I’m getting ready this week to complete Level I of the three levels of Japanese that Rosetta Stone offers. It’s been interesting and worthwhile so far, although my experience with the program is definitely not what a true beginner would experience as I have previously studied Japanese. I also worked for many years as a language instructor (ESL) and that influences my experience as well.
However, as I have moved through this first level, I have discovered that I neither learned nor retained anything from my last time in a Japanese program, so I am much further down in the beginning level than I realized. The methodology used at the university where I last studied was truly awful, with lots and lots of memorization required, and was a very poor fit for how I learn. The only good thing I can say about that program and my experience with it was that it provided enough material for me to write my master’s thesis.
Before I began Rosetta Stone, I was very curious about how it would cover Japanese. It’s an extremely difficult language to master, one of the four most difficult languages for English speakers to learn (the other three are Chinese, Korean, and Arabic). At a minimum, it takes an English speaker at least three times as long to become proficient in Japanese as it does with Spanish, French, or most other European languages (German is an exception). Not only does Japanese have a complicated writing system, but Japanese sentence structure is very different compared to English, and the vocabulary one uses can change based on one’s position in the social hierarchy. The words you use with your children are different from what you use with your boss, your teacher, your friends and so forth, or whether you are male or female.
So, what do I think of it so far? First, the program provides a lot of repetition and reinforcement, always a good thing. RS introduces both vocabulary and grammar points in each lesson, and then uses them over and over as lessons continue so that you have plenty of opportunity to recognize and remember words and patterns easily. Each activity in the lessons is reinforced in three ways: by hearing the word or sentence, by seeing a picture, and by reading the word or sentence. The native speakers are very easy to understand, and speak more than slowly enough for beginners.
When it comes to reading a user can choose either romaji (the Western alphabet), kana (hiragana and katakana, the two Japanese syllabaries), or kanji (Chinese characters). In my case, I started out with just the kana since I am familiar with them, but fairly early on I switched to kanji mode. The lessons don’t use as much as you would see regularly in Japan, but characters are used and repeated enough that I can now read many of them easily. (Someone once said that when it comes to learning kanji, the first 50 times you see a character is just practice, but the 51st time you know it. I don’t think it’s actually that difficult, but for me it seems an unfortunately close description.) For a true beginner though, every lesson includes sections for learning and practicing the kana. In my opinion though, if you are starting from scratch I would recommend briefly familiarizing yourself with hiragana and katakana using another source, and then use the kana-only option when you start RS.
The visuals are also very helpful for remembering and understanding what is being said, although I wish more Japanese people appeared in the photos. For example, it’s a bit disconcerting (for me, anyway) to be listening to a sentence in Japanese about how big a house is while looking at a picture of a giant McMansion, rather than a large, Japanese-style house.
Rosetta Stone allows you to practice pronunciation by linking your microphone to the program. You can easily see how closely your pronunciation matches that of a native speaker, and adjust your speech as necessarily.
My favorite thing about the program though is the ability to go back and repeat lessons, or particular parts of lessons, when you feel you haven’t completely grasped either the vocabulary or grammar. For example, some recent lessons I did covered comparatives and superlatives (i.e. big, bigger, biggest). With Japanese, making a comparison is a bit more complicated than just adding -er or -est, and it took me three repetitions of the lesson before I felt comfortable with how to do it.
I currently spend 30 to 45 minutes every day working on Rosetta Stone. As a former language teacher, I firmly believe that regular daily study, practice and review helps one not only learn new material more quickly but more importantly retain what has been learned.
What I find very limiting about the program though is that it is truly individual-based; that it, there is little to no opportunity to speak and practice with others. Communication and speaking practice is critical when you are learning a new language, especially when you are not in an area where the language is regularly spoken. RS allows you to set up conversation sessions with a native speaker via Skype, but I find that very limiting and haven’t tried it so far. I have to provide the motivation on my own to practice what I have learned, and to search out conversation opportunities. Thankfully there are Japanese speakers here on the island, so hopefully I will be able to find a conversation partner one of these days.
Overall, my experience so far with the Japanese Rosetta Stone program has been positive, and I would recommend it as a helpful tool if you are interested in learning some basic Japanese. I don’t feel it should be your only tool though if you’d like to go beyond basics. I’m getting ready to supplement my learning with a textbook (Japanese For Busy People) as I feel I need a bit more that what RS offers. I’m also interested to find out how Brett does with the program once he starts as he is a true beginner (he is learning the kana first). WenYu is also studying Japanese this year, and maybe there will be upcoming opportunities for us to practice with each other.
Do I think we’ll use Rosetta Stone to learn any other languages? Probably not, because 1) it’s expensive; and 2) we won’t be spending the amount of time in other areas compared to how long we plan to stay in Japan each year. Understanding and speaking Japanese will be somewhat critical; Italian (for example), not so much. An elementary language text or phrasebook will probably be enough to learn the amount of Italian (or other language) we will need to know for a month’s stay.