-based drink?
I find Rosetta Stone very useful for studying gendered nouns and plural versus singular, but less practical for things I would want to know as a traveler or business professional in a foreign country. Rocket Languages has a lot more content related to culture.
Rosetta Stone doesn't have any placement test either, so if you've previously studied a language, it's really hard to know where to start. There used to be a language-learning software program called TellMeMore that had an adaptive placement test, but that company was acquired by Rosetta Stone and the product was killed off. A representative from the Rosetta Stone told me in 2015 that a placement test was a planned addition, though I haven't seen one yet.
Engagement and Interactivity
I appreciate the high degree to which speaking, writing, reading, and listening are blended in Rosetta Stone. In addition to the core lessons and units, there are games, chat boxes where you can talk with other learners, reading exercises, and the Web-conferencing tutoring sessions I mentioned earlier.
Once you've reached certain milestones, you can sign up for a live 25-minute class. These sessions used to be an hour, and I'm glad they're shorter now because they can be exhausting. The session is taught by a live Rosetta Stone instructor, who only speaks in the foreign language and doesn't veer off script. Classes are plentiful, offered at different dates and times.
Class sizes are small. Because the instructor only uses the language being taught, you can't ask questions in your mother tongue. What's covered in the online class is an extension of what's in the program, so don't expect a rich and engaging place to ask all your burning questions.
Living Language also offers e-tutoring, and I found its programs to be much more engaging. Those instructors might speak in English, explain something that's not in the core material, and to my taste, put me much more at ease.
In the Rosetta Stone class, you can see the instructor, but she or he can't see you. That means if you don't understand or if your audio cuts out momentarily, the person can't tell from your facial expressions what's happening. There is a chat box that you can use to communicate with the instructor if you're having problems, but there's no guarantee she'll speak your native language.
I found the classes challenging, mostly in a good way. They force you to think and generate ideas, which software alone can't do. My instructors have been overwhelmingly positive, even when I was stumped by questions. Sometimes the questions sound bizarre coming from a human, but in the software they didn't sound so wacky. For example, in the software, you might see a picture of a girl riding a horse, and the question will be, "Does the girl drink?" You'll see an option appear on screen that says, "No. The girl does not drink," which makes sense. If you're talking to a real human being, however, and you don't see any such option, you might think to yourself, "What the heck is she talking about?"
The Rosetta Stone classes are fine, but they are not at all comparable to being in an actual classroom.
Games and Mobile
A section with bonus content and games, both single- and multiplayer, offers more ways to study and learn. The games are engaging, much more so than the ones you find in say Living Language.
I like Rosetta Stone's version of Bingo, which works your listening skills. You listen to a story that includes a whole bunch of words you don't know yet, but a dozen or so that you do. When you hear a word that's on your Bingo card, you mark it. I really like practicing listening in this way because the stakes are low. You aren't asked to understand every word or translate the text. But you are acclimating your ear to hearing words in real context.
Another section of bonus content has you read stories aloud while Rosetta Stone records your voice. At the higher levels, this kind of practice is very helpful. Again, you don't have to understand every single word you read, but you are getting used to the sound of your own voice, at length, in the new language.
Rosetta Stone has mobile apps for iOS, Android, and Amazon devices as well. The mobile app content mirrors the lessons available online, so when you log into the mobile app, you're able to pick up your learning from the place you left off. I spent a bit of time using the iPad app, which was recently redesigned to have a more simplified interface. All the mobile apps now look less busy.
The voice recognition works better than expected on mobile. As with the Web version, the mobile app has settings that let you opt out of speaking exercises if you're in a place where it would be awkward to start having a one-way conversation in German into your phone.
Build a Foundation With Rosetta Stone
Rosetta Stone is a wonderful, polished, and technically competent language-learning program, especially for beginners who are looking to build a foundation of knowledge on their own time. It's our top pick for language-learning software if you're willing to pay for it.
If you have prior experience with a language, Rosetta Stone might not be the best fit, as it doesn't have any kind of placement test for you to know where to begin. You could dabble for a while in Duolingo, our Editors' Choice among free language-learning programs, since it has some placement tests, and you don't have to lay down a dime to use it. Duolingo is also a great way to develop a strong foundation, but it doesn't offer nearly as many languages as Rosetta Stone, and it doesn't use the same deductive learning techniques.
If fluency is your goal, you might consider adding non-software learning, such as local classes or private tutoring, but you can certainly get started with Rosetta Stone and make substantial progress at building your foundation.