Pimsleur > Rosetta Stone

I spent the summer after I graduated college traveling Europe, with two weeks in Tunisia at the end. To prepare, I tried to teach myself French using the Pimsleur method (think “a series of tapes,” except that this was the 21st century so I got the CDs from the library and transfered the tracks onto my iPod.) I didn’t learn to speak French all that well, but I was trying to learn on a very short time frame and I did manage to learn enough French to get by. It was especially useful in Tunisia, where most of the people I encountered weren’t used to dealing with English-speaking tourists.

As I was getting ready for my recent move to Korea, my parents got me the Rosetta Stone language-learning software for Korean. I eagerly started it, expecting it to basically be “Pimsleur, but better” since there are obviously things you can do with a computer program that you can’t do with a set of audio files. While I’m grateful to my parents for the present, I ended up coming to the conclusion that Rosetta Stone is an inferior method to Pimsleur, and have since switched to Pimsleur Korean.

Here are the main advantages I see that Pimsleur has over Rosetta Stone, at least as I’ve experienced them. The advantages are so overwhelming that I’m probably going to sound like a shill for Pimsleur, but I haven’t received so much as a review copy from them.

1. Pimsleur focuses on teaching you things you’re likely to actually use. Rosetta Stone does not. Pimsleur starts off with things like, “Excuse me,” “Do you speak English?” “Do you speak Korean?” “I speak a little Korean,” “Where is ______?” “It’s over there.” Rosetta Stone starts off with things like “man,” “woman,” “boy,” “girl,” “The man runs,” “The boy runs,” etc. Not only is this approach less immediately useful, in the long run I’m less likely to remember what I learn through Rosetta Stone, because I’ll never use many of the words and phrases it teaches very much, and if you don’t use a word or phrase you’re likely to forget it.

2. Pimsleur teaches you in English. Rosetta Stone tries to teach you with nothing but pictures. Immersion can be valuable, and Pimsleur does this to an extent. Once you’ve progressed a bit in the program, it starts giving you instructions in the language you’re learning. But Rosetta Stone tries to go all the way on this from the beginning, only using pictures to tell you what words and phrases mean. This works fine for concrete things, (“man,” “The man runs,” colors, big/small, etc.) it’s terrible for abstract things.

For example: Rosetta Stone kept showing me three phrases, “annyong haseyo,” “annyonghi keseyo,” and “annyonghi kaseyo,” alongside pictures of people waving to each other. I could figure out that they had to do something with saying hello and goodbye, but I couldn’t figure out what was what. Since I knew Korean is a language that can express a lot of levels of politeness, I thought maybe that had something to do with it, and I was supposed to look at whether the people in the pictures where friends or coworkers or whatever. I had to go to another source to find out that the first one was how Koreans say, “hello,” the second is how you say goodbye when you’re leaving, and the third is how you say goodbye when the other person is leaving.

This problem is related to problem #1, since many of the most useful phrases in any language will be relatively abstract and therefore hard to convey with pictures. “Excuse me,” “Goodbye,” “I speak a little Korean,” “Where’s the park?”–these are all going to be hard to convey to someone using no language, only pictures.

3. Pimsleur is all about practicing producing the language, and includes plenty of repetition. Rosetta Stone isn’t and doesn’t. Rosetta Stone has you do some producing of the language, but you waste a lot of time answering multiple-choice questions, and answering multiple choice questions isn’t exactly a practical language skill. Pimsleur, on the other hand, has you do nothing but practice saying words and phrases.

Pimsleur is also VERY heavy on repetition and review. This is  a good thing. While Rosetta Stone does some of that, I believe Rosetta Stone’s makers focused too much on cramming in content, something that tends to lead to less retention in the long run. This seems to be a symptom of the same philosophy that created problems #1: trying to cram your head with things they think you “should” know, rather than doing what will help you most in the real world.

Rosetta Stone does have one tool that ought to be really helpful for learning to speak, namely, it has you speak into a microphone and the software checks your pronunciation. However, the software isn’t terribly reliable: often, the software would say something was “wrong” when I was pretty sure it was right, so I would say it again the exact same way (to the extent I could manage) and the software would say it was right. There were other times where I was virtually certain I wasn’t getting the pronunciation, and the software said I was right anyways.

In principle, I think it still should be possible to make something that has all the advantages of Pimsleur, plus some additional features that are only possible with software. But Rosetta Stone gets too many basic things wrong. Maybe it’s designers got too wrapped up in doing fancy stuff with the software–I dunno. But I do know that if you want to teach yourself a foreign language, I’d recommend using Pimsleur.

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