Rosetta Stone Chinese Review

NOTE: This review was of the old version 2 of Rosetta Stone. The current product is version 3 and is much improved. Please see my update in the comments section for details.

Crossposted from Amazon.com.

Many written mistakes may lead you astray

As others have noted, this is an excellent way to learn spoken Chinese. However, there are many errors in the written sections that will end up teaching Chinese students the wrong things if they don’t have other resources to fall back on, and endlessly frustrate those students who do know the proper usage.

Some reviewers have criticized the lack of translations. However, this is an immersion program, and so that is something that should be expected. It can be daunting to approach the first lessons, but there are enough clues in the pictures and variations on usage that you soon figure things out. More importantly, because you are forced to figure things out it is easier to remember what you’ve learned. This is a big point in Rosetta Stone’s favor for those students who are seriously interested in actually remembering what they learn.

The spoken part is quite good. While the speakers use a Beijing style accent, it is not a heavy one. The student should pick up a more universal speaking style than other programs which use a heavy Beijing accent which can make one hard to understand in other parts of the Chinese speaking world. The speech is very clearly spoken, and is slow enough to be easily understood but not so slow as to be unrealistic.

At first the written portion looks very encouraging. Rosetta Stone offers the options of using Hanyu Pinyin with tone marks, simplified Chinese (used in China and Singapore), or traditional Chinese (used in Hong Kong and Taiwan). However, there are numerous mistakes which, if the student is unaware of them, will lead to learning incorrect information.

First with the traditional Chinese, many words in the traditional Chinese option are written using simplified Characters instead. In Unit 1 alone you have feiji (airplane) written in both traditional and simplified characters in different places, and mianbao (bread), pingguo (apple), huluobo (carrot) and gan (doing) are consistently presented in simplified characters. If someone is considering using Rosetta Stone to learn traditional Chinese characters, there are enough mistakes that you probably should take a pass.

Normally if you’ve selected the simplified or traditional character options, you’d never see the pinyin characters at all. However, in the written test portion, only pinyin is tested for. This may seem like a drawback but it is also a good way to test you on which tones are used. It would be nice if they allowed entering actual Chinese characters in the written portion though.

When learning spoken Chinese getting the correct tones is extremely important. Of course, good listeners can pick up the tones just from listening, but most Chinese language students need additional help and reinforcement on the proper usage of tones. Using pinyin with tones in the written test portion would be a good way to do this.

Again, though, we run into mistakes and inconsistencies. As a very basic example, ge (counting word) is used quite frequently in the pinyin as fourth tone. However, most of the time the proper usage is to use the neutral tone (it can also be used in fourth tone in some cases, but not in the cases they use it). To further confuse things, sometimes they properly use ge in neutral tone in exactly the same usage where a few screens before they used it incorrectly in fourth tone!

There is an additional problem in inconsistent placement of the tone mark. The tone mark is placed above a vowel in the word. If there is more than one vowel, such as the word zai (at), there are various rules for where to put the tone mark. However, it is usually considered unimportant for the student to remember exactly which vowel to place the tone mark on. It’s much more important just to know which tone should be used.

The written test portion uses a unique method for entering pinyin with tone marks. A more common system would be to place the number of the tone at the end of each syllable, for example zai4 to indicate zai in the fourth tone, and either using 5 or omitting the number for neutral zone. Instead, Rosetta Stone uses a system where the -, [, = and ] keys act as shift keys for tones 1-4 respectively. In additiona for the special umlauted “u” letter in pinyin, the common method in other input systems is to use “v” to represent this character, however Rosetta Stone uses “h” instead. These quirks are not too hard to get the hang of but it is regrettable that a more common input system wasn’t used.

Getting back to the mistakes, this system also means that the student must place the tone mark above the correct vowel when there is more than one. Again, that’s a rather nit-picking detail that will not add much to the student’s knowledge of Chinese.

But even worse, consistency problems again crop up. Again in the example of zai in the fourth tone, most teaching materials place the tone mark over the “a”. Rosetta Stone starts out in Unit 1 with the tone mark over the “i” instead, but in later units it switches to placing the tone mark over the “a”.

Rosetta Stone by default uses ‘strict’ mode in the written test where tone marks need to appear exactly where they expect. This increases the difficultly greatly for little learning benefit, and then frustrates the student by not following a consistent method of doing so. Alternatively one can turn off strict mode, but then tone marks are not considered at all. If the student wants to learn tones, he or she will need to put up with the frustration of also learning where to put the tone marks depending on which lesson you are on.

These are just some examples of incorrect or inconsistent usage in units one and two alone. The number of such mistakes are present throughout the lessons.

I’m not familiar enough with simplified Chinese to comment on the quality and consistency there.

It is frustrating and disappointing that such mistakes, problems and inconsistencies which should have been caught by the publisher have resulted in a mediocre product that could otherwise have been great. With these problems it makes it very difficult and frustrating for the student to learn proper tones or traditional Chinese characters.

Because about half of the features are badly broken, and because the problems are not apparent to the beginning student, this product only gets 1/2 the possible score from this reviewer.

6 thoughts on “Rosetta Stone Chinese Review”

  1. Hi,

    Your blog is great! I am studying mandarin for 2 months now (with a wonderful and patient laoshi) and I am looking for “the best” software to learn speaking chinese. Is Rosetta Stone the best one or do you recommand another one.

    Sorry if you find my english poor… that is my third language!

    Thank you,

    Claude Leclerc

  2. As an update, I incorrectly wrote above that ‘easy’ mode in the written test portion would disable tone checking. That is actually incorrect. The ‘easy’ mode only disables checking for punctuation, so the drawbacks of the tone checking are unavoidable.

  3. Hi,

    Thanks for the great review,

    But now I’m not so sure anymore whether I would buy Rosetta…

    I would like to learn basic chinese. I understand that Rosetta has it’s problems, but are there any other online / software option you could recommend? I came across Langlearner, http://www.langlearner.com, which claims to be as least as good as Rosetta and is much, much, cheaper. I could even learn Chinese using my own language – Dutch (or any other language I’m able to speak for that matter).
    Is there anyone learning Chinese who has used this software? Any comments on the pronouncination there?

    Thanks!

  4. This review was for version 2 and is quite old. The current version is version 3 and is much improved. There are still occasional instances of Simplified Chinese showing up in Traditional mode, but these are much less common than before. Tone marks can now go over any vowel, and v is now used for the umlauted u. The only other quirk is that they use 甚麼 instead of the much more common 什麼.

  5. hello,

    I actaully have version 3 and i cant seem to find the simplified character option. There is on option for pinyin, traditional, and traditional with pinyin. While learning the traditional characters is helpful for those who are planning on going to China, it does not help me personally. I am minoring in Mandarin and the Chinese program at my school teaches simplified characters only. So I just wanted to make those who are looking at the rosetta stone program aware that version 3 does not (as far as i can see) offer a simplified character option.

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