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Rosetta Stone turns learning Mandarin Chinese from chore to game

Ni hao!

I hear the Chinese greeting often these days, since I launched my product test of Rosetta Stone's latest program, TOTALe (pronounced toe-tal-EE).

I even got a birthday wish from my friend Verni Jackson on Facebook:

Ni hao yu Sheng ri Kuaile Ivan … Xiang yu bi you!

Wow, I thought.

Xie xie, I responded with gratitude.

This product test proved to be a unique one. I picked up some elements of a new language over the last three months while meeting fascinating people and enjoying some terrific, authentic Chinese food.

Here's my conclusion: TOTALe moves foreign language learning from a chore to a game.

Speak the words or answer a question correctly and you get a bell ring and a green light or check mark. Get it wrong and you get a sound much like the loss of a turn on a video game.

Then there are TOTALe's online interactive components with native speakers in Rosetta Studio and with other learners through games in Rosetta World.

Still, along my journey, readers asked: "Do you think the price will come down?"

TOTALe V4, the latest version of the program, costs $749. That's $250 cheaper than the original TOTALe price.

But for some, that seemed rather steep.

There are alternatives to the $749 price, which includes a 15-month online license for TOTALe. Rosetta Stone offers a three-month introductory package that includes CDs for offline practice at $249 and $199 for three months online without the CDs.

"What we're trying to do is provide the very best value of learning," said Duane Sider, director of learning at Rosetta Stone. "If you imagine a class at a community college, an immersion experience. … I think it's just hard to imagine that any other option could be anywhere nearly as affordable."

One of the greatest benefits is the ability of learners — as Rosetta Stone calls the students — to move at their own pace.

As Sider noted to me and as I experienced, life happens. Sometimes it becomes difficult to get in the regular study and practice time. At the start, I invested almost two hours a day. Later, as kids' school events or other work commitments took hold, some days slipped by. Or I dipped in for just 20 or 30 minutes. But you aren't penalized the same way you would be if you were taking a college course and missed class.

You always can pick up where you left off. And the program reminds you to.

I chose Mandarin Chinese for my study because there had not been much written about the Chinese community in Tampa Bay. China has also passed Japan as the world's second-largest economy, making it an ever-increasing force on the world stage.

And with the difficulty of the language, Mandarin seemed a good test of the TOTALe's effectiveness. Chinese words can have four different tonal pronunciations that completely change the meaning.

Native speakers I met throughout Tampa Bay praised my pronunciation and vocabulary during conversations — a credit to TOTALe.

In fairness, I did ask Sider whether my background as a trumpet player who plays by ear gave me any benefit over the average Joe because of the tonal quality of the Chinese language.

"Maybe we ought to have you as a test case," Sider said. "The most recent thing that I've read suggests, and it only suggests, that it is probable that a good musical ear or that training in music does improve sensory processing or auditory processing.

"We know from language learning you can't produce what you can't hear," he said.

So there may be some advantages for me, but Sider said there are studies looking at the issue.

Because it is a total immersion program, TOTALe can be tough — there's no use of your native language. But that's part of its effectiveness.

I walked into a room of journalists from the People's Republic of China just over a week ago with some of my newfound language skills.

Ni hao! Wo jiao Ivan Penn, I said as I introduced myself to the group.

They smiled with the greeting and as I explained (in English) that I had been studying Mandarin as part of a product test of Rosetta Stone.

The program works, and helped me communicate to the group of journalists and others. As with any program, its effectiveness depends on the time you put into it.

Simply put, it's a fun way to learn a language.

Zai jian (goodbye).

Ivan Penn can be reached at or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.

Rosetta Stone turns learning Mandarin Chinese from chore to game 11/18/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 19, 2010 7:05pm]
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