Un excellent professeur

For many people, the thought of learning a new language is daunting at best. Memories of high school language classes with vocabulary tests and grammar drills can send even motivated students into a panic.

That's why Fairfield Language Technologies developed the Rosetta Stone Language Library, a tutorial program that uses a simple, natural language approach to learning. The program is available in 25 languages, ranging from the widespread (Spanish, French, English) to the more obscure (Luxembourgish, Greenlandic, Welsh.)

We tested the Rosetta Stone 2000, Version 1.5.5. There is also an earlier version, the Rosetta Stone Classic, which has lower system requirements and is compatible with older operating systems, such as Microsoft Corp. Windows 3.1, as well as computers with less memory and processing capacity. Both versions are compatible with Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh systems.

Fairfield touts the program's simplicity, ease of implementation and mobility. The mobility is most evident in the program's online version. The Web version features helpful on-screen instructions so users can jump right in without toting around a manual while traveling. Results are saved online so they can be accessed at any time.

The company compares Rosetta Stone's structure to an elevator as opposed to a hallway: Students progress through each level in an orderly fashion, unlike language programs with too many choices at each level, rendering them confusing.

There are no spelling or grammar drills, and there is no translating. Students learn in the new language only — just as a child would learn his or her native language. Instead of word lists, Rosetta Stone mimics real-world learning by using photographs as visuals and native speakers for the corresponding audio. The program is organized into two levels and is designed to give users a comprehensive, working knowledge of the language. People who are completely unfamiliar with a language start at the beginning, while those with some prior knowledge can begin at a higher level.

Level I contains eight units, each consisting of 10 or 11 lessons. The lessons start with simple nouns and prep.ositions and conclude with exercises such as pronouns, adjectives, geography and walking/driving directions.

Level II contains 11 units, one of which is a series of cartoons and two of which are reference lists for items such as kitchen utensils, clothing, animals, house furnishings and more.

Each lesson is structured around five language skills: listening and reading together, listening only, reading only, speaking and writing. Each skill features several exercises that help students approach them from different angles.

For example, the listening and reading combined skill has four exercises. One consists of text phrases with corresponding audio and four pictures from which to choose. Another features four text items, audio and one picture. The third contains no pictures, just the audio and written text, and the fourth features one text item with four possible audio choices.

These manipulations give students a workout with the language and preclude learning by rote. When exercises involve four photographs, the program randomly shuffles them each time so students cannot simply memorize the locations.

The speech portion of the program impressed us. It features visual voice prints of both the native speaker and the student so the two can be compared. Each voice print shows three components of speech: pitch, emphasis and form. A meter shows how closely the student's speech matches the native speaker's.

There is also a slow playback feature so students can isolate individual sounds. We found this useful after experimenting with languages containing sounds with which we were unfamiliar.

The writing exercises feature two difficulty levels: strict, which requires correct capitalization; and easy, which does not. When it checks the student's work, the program underlines errors so they can be corrected.

In addition to the exercises, each language skill features a preview, a tutorial and tests. The preview familiarizes students with the material and includes all audio, visuals and text. Users can simply skip through the screens without choosing anything. In contrast, the tutorial requires that they choose answers before progressing to the next screen.

Rosetta Stone's structure allows for pressure-free, self-paced learning. Students have unlimited chances to choose answers, and the exercises are not timed unless users set an optional time-out feature to make the lesson more challenging. In addition, users can click a button at any time to switch to preview mode if they need more instruction.

Each exercise includes a test. The tests are similar to the exercises, except students have only one chance to choose an answer, and they are automatically timed. Even during tests, though, students can click a button to have an audio phrase or video clip replayed.

Test results are reported as two measures: a number representing a percentage of 100 and a time in minutes and seconds. Test results are saved in an easy-to-read format, and if a test is retaken, all scores are saved so students can track their progress. In addition, test results can be exported to standard ASCII text files that can be viewed from any word processor or text editor.

To experience Rosetta Stone's methodology, Fairfield suggested we take the first few lessons of a language completely unfamiliar to us, so we chose Thai. Surprisingly, we found the process not only easy, but a lot of fun. We zipped through the first several exercises in no time, and our retention proved we had learned the material instead of simply memorizing it.

Of course, reading and writing a language with completely unfamiliar characters is different from listening and speaking. Some languages, such as Thai, do not have electronic writing exercises at this time because of the obvious limitations of Western keyboards. But the company is currently developing a click-and-drag writing exercise for such languages. Current versions feature hotkeys for non-Western characters (such as German umlauts) and conversion charts for Cyrillic and Hebrew keyboards.

To explore the higher-level lessons, we chose a familiar language and ran through the exercises. Rosetta Stone progresses logically, and each lesson builds upon the previous one for step-by-step, intuitive learning.

The program provides instant feedback for each answer with both audio and visual cues. We sheepishly admit that one of our favorite aspects of the product was the library of six "correct" and six "incorrect" sounds. Users choose one of each and can change them at any time. They range from straightforward, such as a chime for a correct answer, to near-hilarious, such as the cartoonish evil laugh we used for incorrect answers.

Such features might seem superfluous at first glance, but they truly make the lessons fun instead of exercises in drudgery. The program also uses colorful multicultural photographs that are interesting and enjoyable to view.

We were also impressed with the program's interface. It's extremely clean and intuitive. We needed the manual — which is excellent — only for the most basic start-up information and some background details about the program's structure. One handy feature, for example, is a "bail out" button that allows a student to quit an exercise or test at any time.

The Rosetta Stone Language Library is impressive, and testing it was enjoyable as well as educational. Anyone learning a language for the first time would be well served by using it, and those with language familiarity can use its high-level exercises for further learning since the program is so comprehensive.

If you would like to sample the program before buying it, Fairfield offers a free online demo at www. rosettastone.com. You'll need Atom...Shockwave Corp.'s Macro.media Shockwave Player installed on your computer; it is available free from www.macromedia.com. Special "Traveler" versions of several languages are also available. They focus on terms and expressions frequently used while traveling. For classroom settings, Fairfield offers workbooks and study guides for select languages such as English, Spanish and French.

In addition to their prepackaged products, Fairfield can create custom versions for specific needs. For example, the company recently created a Spanish package focusing on automotive terms. Representatives said they can create such packages in any language and with any subject matter.

REPORT CARD

Rosetta Stone

Score: A

Fairfield Language Technologies
(800) 788-0822
www.rosettastone.com

Price and availability: Rosetta Stone is available on the General Services Administration schedule through GTSI Corp. or directly from Fairfield Language Technologies. The cost is $235 per copy for up to five copies for the Level I or Level II program. Up to four additional copies can be bought for $195 each. Ten to 49 copies cost $195 each, and 50 or more cost $160 each. Site license pricing varies by quantity and number of languages bought.

Remarks: Rosetta Stone is an excellent program that uses a real-world, natural language approach for effective and enjoyable learning. There are no drills or memorization. Implementation and use are extremely easy, and an online version means access is available anytime, anywhere.


SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

The Rosetta Stone 2000 Version 1.5.5 or earlier

Microsoft Corp. Windows PC:

* Windows 95/98/Me or NT 2.0/2000 (95/98/Me recommended)

* 75 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium processor (133 MHz Pentium recommended)

* 16M of memory (24M recommended; 32M recommended for NT 2.0/2000)

* 35M of free hard drive space

* 4x CD-ROM drive

* 16-bit color display

* Speech recognition requires a Pentium 100-class processor or better

(Sound Blaster 16 sound card or better recommended) and microphone

Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh systems:

* Mac OS 7.6 or later (Mac OS 8.0 or later recommended)

* PowerPC processor (PowerPC 150 processor recommended)

* 16M of memory (24M recommended)

* 35M of free hard drive space

* 4x CD-ROM drive

* 16-bit color display

* Speech recognition requires PowerPC 90 processor or better and a microphone

(PlainTalk-compatible microphone recommended)

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