This review explores just how useful Rosetta Stone language learning software is for those on a quest to understand--and speak--Irish or, as the Irish themselves call it, Gaeilge.
I've long wanted to learn what should be my native language--Irish. With no Irish speakers in my hometown, or at least none willing to sit with me for endless hours helping me to learn, my only option for learning, short of a trip to Ireland, has been language-learning software.
While Rosetta Stone is one of the more expensive language-learning programs to be had, it also has a reputation for being one of the best. I still would have hedged my bets and gone for something less expensive if it had been available--but it wasn't. So I saved my pennies, watched for a sale, and purchased the Rosetta Stone Irish Level 1 to get me started. At least it's less expensive than an actual trip to Ireland: Buying straight from Rosetta Stone will cost you between $200 and $300 per level (higher levels are more expensive). Amazon.com seems to consistently offer a discount of about 10% over Rosetta Stone's prices.
Final verdict on the cost: It's incredibly pricey, but you do get a lot of bang for your buck, so four out of five.
The actual interface between you, the user, and your computer is the first hiccup that any language learning software has to get you through. Rosetta Stone does an admirable job of it: As long as you follow the on-screen instructions, the only way you could possibly mess installation up is if you've lost the registration code that came with your product. Once you've got the software up and running, you have remarkably little to do. Roll the mouse over images to magnify them for easier viewing, click when prompted for an answer, or repeat a native speaker's pronunciation. That's it. All in all, very easy and intuitive to use. If you spend too long fumbling in the wrong direction, a pop-up window will appear, instructing you how you should proceed.
My only complaint about the Rosetta Stone interface is that, when running it on an older PowerPC Macintosh (iBook G4, OS X 10.5.5) I sometimes received a message telling me that a small error had occurred. When this happened Rosetta Stone would often hang (cease responding entirely) although sometimes it allowed me to continue with the lesson or return to the home page and restart the lesson. In the case of the last option, some or all of my progress in that particular learning segment was usually lost. These frustrations went away when I upgraded to a newer Intel MacBook.
Learning to properly pronounce words in a new language is critical if you're planning on actually putting those words to use. The lack of feedback in many language learning software programs or audio discs is one of my long-standing pet peeves. Rosetta Stone remedies this nicely: Their speech recognition interface allows you to adjust just how close the program watchdogs your pronunciation, and if you're really struggling with a particular word or phrase you can click a small button to watch a graphical representation of a native speaker saying the word or words, plus a slowed-down, exaggeration pronunciation. You can practice pronouncing and compare your results to the original speaker's until you're satisfied that you've got it right.
One of Rosetta Stone's biggest selling points is that it's supposed to help you learn a new language directly, associating new words directly to pictures and concepts as opposed to first thinking of the word in English and then translating it. I find that Rosetta Stone fills this role very well. Because there are no English translations given for what you're learning--not a one--you're forced to start thinking in Irish right away. You're still free, however, to match up your English concept of a photo with the Irish word you're given--in other words, even though you never see "boy=buachaill" show up on the screen, you'll still know that's exactly what buachaill means.
The only problem with learning this way from software is that you can't ask it to change perspectives or clarify, so I've found it is still useful to have an Irish-English dictionary on hand to clarify abstract concepts or words that might have multiple meanings.
Rosetta Stone mixes and matches new material with reviews from old lessons. It even prompts you to briefly review material that was completed weeks ago, just to refresh your recall. My only complaint is that, while it allows you to choose your areas of focus (reading, writing, comprehension, speaking, or all of the above) it doesn't let you mix and match specific lessons on your own--you just have to follow along the timeline it set out for you, skipping lessons that you don't want.
Coping with Frustration
There comes a part in any language learner's lessons where you just want to bang your head against the desk. Teachers may hit this point, too, so one of the biggest advantages of Rosetta Stone for learners is that it's endlessly patient. Click the little green button and it will repeat the phrase you're trying to grasp over... and over... and over again.
Best of all, though? You can walk away from it. If you're feeling frustrated just turn the computer off and walk away for a while--you can go right back to work once the frustration has abated. If you've been away for a long time, Rosetta Stone will prompt you to do a couple of refresher reviews before you continue. You can choose to skip these, but I've found that they are a big help for reducing frustration even more: They give you a chance to get up and running again with your studies on a consistent note of success, and do a lot to prep you for what's coming next.
Give It a Try!
Rosetta Stone software will cost you more than a few pretty pennies, but once you're made the financial leap you have access to an endlessly patient native Irish speaker at any time, day or night, for as long as you like. Rosetta Stone's speech recognition capabilities are the crux of its value; the program does a great job of keeping tabs on how well you're pronouncing new words and letter combinations, and you can fine-tune how closely it watches. The fact that you're dealing with a computer means that you can tax your tutor's patience as much as you like. Need a word repeated 50 times before you hear the fine distinctions in tone? No problem. Need to walk away in a huff and come back weeks or even a month later once the frustration has ebbed? No big deal.
Rosetta Stone's intuitive learning methods give you a chance to put things together for yourself. While language learners accustomed to instruction by rote memorization may find this frustrating at first, it is in the end liberating, and makes it seem as though the program is tuning directly into how you prefer to learn.
My only real complaint about Rosetta Stone Irish: Level 1 is that it's not possible to customize the lesson plans a little more. But since you can still skip over unwanted lessons and go directly to the ones you'd like to take, in any order at all, it's not much of a complaint.