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Product Review: Rosetta Stone (Japanese – Level 1)

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Since my kids are now in college and I’m left with a nice, clean empty nest, I thought I would take this opportunity to pursue some interests I’ve left on the back burner for too long. One of these pursuits is to learn enough Japanese to be able to go to Japan to visit with distant relatives. I am half-Japanese, and there was a point where I knew some of the language. This is what I learned as a toddler, but any knowledge from forty-plus years ago escaped my mind soon after I started school. That was coupled with the fact that my mother so embraced her new country, she rarely spoke Japanese at all in the home.

In my quest to learn Japanese, I found that I had a few options. One, get some audio tapes or CDs. These are somewhat helpful, in that many of the phrases are ones commonly used by tourists or visitors. However, the quality of some of the CDs is rather poor, and it is difficult to discern the differences between certain letters, especially between “R” and “L.” Even turning up the volume didn’t help. In addition, there aren’t any written workbooks that go along with many of the language programs I tried, such as the Pimsleur program. I think I need to know enough of the alphabet as well as the language in order to find my way around.

Another option was to sign up for Japanese classes at the local college. Wayne State University offers Japanese, but getting to either the downtown Detroit campus or the Oakland County location is problematic. In essence, I don’t want to drive that far, especially for one class. In addition, my business takes up a lot of time, and I am unable to commit to standard classes that run twice a week.

My son turned me onto a Facebook application called “Kanji Box.” Kanji Box is a quick drill in learning Kanji, but it basically covers only the Kanji characters and there is no application for actually learning the language.

After investigating various do-it-yourself programs, I decided to purchase the Rosetta Stone software for Japanese (this was before Michael Phelps’ commercial claiming that is how he learned Chinese for the Olympics). It’s rather pricey (each level is about $197 but you can purchase Level 1, 2 and 3 for right around $500), but I felt that at least this way I could learn the characters as well as the language, and could do so at my own pace. The complete program comes with three CDs, an installation CD, and a headset.

I should preface this review by stating that Japanese is an extremely difficult language to learn, maybe the hardest on the planet. I’ve taken college French, high school Latin, and even learned some Greek and German when I lived in Europe. I know enough Spanish to be able to figure out what my two Spanish-speaking employees are saying when they talk to each other. Even though I already knew a few words and phrases, nothing could prepare me for diving into the Japanese Rosetta Stone Level 1 head first.

For the uninitiated, Rosetta Stone is a full immersion program. That means there is no English on the program and no workbook is included to guide the way. I’ve been in a French full immersion program before and it is murder! At least with French, we share a common alphabet. For an adult to learn a completely foreign writing style is a daunting task at best. In addition, the Japanese sentence structure is such that it takes many hours of ciphering just to figure out what is going on. For example, the object of the predicate often starts a sentence, followed by the noun and verb. So the phrase “I speak English” would be worded “English, I speak” in Japanese. “Thank you very much” would be worded “very much thank you.” Very confusing.

The Japanese program gives the Kanji characters, Katakana, Hiragana and Romanji. In addition, there are pronunciations written out using the traditional alphabet so that slow listeners like me can take the words apart syllable by syllable and sound them out. The student is introduced to a variety of phrases and words, relating to photographs depicting various items or activities. The student chooses a response, and is immediately graded. A total grade is given at the end of each lesson, and if the student does poorly, the program goes over the same lesson, although the user can jump ahead. In addition, the program comes with a review feature that automatically gives a pop quiz every couple of weeks.

At first, Rosetta Stone Japanese Level 1 starts out nice and easy, almost too easy. Instead of learning simple words like “cat” and “dog” and basic colors, I wanted to forge ahead to more complex stuff like asking for help. But, as I found out later, there is a reason for this slow and sometimes tedious approach. Every time I “graduated” to a new level, the lesson difficulty increased by double, leaving me to wonder what the heck happened. In fact, I am still on the first level, and just about halfway through. At this point, the lessons are peppered with lots of sentences, and while I am not able to adequately dissect them, I have more than an inkling of what is going on. In my case, I find it helpful to go over the lessons at least a couple of times before forging ahead.

Another feature of the program is learning individual characters and their sounds, both in Kanji (the characters) and Katakana (the characters broken down into sounds). Here it would be helpful if a student could purchase a special writing workbook to go along with the program. This is unnecessary for languages that use our alphabet, but is paramount for learning Japanese. I am using my own notebook, but my written Japanese is barely legible. Some hints on attaining the proper penmanship would be appreciated as well (A tip: I do find it is easier to write the characters using a wide-tip Sharpie pen instead of ball point or pencil).

As an aside, there is no way to pause the lesson in order to write down a character or to look one up from a previous lesson. I have gotten around that by not going to the final question on a page and using the time to take notes.

The headset comes in handy for the pronunciation lessons. During these lessons, the program can pick up your pronunciation and will grade it for accuracy accordingly.

For those contemplating getting Rosetta Stone for Japanese, I would strongly encourage the purchase of a Japanese-English dictionary. Since there aren’t any corresponding English guideposts to light the way, a translating dictionary is an essential tool. As soon as I had one and started looking up troublesome words, the light bulb started turning on above my head. “OH! So that’s what that means!”

Set up of the program is extremely easy. Users can set up many different students on the same program. I sometimes have experienced some glitches, where the program would freeze and I would have to back out and come back in to get past the point of the freeze. But for the most part, the program is easy and fun to use. The photographs used are a mélange of stock photos, and the only complaint I would have about them is that sometimes you can’t determine what the activity is or who is doing what in order to answer the question correctly the first time.

Rosetta Stone automatically searches online for any updates, but be prepared for a long wait in getting the updates. It sometimes takes up to an hour to download them.

As for Michael Phelps, if he truly used Rosetta Stone to learn Chinese, good for him. I doubt that his command of Chinese was instantaneously the result of Rosetta Stone. Anyone interested in trying the program should realize that learning a new language will take commitment, perseverance, and many hours of hard work. After two months of Rosetta Stone Level 1, I would say my comprehension of the Japanese language went from absolutely ignorant to a drop in the bucket. 

Of course, I’ve only just begun.

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About Joanne Huspek

I write. I read. I garden. I cook. I eat. And I love to talk about all of the above.
  • Freethinker2002_13

    Thank you, this was very helpful. I have always been interested in learning Japanese and what to expect.

  • Will

    I found it really surprisingly simple to grasp the different order of verbs, objects and subjects. It threw me off at first but I had it down within the first couple of lessons, and I didn’t take notes or go back over lessons or anything. I don’t mean to sound boasting, I just think it’s easier than it seems if you really put your mind to it. What I did was repeat to myself aloud what the voice just said, and read the sentence of hiragana, trying to figure out which sound went with which syllable and it sunk in after a while. Also I made mental notes about some hiragana and what they resembled, ie the hiragana for ‘chi’ resembles a 5 to me. At least I think it was chi.

  • José

    I’m portuguese and we portuguese can easily communicate with spanish speakers. That said, I’m a long way from speaking correct spanish, and this is due to two drive-you-nuts features, shared by all latin languages: gender and verb conjugation. These two are hard to get right. English is easy mainly because these got written off (and for good reason, IMHO). So, I understand why some people may find japanese easier, since, as far as I know, japanese has no gender articles and simple verb conjugation, although one has to learn a whole new vocabulary. Mandarin is a whole level harder to me, because of the tone thing.

  • Jared

    I am an American who has lived in Argentina and currently lives in Japan.

    Both Spanish and Japanese only have 5 vowel sounds, and they are the same.

    It is easier to amass a large vocabulary in Spanish because of the Latin roots.

    However, as English and Spanish speakers, our written and spoken languages are very similar. We constantly use idioms, metaphor, and even sarcasm. What Japanese people say on a daily basis is far simpler than their written language. How would you express that you are tired? Would you simply say: “tired” ?

    This is how one can become proficient in day-to-day Japanese conversation without a strong grasp of the written language or a wide vocabulary.

  • Kyle

    Japanese is a very different language when compared to English. Difficultly I think is determined by how different your target language is to your mother language.

  • sappeur

    I am a native English speaker who has been in Japan twenty years. About 70% of my day is spent speaking, reading and writing Japanese. My take on learning Japanese is that it is not that difficult in terms of pronunciation or grammar, but that it is so, so tied up with a very different cultural context and this makes fluency hard. Even if you understand the words it is often difficult to understand the meaning. So, for this reason, you can get to a level that is functional for day-to-day life – shopping, entertainment, restaurants, etc – but it is going to take a lot more to move onto really understanding or talking about more significant topics.

  • absol

    Firstly, the person who wrote this article needs to actually do some studying from books. Japanese has neither an L nor a R, but rather one consonant that is a liquid (look it up).
    I majored in Japanese in college and I have only peaked at Japanese Rosetta stone but at the very beginning some of the vocabulary and vocab choices are very strange. There was one word I was told to NEVER use under any circumstance. I have a feeling buying Genki I and II is a better use of your money.

  • Ian

    Asian languages can be really tough but the trick is total immersion. Rossetta Stone does a good job of it but it is tedious. A English-to-Japanese dictionary is a MUST however, I have found that it doesnt really help in conversations. Also, Rosetta Stone is very formal and while people may understand you, you will have a hard time understanding people who speak Japanese fluently and casually. Japanese television helped me immensely to better converse and understand others than Rosetta Stone however, the lessons really help set a solid base in other aspects of the language.
    I’d recommend those thinking of getting it to understand that Rosetta Stone would at best give you a semi-literacy in Japanese but it is no substitute to actual human tutoring.

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    Japanese a hard language? I do not really think that there are ‘hard’ and less hard languages. I’m Dutch and for me German was easy to learn. I understand the Americans consider German a very, very hard language. I know quite a few European languages, but at the moment I’m learning Hebrew – for me that is the hardest thing I ever did. I did go to a course and am trying to immerse myself more.
    It’s a shame that Langlearner doesn’t offer Hebrew yet. They do offer Japanese, though – and it’s much cheaper than RS. The idea – working with flashcards to get used to the language and learn a vocabulary of about 1500 words is similar to RS, but Langlearner offers a lot more other useful features.(I used it to learn a solid amount of Spanish).

  • raanfr

    I was thinking about investing in the Rosetta Stone but I’m not convinced its worth the while. I want to learn the language and characters in depth. And it seems like this program doesn’t do much pass beginner stuff and doesn’t prepare you for the JLPT.

    I lived in Japan for a year and so I can speak and read a good amount. I wouldn’t call Japanese the hardest language, there is just a trade off ( pronunciation and kana is simple but when you get in deep to upper intermediate there are some challenging grammar like honorifics).

    PS. And for learning characters you should try a kana or kanji drill book that kids in Japan use. If you ever go back to Japan they are anywhere even dollar stores. It teaches stroke order and on’yomi and kun’yomi readings. I would suggest the Genki books for beginners, it teaches kanji and kana (I like the grammar explanations).

  • Doug

    Yeah I’m half-japanese and wanted to learn japanese to speak with my relatives. I knew some when I was little, but forgot it all when I started school too. With some experience from my visits to Japan, I bought the Rosetta Stone, all 3 levels. For 500 bucks I expected to learn everything, but I didn’t. It did help a lot though, but I thought it was a little hard if you didn’t know some of the words. Japanese dictionary helps a lot, but I don’t think that’s the way the program wants you to learn. Can’t be helped though. Anyways, I’m 17 and the last time I went to Japan I recognized a lot of words and was able to speak a lot with my family. There is still a lot to learn though. I’m now trying to learn how to read japanese so I can learn more words.

  • hyukgirl

    japanese may be hard to some people, but to me it isn’t. so people shouldn’t get discouraged by hearing things like japanese is the hardest language to learn! no! it may be hard for some people, but believe me, to others it’s the easiest language to learn in the world.

    i feel japanese is getting a bad rep for being such a difficult language to learn. i’m a native english speaker and am in high school and have taken 2 years in spanish, and prior to that i took 3 years at a separate japanese school.

    i took japanese class when i was 6 years old to 8 years old. i didn’t want to learn japanese at such a young age, it was just something to keep myself busy while my mom was at work. i basically hated going to class, and i didn’t even try to learn. after 3 years i could speak pretty fluent japanese (at 8 years old)–and that’s w/o even trying. i knew hiragana, katakana, and a good deal of kanji.

    then, in my freshman and sophomore year in high school i took spanish (we have no japanese class). in spanish, i tried EXTREMELY hard. i studied hours at a time, trying to get the basics down. even so, spanish proved super difficult for me. i know 2 years isn’t a long time, but i learned japanese much faster in 2 years than spanish.

    to me, japanese is much more straight forward than any other language. it’s super easy to pronounce, and it’s such a nice language to learn. much easier than spanish, (to me) and i’m being completely honest. things are different for everyone though, i guess…

    to anyone who is learning a language, especially japanese, i really suggest watching japanese shows and dramas (in japanese), listening to japanese music, and reading japanese manga. i’ve given up on spanish and am now picking up japanese where i left off 9 years ago. watching, listening, and reading japanese is the most fun way to learn it. try it!

  • Nick

    Hello world,

    I am currently studying Japanese for my first time as a part of a Summer Study Abroad program at Ritsumeikan Asian Pacific University in Beppu, Japan. I have found that the language is quite difficult.

    I remember taking Spanish for 3 years in high school, and if I was thrown in a Spanish speaking country with these 12 90-minute classes a week, I would probably be well-off in class and outside of class. Spanish is a very easy language to learn from a Latin-based primary language learner. I can see Japanese being easy for a Chinese speaker, but maybe being really hard for English speaker.

    Japanese, on the other hand, I’m very poor in. I guess, only being half-way through the first book of Genki in only 5 weeks could tell you that, but I am also working with Rosetta Stone. I am finding Rosetta Stone to be, well, an interesting way of learning. I guess I’m not too far in it, but it is really repetitious. I’m not saying I’m a genius or anything, but I don’t need to see the colors 20 times to know what they all are in Japanese, especially when you are also pairing them with 20 slides of colors of household nouns.

    I guess still being young and eager, Rosetta Stone might be a boring program, or maybe I am still in the easy phase. I really want the program to work, and I can see how it would be effective, especially paired with an intensive course taught completely in Japanese, but it loses it’s appeal quickly for me. The “No English” rule isn’t my favorite part about it either, because sometimes the pictures are confusing even after 20 slides of it.

    But alas, Spanish is still easier than Japanese, in my opinion, as an English speaker.

    Good luck in your journey!

  • Just me

    Well I think that a very many good points have been made here to summarize:
    1. Japanese is an easier language to learn if it is your first language (which the relevancy of this point can be argued since human beings in their beginning stages can pick up multiple languages naturally and easily no matter what the difficulty)
    2. Japanese is harder for native english speakers to learn than spanish, barring interest levels and exposure
    3. Rossetta Stone is a good learning tool but it is not the whole tool box
    Since you are, I assume, an adult learner it will be more difficult for you to learn a new language and if fluency is your goal I would work on learning enough that you would feel comfortable taking a semi-long term trip to japan I would also suggest taking a beginners college level japanese language course, your instructor will be an expert and can help you target your weaker areas in the language.

    Good Luck 🙂

  • Good luck learning Japanese, Joanne.

    Hebrew also uses a different alphabet – alef-bet, to be precise. Hebrew can be an SOV or VSO language, depending on the situation (yesh li – “there is to me” – is how you express “I have” in Hebrew). Some Biblical Hebrew includes the subject, verb and objrct in one word!

    My kids were immersed in the language in school – sans Rosetta Stone – and picked it up in 7 months. I have not been immersed in Hebrew, and stillmake an ass of myself in writing letters in the language.

    About this business of “hardness of learning”. You get a really different perspective on this in Israel where Ethiopian kids pick up Hebrew in a snap (Amharic is structurally related to Hebrew), Russians learn it with relative ease (but never get rid of the accent) and Americans have qa bitch of a time, and usually never get rid of the American accent with the rounded “r”‘s either.

    As for me, I worked on getting rid of the American accent, but still cannot get used to reading newspapers and books “backwards” .

  • KScorp

    Japanese is hard, when a native English speaker is learning it. But comparing the languages from an unbiased viewpoint (say, one who knows no language yet) then Japanese is clearly easier. There are no conjugations of verbs for first, second, and third person, and only a past conjugation. All words are read as you see them, since each Japanese character stands for a sound, unlike Germanic languages where letters can combine in various ways to make different sounds. (which can vary from word to word as well [Compare the “ee” sound in “three” and “been”]) Japanese only has 110 sounds which define the language while English has over 8000.

    So, Japanese IS hard for English speakers as you need to learn the SOV style along with a whole new alphabet (and that’s the part that counts) but comparing the languages side by side shows that Japanese is simply simpler.

  • Don’t forget the Pimsleur method! It takes a different approach, and does not reply on visuals but instead listening skills. You don’t learn words individually, but whole phrases at a time. The building blocks of language rely much more on phrases than words, so it may work better for you if you find your Japanese progress slow going. Best of luck!

  • John

    Those claiming that Spanish, of all languages, is easier than Japanese for English speakers to learn, must either not be native English speakers, or must not have actually learned Japanese fully.

    The US State Department ranks languages from 1-4 in terms of difficulty, 1 being easiest, 4 being hardest. Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic are the only 4’s. Spanish is a 1. Due to the enormous lexical difference between Japanese and English and the unique writing system (including need to memorize characters), Japanese will probably take 3 to 4 times longer to attain fluency than a language like Spanish (for an English speaker). I don’t understand where these highly subjective statements are coming from. Spanish bears a very strong relation to English, and many times one can guess a word without having any knowledge of it. Spanish pronunciation is also as easy as it gets. 5 vowel sounds; that’s it. They never change. French is more difficult than Spanish in that regard, but still a 1 on the state dept. list. It’s nothing compared to Japanese.

    How someone could argue that a language with the same alphabet and large lexical similarity to English is harder to learn than one with a totally unrelated alphabet, in which almost nothing you know can help you learn it, is totally beyond me. Any language is difficult to learn, but there are degrees of difficulty, and Japanese is pretty darn high up there. Probably not as high as Arabic or Chinese, but pretty high.

  • I don’t think “Rosetta Stone” is difficult as the author said, but I *do* think you need to know a few (very basic) sentence structures first. A grammar, sentence-pattern, or verb conjugation book is needed. Regardless, I think you can start with RT once you know a little bit of grammar.

    Granted, I have a much older version of RT. You can go through the lessons different ways. You could choose romaji (roman alphabet), kana (hiragana + katakana), or kanji. Or you could use just audio-visual. You could even type if you have your computer set up for it. I don’t know how the new version compares in that sense.

    I should have remembered I had this RT demo CD *way* earlier. My listening & speaking would be much farther along!

    If you *do* want to read & write early on, get a good kanji dictionary. But for *learning* to *recognize* the kanji with a meaning (no pronunciation yet, which makes it stick because it’s simpler), you *must* get “Remembering the Kanji” by James W. Heisig. You can buy it at Amazon, but you can download the first chapter *FREE* in PDF from the publisher’s website. There is also an *awesome* free web-based flashcard application written by an enthusiast of Heisig’s method, “Reviewing the Kanji” here where you only need to sign up to track your lessons, so you don’t need to spend hours making your own flashcards and boxes according to the “Leitner system” (of spaced repetition).

    I have spent a lot of money on books, and while many of them are good, I bought too many things that didn’t work well together and slowed me down.

    If you’re learning with RT, I suggest at minimum a grammar book, verb conjugation book or sentence pattern book, and also a dictionary (for more clarity on similar words). I like “The Handbook of Japanese Verbs” by Taeko Kamiya” or “A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Sentence Patterns” by Naoko Chino.

    Though Barrons’ grammar book is great for the ease of looking up particles, pronouns, and numbers and counting.

    If you’re learning to read and write, also get Heisig’s “Remembering the Kanji” to learn kanji. If you’re impatient, you can get a kanji dictionary to look up kanji as needed and learn the pronunciation and some compound words, but that might slow down your initial kanji learning.

    I don’t think you need to be far in learning before you use RT, but I *do* think you should at least get a *few* grammar lessons down because it is different from English. I don’t think you need many, once you know a few, it is easy to follow RT. It could help to know Japanese pronunciation. For example “HI-RO-SHI-MA” altogether makes “HIROSHMA”, as actually pronounced not as written…the second “I” becomes silenced.


    In summary, if you’re going to use Rosetta Stone:

    * Do a few chapters of a grammar/verb/sentence book such as “A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Sentence Patterns”, “The Handbook of Japanese Verbs”, or “Barron’s Japanese Grammar”.

    * Start RT as soon as you get the basic idea.

    * Have a dictionary for looking up other words as you need them, or to clarify similar words in RT.

    * A notebook for notes.

    And if reading/writing:

    * Buy or try “Remembering the Kanji”.

    * Use the “Reviewing the Kanji” website to practice, review, and test.

    * In order to write sentences on your own (now), or (recommended) wait until later — get a kanji dictionary like “A Guide to Remembering Japanese Charcters” by Kenneth G. Henshall.

    * Don’t buy *expensive* grid-based kanji drill books. Just go to Wal-Mart and get a kids penmanship practice book. I got one where every page has a blank area on top and seven practice lines below. It works great! You can do seven kanji to a page!

  • Leon Lewis

    In the settings you can stop the program from automatically advancing after each slide is done

  • Mnemosyne

    I’ve been learning Japanese and I did beginning French and I must say Japanese is easier. I guess the difficulty lies in knowing how to read and write in Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji (more so with combining all 3). I’m not using Rosetta but another program and along with that, I’ve joined a language exchange program lang-8.com where native Japanese speakers check my journal. Slowly, I’ve been learning.

  • aaron lemoine

    i just got rosetta stone last week and i enjoy it but i wish it would tell me how each character sounds and everything, and japanese is NOT easier than spanish , you have to learn a whole new alphabet.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    …Japanese is MUCH easier to learn than say, Spanish.

    Yea, sure… この言語は非常に学ぶのは難しい。is much easier to say than
    “Este lenguaje es muy difícil de aprender.”…HA! Bullsh!t!

  • LC

    Polls say that Japanese is the #4 most difficult language to learn for English speakers.

  • Joe Edwards

    I also agree that Japanese is MUCH easier to learn than say, Spanish. I gave up on Spanish years ago and haven’t looked back. Japanese is my love and joy, but I don’t know if I would recommend Rossetta Stone.

  • YUI

    “Japanese is an extremely difficult language to learn, maybe the hardest on the planet.” Not really, it was actually very easy to learn in my opinion. I think that Spanish is much harder.

  • Alisha

    Hi there! You can pause the Rosetta Stone screens if you need to write something down, but they will show you all the answers. Just click the little magnifying glass thing in the lower left corner.

    Another option, if you don’t want it to automatically go to the next screen, is to go to the top right of the screen and click the preferences icon (it’s the next one to the right of the ?), and uncheck the box that says “continue to next screen”

  • Japanese is not a hard language to learn and it is certainly not the hardest language to learn on earth.

    Like many languages it has some English borrowed words (from British, Australian and American English). These are helpful.

    However, Japanese is an SOV language while English is, like Chinese, an SVO language. (S stands for subject, O stands for direct object and V stands for verb).

    For that reason, it might be easier to learn for someone whose native language is similar in structure.

    Japanese also does not require different verb conjugations for first, second and third person–singular or plural, unlike English, French or Spanish.

    I have studied French, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese (Mandarin) at university level.

    I do have a friend who was considering studying using the Rosetta Stone.

  • Donna

    I have found Rosetta Stone to be very helpful in my language learning journey. I have to say that I don’t think that I could become fluent using this program but it is a HUGE help. I have been using online sites like babbel, edufire and livemoha for my instruction and Rosetta Stone for practice and repetition.