Have you always wanted to learn to speak Italian, but never got around to it? Maybe you could not afford the time or the money to take classes, let alone go to Italy to learn the language, so interaction with native speakers was not an option. Then again, maybe it was just the mere thought of having to learn grammar rules and memorize word lists that made your head spin. If any or all of the above are true, then the award-winning Rosetta Stone Italian Level 1 could be just what you need!
If only I could have had access to Rosetta Stone when I was a foreign language learner, eons ago. Language learning in the ’70s and ’80s was frankly not that much fun. Our learning material consisted of dry grammar books that contained one rule after another and many verb conjugations. Vocabulary was limited to long lists of words, with translations in your native language that you had to memorize. The only interaction with “real" language was provided by dialogues on records or tapes. I’m an Italian native who tried to learn French as a young adult with the traditional, old-school, all-grammar oriented method. Maybe that is why when I first went to France, after one year of French instruction, I wasn’t even able to ask where to find a bathroom, let alone understand the answer. This will not happen to you with the skills you’ll learn from Rosetta Stone Italian Level 1. You should be able to “survive" in all sorts of real-life interactions. In fact, Rosetta Stone is the closest thing to interacting with real native speakers at a level that is appropriate for you. If I eventually learned how to speak multiple foreign languages fluently, it was thanks to my frequent trips abroad and my interactions with the locals in their environment. Rosetta Stone can be regarded as a virtual tour. Or, at least (since, as I will detail below, it is a bit lacking in terms of authentic Italian cultural content) like meeting a bunch of nice and approachable Italian-native neighbors.
Based on the Dynamic Immersion method, Rosetta Stone is tangible proof that some advancements in technology can really be good for you. There is no need to panic, because you won’t have to try to make sense of complex grammar rules, memorize boring word lists, or translate back and forth from English. Actually, the method is such that you will be naturally guided, not translated, but rather gradually learn how to speak Italian (and maybe–which in my view is the ultimate proof of genuine, effective language acquisition–ultimately, even dream in Italian). You will be learning in the same way you learned your native language as a child, by connecting words, phrases, and sounds with images from the surrounding world. [see screen shot 1: Level 1]
Dynamic Immersion is a method that combines interactive technology with native speakers and rich visuals (see At the Market screen shot), to mimic the complete immersion process children use to learn their first language. The program really provides an immersive experience.
Rosetta Stone Italian Level 1 is designed, as the website (www.rosettastone.com) states, to build “a foundation of fundamental vocabulary and essential language structure." You will acquire basic conversational skills, including greetings and introductions, simple questions and answers, shopping, and more. It corresponds more or less to a first-semester college course. It is composed of four units (Language Basics, Greetings and Introductions, Work and School, Shopping). [see screenshot 2: Selection screen shot]
Each core lesson aptly focuses on all the main areas of effective language learning: pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, listening and reading, writing, speaking, and final review. There are four core lessons for each level. There’s even a “final exam," but Rosetta Stone had the good sense to rename it “Milestone," so as to not scare you, the learner. [see screenshot 3: Course Unit Outline] The entire experience, let me reassure you, is never scary.
Although a bit expensive, this software is a steal when compared to one semester of college tuition. It will allow you to work at your own pace and on your own time. What this type of language learning software requires, though, is perseverance. You won’t need to spend hours per day on it. However, you should be ready to commit to a half an hour per day, every day, for a few weeks. The attractive interface, graphics, and audio will make such a commitment easier for you. In fact, it will feel more like playing an interactive textual adventure game than “studying."
The complete suite is composed of three levels. The software I am reviewing is version 3 (on the CD-ROM there is also an online subscription option), which came out in August 2007, and has been implemented in ten of the languages that Rosetta Stone offers. Version 3 marks a significant improvement over previous builds, as it includes a number of new features: proprietary speech recognition technology; Contextual Formation, which uses real-world simulations (an implementation of the “rolplaying" concept of the present-day language classroom); Adaptive Recall, which tracks progress to reinforce your strengths and revisit needs; and Milestone, which lets you try out your new language knowledge in real-life simulations. Italian Level 1’s progressive learning format also has been improved.
The speech recognition feature is effective, and works better than most similar software I have tried so far.
But is it boring? Are you worried that it may be just as tedious as your high-school language classes? Absolutely not. It is never tedious or boring. Rosetta Stone boasts that it provides “a captivating, game-like experience." As a video game player since 1977, I’m happy to confirm that claim. You’ll feel more like you are playing a drag-and-drop, point-and-click graphical adventure (with added and exciting speech and typing features) rather than learning a foreign language. And yet, there’s nothing “flaky" about this software.
Price to Value (5 out of 5)
For $209, you get a solid, easy-to-use, (mostly) user-friendly, multimedia language learning experience that will have you read, write, understand and–gasp!–even speak Italian! On top of that, included in the price, you get one of the best packed-in USB headsets I have seen. Albeit a tad expensive, Rosetta Stone Italian Level 1 is a solid and attractive package.
In addition, every Rosetta Stone Personal Edition is backed by an unconditional six-month guarantee. If you’re not satisfied with the product, you’ll have your money back —no questions asked, as specifically stated on their website.
The complete, three-level language learning package is expensive. Yet, for people who want to or need to learn Italian in a natural, communicative, interactive way, and not feel threatened by grammar, rules, and memorization, this is probably the best choice on the market.
Installation & Setup (5 out of 5)
Rosetta Stone Italian Level 1 doesn’t require a fast or powerful computer to work well (minimum requirements: 512 RAM, 1 GHz or faster processor speed; 600 MB free hard drive space per level; 16-bit sound card; 800 by 600 display resolution, 1024 by 768 recommended).
It’s easy to install and works on intuition rather than by giving the user a complicated set of instructions. You install the main software and then the language disk (600 MB are required to install an individual language level), and then you click start and literally start playing with the software. There’s no need for complicated instruction booklets–fear not, however: both a quick start guide and an illustrated user’s guide are included. The documentation is of excellent quality and truly user-friendly.
User Interface (5 out of 5)
The graphic interface is simple and easy to navigate [See Course 1 Outline, Level 1 Screen Selection and Unit 2 Greetings and Introductions screen shots]. Speech recognition is quite powerful. Setup doesn’t take more than 30 seconds, and this program recognizes speech very well right from the start.
Help & Support (5 out of 5)
Rosetta Stone has one of the best 1-800 support services ever. A call to their support line (1-800-280-8172) at 3:00 p.m. CST on a Friday was answered by a live representative within one minute. Their automated menu was one of the clearest, simplest, and most professional I have ever encountered. No runarounds!
Product Features (4 out of 5)
Rosetta Stone can be regarded as a virtual tour, or at least (since, as I will detail below, it is a bit lacking in terms of authentic Italian cultural content) like meeting a bunch of nice and approachable Italian-native neighbors.
Based on the Dynamic Immersion method, Rosetta Stone is tangible proof that some advancements in technology can really be good for you. There is no need to panic because you won’t have to try and make sense of complex grammar rules, memorize boring word lists, or translate back and forth from English. Actually, the method is such that you will be naturally guided, not translate, and rather gradually learn how to speak Italian (and maybe–which in my view is the ultimate proof of genuine, effective language acquisition–ultimately even dream in Italian). You will be learning in the same way you learned your native language as a child, by connecting words, phrases, and sounds with images from the surrounding world [see Level 1 sample screen shot]. Dynamic Immersion is a method that combines interactive technology with native speakers and rich visuals [see At the Market screen shot], to mimic the complete immersion process children use to learn their first language. The program really provides an immersive experience.
The software I am reviewing is version 3 (on the CD-ROM they also have an online subscription option), which came out in August 2007, and has been implemented in 10 of the languages that Rosetta Stone offers. Version 3 marks a significant improvement over previous builds, as it includes a number of new features: proprietary speech recognition technology; Contextual Formation, which uses real-world simulations (an implementation of the “roleplaying" concept of the present-day language classroom); Adaptive Recall, which tracks progress to reinforce your strengths and revisit needs; and Milestone features that let you try out your new language knowledge in real-life simulations. Also, the progressive learning format has been improved.
This software is filled with features that not only let you understand and speak Italian but also read and write it. The voice recognition function is excellent. It is a fast, effective, quite natural, and last but not least, fun way of learning basic survival Italian.
As I mentioned, the complete three-level suite is expensive. Still, it is worth it, especially if you want to learn Italian in the most natural, stress-free way possible, at your own pace and on your own time.
I wish there were more authentic cultural content: showing you a real Italian open-air market rather than an American one; entering a real Italian cafe and ordering real cappuccino and cornetto (croissant); showing you what real Italian spaghetti or pizza look like and how to order them, etc.
Performance (4 out of 5)
Rosetta Stone Italian performs fine even on a five-year-old PC. I loved the built-in help feature, which was simple yet effective [see HTML Help Screen screen shot], as well as the interactive spoken alphabet feature, a real asset for beginners. Wherever you are, you can click and open this screen and review pronunciation of both single letters and letter combinations [see Interactive Alphabet screen shot].
There were only a few minor issues. When you first install the headset (which, as I noted, is truly excellent quality for a pack-in), audio volume is insanely high. However, this can be easily fixed: in Start Menu -> Control Panel, click Sounds and Audio Devices, and then C-Media USB Sound and Audio Device, and bring the volume down almost to a minimum. Voice recognition is very good, but still at times imperfect. As a native speaker of Italian, I observed that the software is quite unforgiving. For example, while in Italian it is not necessary to state the subject, as the verb already includes information on who the person performing that specific action is, Rosetta Stone insisted I use subjects and it penalized me (by taking a few points off) if I didn’t do so. OK, big deal; I got a 98 percent rather than 100. I still aced my test and so will you!
While language content is good (there are a few mistakes here and there), the issue that bothered me the most was the lack of authentic Italian cultural content. While their websites boasts rich, vibrant and exciting graphics, and their “global tapestry of people images," which “reflects the diversity of people and cultures from which their language products derive," what that really means is that people and environments featured in activities look generic (actually, downright American) rather than specifically Italian. This is not a strong point for the software. It is efficient for the company, which can recycle the same content over several different courses, but not for the learner, who gets deprived of actual cultural content. So for example, when going to the market to buy fruits and veggies, prices will appear in dollars rather than in euros [see At the Market screen shot]. The lack of authentic cultural content is also reflected in a few “abstract" uses of the language here and there. For example, in Unit 4, Lesson 4, Milestone, you’re suppose to greet a sales person and you’re required to say buon pomeriggio, rather than the more commonly used buon giorno (the former is almost obsolete in present-day Italian).
Also, there seems to be at times an issue with the exercises moving on too quickly, and there is no way of slowing the process down. You can only start an activity again from scratch once you’re done, thus resetting your score.
Last but not least, all of the speaking voices will talk in perfect, accent-free standard Italian. While this is excellent on the one hand (you will be learning the best possible pronunciation), the chances are, if you were to travel to Italy today day, you’d hear people speaking standard Italian (not dialects) with very specific regional accents. If the software exposed one to a variety of accents (with at least some representatives from both the north and the south), then you would probably feel more comfortable once you started interacting with real Italian natives in different areas of Italy.
Including a headset volume control in the main screen would save users some trouble (besides ear pain and buzzing). I was able to solve the problem in seconds, but my less-technically-inclined significant other used the software for a few days and kept the headset behind the ears, as the volume was too high.
Rosetta Stone should include cultural content, maybe as a separate add-on module.
Rosetta Stone Italian Level 1 is an excellent product that is intuitive and easy to use. There are a few frustrating moments with speech recognition and with some specific actions on the graphic interface that are a bit puzzling at face value (OK, what should I do now? Should I speak, or drag and drop, or read out loud, or type in the answer?), but these only take a few extra seconds to figure out and shouldn’t be a problem for anyone who spends time on a computer. You will learn the best possible standard Italian accent, free of regional influences. You won’t learn much about the local culture, but you will be provided with all the necessary linguistic tools for “surviving" in Italy.
Rosetta Stone Italian Level 2, Rosetta Stone Italian Level 3