A Fair and Balanced Review of Rosetta Stone

Should I Buy Rosetta Stone? Does it Work?

Rosetta Stone has been the forerunner of language learning software for most of the last 30 years despite a rather spotty success record among many serious polyglots and amateur learners alike. Its commercials and other successful marketing strategies have made it a popular choice among adult learners and a name that is known nearly everywhere.

For only $500 USD you can own levels 1-5 of Rosetta Stone’s Spanish, for $300 you can subscribe to a year’s worth of material. It is not my place to tell you whether or not Rosetta Stone will work for you, or how to spend your own money, but I can tell you with certainty that you don’t need to spend that much money, so why would you?

When I was working as the program coordinator for the Literacy Volunteers of Eastern Connecticut I was given a lot of first hand experience using Rosetta Stone as a teaching tool in our computer labs.

RS offered us an interesting opportunity to not only use interactive software to help teach English but also to give our learners experience using computers – something many of them may not have had regular access to in their native countries.

The version of Rosetta intended for use by organizations or libraries that we used included an administrator disk that allowed us to network all of the computers in the lab and analyze results from each and every user. We would then compare one month’s progress against the previous month, detailed exactly which items they were having difficulty with, and of course it gave us concrete data to include on our grant applications.

The software was extremely popular – possibly because it took the stress of actually having to use English with a real person off of the shoulders of the learners.

This isn’t exactly a good thing.


Okay so…

But that’s not exactly what you wanted to know. You can read more about my professional experience with RS here.

You’re interested in RS’s potential value to yourself. I can’t deny that it showed signs of having helped many of our learners at LVEC, and I had the database to prove it, but these learners were in fact living in the United States in total immersion environments.

They were receiving personalized lessons from volunteer tutors, attending regular conversation groups and many of them took courses at other local adult education programs. They showed improvement on RS, but we have no real way of knowing if those improvements were because of RS or not. It is unclear to me whether these analysis features are available to the every day consumer or if they are only part of the larger education package LVEC purchased.

So you need to assess how you’re going to be learning your new language before you get started with Rosetta Stone. Are you immersed in a country or region that speaks this language, and what other resources do you plan to use?

How does Rosetta work?

At first glance Rosetta Stone is pretty cool. It offers fairly intricate voice recognition software that can be customized to your own level of experience. It incorporates listening, reading, a little bit of writing and of course speaking, into its courses and does a decent job of mixing them up so that you get equal time on each. Most language learning software doesn’t offer all of these features in a single package, particularly the speaking component, and this is probably why you’re paying as much as you are.

Does it work?

This answer is a bit harder to give. The short answer is yes, yes it does, but…..

I’ve used it myself from time to time on various language projects and to assess its effectiveness, and I keep coming back to one central issue; retention. This is an issue that I often have with computer based language programs. You basically beat it as if it’s a game, but at the end of the game you haven’t really learned anything, you’ve simply finished the game via process of elimination.

Rosetta Stone doesn’t really punish you or offer any real incentive to get the answer right like some other programs such as Duolingo do.

Mistakes shouldn’t be punished, per se, but when we attempt to actually learn a language it can help to have proper incentive to not simply guess the answers or memorize what the pictures look like while basically ignoring the language. Rosetta doesn’t offer the same sense of accomplishment that products such as Pimsleur do.

Pimsleur, despite being nothing more than audio, does manage to build you up for success and make you feel good about it. There’re few things more satisfying than knowing you’ve nailed a word or phrase, and that sense of satisfaction was always lost to me with Rosetta Stone. I think this ultimately made the program boring.

When language learning becomes boring many of us have this nasty habit of stopping. We lose interest. and Rosetta Stone is a great way to lose interest quickly.

You eventually memorize the shape/appearance of the words being presented to you, usually in short phrases such as “The boy is in front of the airplane” or “The girl is drinking”. Many of these phrases are not directly useful. Words such as “airplane” and “drinking” are fairly important to know but as with many other products, like Pimsleur, you are often stuck learning words that do not pertain to your interests, with little means of controlling your own learning experience.

Despite that I’d still say that yes, it works a little bit. But, as with just about every product I review, I would not recommend putting all of your eggs in one basket, especially this basket. If Rosetta Stone is the only thing you’re planning to use to learn a new language you’re probably just not serious enough about your project. You’re going to have a hard time.

Now for some science!

A study performed at Queens College in New York entitled “Measuring the Effectiveness of Rosetta Stone” indicates that RS can significantly impact a learner’s ability to pass a standardized test called WebCAPE, required for placement in various colleges and universities’ language programs. Following the study, the majority of the participants did in fact achieve scores that would permit entry.

The study only included around 135 participants and only showed results following 55 hours of RS study. The researchers used Rosetta Stone’s Spanish on a widely varying demographic audience consisting of two primary groups – one using the software in a lab and another using the program at home.

The experiment acknowledges that more accurate results may be found following 75-100 hours of RS time. I encourage you to check out the study for some figures, demographics and more detailed results than I can offer here and now.

The report does state that the learners were also using other learning materials such as texts and probably anything else they could get their hands on, which while a great practice, probably skewed the results a bit, making Rosetta Stone appear to be the primary reason for their success. It also neglects to go into detail about any prior knowledge of the language the learners may have had. So read the report, and draw your own conclusions.

Is it worth it?

So we’ve established that it can help you learn a language, but even with that said I would not, in all honesty recommend this product to the vast majority of learners. Languages Around the Globe tries hard to steer learners towards methods and products that are cost effective and I just can’t promise that Rosetta Stone will fit that profile. The software is prohibitively expensive and despite the Queens College experiment that lends it some credence, I can’t with any semblance of certainty say that this would be a wise investment.

If money isn’t an object for you, then by all means, go for it! I have confidence that Rosetta Stone will in fact help some people learn, should they choose to purchase it, but that they should be prepared for disappointment. So many successful programs and methods exist that don’t require you to take out a home equity loan. With so many other means of learning a language that cost far less, or nothing at all, it’s surprising to me that Rosetta Stone still manages to lead the industry.

It must be that pretty yellow packaging.


Have you used Rosetta Stone before? Did it work out?

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Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he’s not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

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Brian Powers

Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he's not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

  • I have to agree. Even though I’ve only used demo modes for certain languages with Rosetta Stone, I found the method boring, slow, and easy to bypass by guessing and process of elimination. For the “popular” languages, I don’t understand why anyone would pay the money for RS when there are numerous other methods that are much less expensive. For less common languages and for languages that aren’t phonetic, I can see RS being more appealing. (And there were a few endangered languages that Rosetta Stone featured, including Navajo and Mohawk, which I find impressive.) Groupon is or was featuring some programs at a heavy discount recently, but only the “main” languages (English, Spanish, French, and Italian), and $200 could be used for other more effective methods.

    Pimsleur is also highly cost-prohibitive, and it has its share of deficiencies, but I find their method so much more effective, and you’re speaking full, useable sentences after the first lesson. And used copies can be found all over the place for a fraction of the cost. (My local library has a number of them. For free. FREE, I TELLS YA!) But in the end, it really depends on what works for the user. But for me, I would look at other options.

    • I also reviewed Pimsleur not long ago, and have a hard time fully recommending it either. I found that it works, but the cost, as you say, is still a bit steep for a large portion of the language learning community.

      Several libraries I’ve seen carry Rosetta Stone and/or Pimsleur, but often don’t allow you to loan these items due to their value. Either way, you can’t beat free.

      Thank you for the feedback!

  • It seems like your findings were in line with my own then. And this poll you’re referring to seems to make sense. Most of my former learners who were actively using Rosetta Stone would have claimed that it was useful. Most of the more engaged, advanced speakers had no interest in it. Some of them had completed it, others hadn’t.

    Really, I find the only truly valuable part to be the speaking component, and I have my doubts about its accuracy. And of course my feelings on that are that if you’re only going to be using RS for its speaking capabilities, you should probably just find a native speaker or a more advanced learner. Probably free, might cost you a coffee.

    Thanks for your comment!

  • I have tried Rosetta Stone briefly and found it not only boring but also deceitful. It gives the learner a false sense progress in the matching exercises. Since you are matching words/phrases to images in blocks of four, you have a 1 in 4 of matching the first word/image, 1 in 3 for the next (since the previous image has already been matched), 1 in 2 for the third, and you just can’t miss the fourth. I saw a poll once that asked people how effective RS was in their learning. It actually had two views: the ones currently using it and the ones that had finished using the course. The ones still using it thought it helped, but the ones that completed it said it really hadn’t.