Rosetta Stone has to be one of the easiest ways to learn Mandarin
I have a confession. My Mandarin is pretty terrible. Languages have never been my forté and despite my parents attempt to correct this with the dreaded Saturday Chinese school, and even my own attempts by spending a month in Shanghai, I’m kind of back to square one. Now it’s not to say I don’t have any skills at all but my Mandarin is conversational at best and consider reading and writing non-existent.
When the chance came up to brush up my skills with Rosetta Stone Mandarin, I couldn’t say no. I’ve known about Rosetta Stone for a long time all the way back when they used to still sell boxed software on the shelves. Today, it continues to be the most popular language course on the market with now the addition of the mobile app as well. Having never done an online/app-based language course, I wanted to put Rosetta Stone to the test.
Keep scrolling down for my full honest review of Rosetta Stone Mandarin Chinese.
My Review of Rosetta Stone Mandarin
I started taking this self-guided course with an open-mind and from the perspective of both someone that completely knows nothing about the language and also someone that grew up with it but also really sucks at it. I spent time going through the lessons during my trip to New Zealand, and while at home so I’ve really had a chance to use both the app version of the course and the desktop version via my laptop. Let’s break down the review into a few core areas that I think will help answer for you whether it’s worth purchasing it or not.
Here's what we're covering:
- My Review of Rosetta Stone Mandarin
- Frequently Asked Questions
Why is Mandarin so hard to learn?
First of all, it isn’t just you. Mandarin has to be one of the most challenging languages to learn when you factor in all facets including speaking, reading, and writing. Even Matador has Mandarin is one of the top 9 hard languages for English speakers.
There are many reasons for this. Chinese characters are pictoral to start and has over 20,000 characters. They’re essentially simplified drawings and you almost piece together different root characters to create the full picture. On top of that, there’s no phonetic connection between what you see and how you pronounce it.
Next, there are the 4 tones in the language. Any change in inflection can change the complete meaning of a sentence. You can go from saying something about a horse to how someone cursed at you.
Lastly, there are a number of proverbs used quite frequently that just have no equivalent in other languages.
The only way I was able to pass tests during my childhood Chinese school days was to memorize characters like you would a periodic table. However, this mean that I wasn’t learning much at all and that’s why I think the way that Rosetta Stone approaches the teaching of Mandarin to be much more effective.
How is the course structured?
The whole course is broken down into 20 units that touch on very practical things you need to know about the language:
- Language Basics
- Greetings and Introductions
- Work and School
- Past and Future
- Friends and Social Life
- Dining and Vacation
- Home and Health
- Life and World
- Everyday Things
- Places and Events
- Tourism and Recreation
- Professions and Hobbies
- At Home and Around Town
- Style and Personal Wellness
- Business and Industry
- Arts and Academics
- Emergency Situations
- Family and Community
Within each of these units are individual bite-sized lessons that focus on very specific mechanics such as pronunciation, reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary. Each of these lessons are highly interactive, visual, and repetitive (in a good way).
The format typically looks like this although the order does change. Each unit typically has 4 core lessons and then it breaks down from there.
- Core lesson (20 minutes)
- Pronunciation (5 minutes)
- Vocabulary (5 minutes)
- Grammar (5 minutes)
- Reading (5 minutes)
- Writing (5 minutes)
The lessons are a gradual progression of foundation built on earlier and knowledge is frequently re-tested.
Rosetta Stone learning philosophy
Having gone through the lessons in the Rosetta Stone Mandarin course, it becomes pretty evident that there are number of principles that make language learning so effective with Rosetta Stone:
Practical – This is evident from the start instead of diving deep into “technical details” of the language or vocabulary vomit, you start by learning the basic greeting 你好, followed by how to say man, woman, boy, girl, etc. The words and phrases you learn are all meant to be useful in real-life.
Progressive and compound learning – From the first thing you learn, everything is constantly thrown back into the mix. This means that the knowledge you gain from lesson to lesson and unit to unit gets re-used. In language, repetition is key and so I found this to be particularly helpful. You might not catch on the first time something is asked but when they hit you with something the 20th time, something is bound to stick.
Interactive – The whole philosophy of learning here is that it’s meant to be interactive and engaging. You learn by answer questions or as I’d like to call it, completing “challenges”. Every piece of the lesson involves looking at pictures, associating Chinese characters to sounds, selecting options in multiple choice questions, or speaking to your computer or phone. You get instant feedback on whether you’re right or you’re wrong and you repeat this until you get it right. It definitely beats reading a textbook.
Just short enough to escape boredom – Learning a language can be a drag and it’s pretty easy to start twiddling your thumbs or get distracted by something else. You’ll find Rosetta Stone to be highly engaging and each individual lesson to be on average 10-20 “challenges”. The pacing is good and the keep interest high by constantly change up the type of questions.
Examples of lessons
Here are a few inside looks into the type of interactive questions that you’ll get asked as you go through your lessons.
Type 1: Matching phrases to pictures
Here, you’ll have a phrase read to you and you have to match it one of the pictures down below.
Type 2: Fill in the blank
By using the photo for reference, figure out what’s the correct word that fits the sentence.
Type 3: Character recognition test
The instructor reads a word/character and you have to pick the right one.
Type 4: Pronunciation test
Your computer or phone will connect with your mic and for each of the words here, you’ll be challenged to pronounce them correctly. If you fail, you have to keep trying until you get it right. The emphasis here is to learn phrases but practice each word one at a time.
Experience on desktop
For Rosetta Stone, this has always been the traditional way to access the course material and that’s why it’s so polished and most complete when it comes to features. For me, this is how I did most of the course since I spend most of my time on my MacBook.
Using Chrome, the only small thing you have to do at the beginning after you launch the course is to give the browser permission to access your mic, and then you’re off.
The beauty of the desktop version is that you get a lot of real estate to work with. None of the photos or text ever seem too crammed and it’s quite easy to navigate around.
Experience on mobile app
To my surprise, the Rosetta Stone mobile app is designed really well. I thought it would be clunky and awkward but the handoff between a lesson started on your phone to your desktop and vice versa is so seamless and the learning experiences are very close to each other.
The difference of course is that you’re dealing with a much smaller real estate but they’ve adjusted the layout to make it work. Everything else is the same. You can tap to make the same selections as you would to answer a question on the desktop, and it uses your phone’s mic in the same way as your laptop to grab your pronunciation.
What you should know is that the lesson is all done in horizontal format so you do have to turn your phone over.
I love that they have this option and is something that definitely sets Rosetta Stone above the competition because of how easy they make it to learn on-the-go.
Only one at a time: You can only be logged in at one place at a time so if you’re doing a lesson on your desktop, you can’t seamlessly switch over to to the app. You have to log out first and then log in through your phone.
Some things missing: I noticed that the writing lessons were omitted from the app, presumably because they couldn’t recreate the experience on iOS in my case.
Offline: One thing you can do on the app that you can’t do on desktop is the ability to save lessons offline. Once you download them, they’re available for 30 days.
Modes for different types of students
One thing I definitely appreciated having was the ability to toggle different display languages in the course. What I mean by this is that there’s a way to toggle between having the lesson taught with the language displayed in Pinyin only (alphabet characters to represent Chinese characters, also known as hàn), Chinese characters only, or a combination of both.
By default, it’s Pinyin only but if you look to the bottom of the screen where the lesson progress bar is, you’ll notice the toggles above. All you have to do is click any of those options to change the display mode.
For most students, I recommend having both hàn and Chinese characters up because ultimately when you’re in the real world, you won’t find alphabet characters at the restaurant or in stores.
For someone like me that really wants to strengthen my character recognition and writing, I’ve switched to Chinese characters only which significantly increased the difficulty of the course because I needed to actively learn the characters instead of “cheating” with the Pinyin.
Let’s talk about some of the other differentiators that I found built into Rosetta Stone.
Live Tutoring – Rosetta Stone has made it incredibly easy to actually get live sessions with a real instructor. During the 20-30 minute session, you’ll be in a classroom with up to 60-70 other students although in my case it was just the two of us and we went through similar course material, practicing primarily pronunciation, vocabulary, and asking each other questions. It was actually helpful and changed things up from doing the course by yourself and seeing how others are progressing. One thing is that there isn’t quite time to ask any questions. Your instructor will go through the slides which are all photo based and when you’re done, the lesson ends.
Chat and Friends – Probably the lesser of these two unique features but nonetheless something that allows you to group up with other friends and learn together or meet other students from around the world. I personally didn’t find it that useful as it seemed to be a haven for trolls but the feature is there.
Extended Learning – There’s a feature on desktop and on the app called “Extended Learning” and this provides additional opportunities to learn by expanding beyond just the course material. Here you’ll find games, ability to have conversations with other students, stories, and self recordings.
Audio Companion – Not able to do the interactive lessons and want to listen to the course like you would a podcast? They have you covered here as well with downloadable audio companions on the app or accessible on the web platform as well.
How much does the course cost?
The way Rosetta Stone works is that it works under monthly subscription service model. You pay to get access to the program for a period of time. They sell their courses in increments of 3 months, 6 months, 12 months or 24 months.
Your choice will largely depend on how long you think you’ll need to complete the course and also how long you’d like to keep it to continue practicing.
The best value comes from the 24-month period where it only comes out to $5.99 USD per month for a total of $143.76 USD. Go through all the pricing options available.
All of their plans come with a 30 day money-back-guarantee so if you’re finding that it isn’t working for you, you can cancel your plan. This is probably the best way to truly test whether you like Rosetta Stone Mandarin.
Is it easy to learn?
Rosetta Stone’s technique of what they’ve dubbed to be Dynamic Immersion is highly effective to dive right into a language and not get pulled into a black hole of language semantics and mind-numbing syntax rules. Instead, work on contextual lessons that are interactive and practical.
Mandarin is a language that suits this model very well because you really need to be repetitively hit with different examples how words can be used, what the characters look like, and pronunciation. Using your mic, it can pretty much forces you to keep trying until you get it right. If it senses that you’re having trouble, it’ll automatically repeat it to give you another crack at it.
What I noticed is that this is a course that is really good for anyone that recognize patterns. Through the practical examples they provide, Rosetta Stone really plays on the subtle changes of one element such as him vs. her, positive vs. negative, or individual vs. group.
The other thing that will help you learn Mandarin quickly is that it’s designed to be easy to pick up and put down. What I mean by this is that for one it’s highly portable because you can flip between your computer and phone. Secondly, the lessons are created to keep you interested and engaged. That’s so key in an educational product like this because it’s so easy to give up. Half the battle is to keep going all the way to the end.
I personally think Rosetta Stone has created a great product with the Mandarin course. The software is intuitive and easy to use which means anyone can pick it up and start learning right away. Through the extensive courses, it covers a wide range of topics that hit everyday life encounters and business topics that’ll get you started.
That’s the key. This isn’t a course for someone looking to master the language from top to bottom. This is for someone that is interested in the language (or has to learn it) and has a short period of time to pick up the basics. It’s also definitely geared more towards the conversational aspect of the language and less on reading and even less so on writing.
For someone like me, Rosetta Stone was a good refresher and there were certainly ways to set it to allow me to focus more on recognizing common characters. What it’s not good at doing at all is actual character writing so if that’s what you’re looking for, this is not the right product for you.
For a complete newbie, I can see it being very valuable and an economical way to learn one of the hardest languages in the world. It’s really a crash course that you can pick up with ease and start learning practical things for daily use which is what is the true power of Rosetta Stone.
Frequently Asked Questions
Rosetta Stone Chinese is in simplified only.
Thinking about places to use your new Mandarin skills?
So how about you? Have you used Rosetta Stone for other languages? How did you fare? Have you tried the latest mobile app? Also, if you have any questions about the course, drop a comment down below and I’ll be sure to get back to you ASAP.
What you should read next