duolingo vs rosetta stone

Duolingo vs. Rosetta Stone: Pitting the Old Against the New for Language Fluency

In this side-by-side comparison, I’ll be pitting the classic Rosetta Stone against new kid on the block, Duolingo.

Does one end up rising above the other, or do they both have their merits?

Let’s find out!


Why Bother Comparing a New Language Learning Game to Old School Immersion Lessons?

On one hand, we have a fun (not to mention free) language learning alternative. On the other, we have a paid immersion course. Is this even a fair or necessary comparison?

The fact that Duolingo is free definitely makes it very attractive, but your budget isn’t the only factor to consider when choosing your language learning resources. Free apps also have their downsides, often coming with hidden or indirect costs.

And though paid programs tend to be more comprehensive, the content and delivery of it might not be as engaging as one would need for a new language to stick in the long run.

Besides your budget, other factors to keep in mind include accessibility, effectiveness and opportunities for progression, just to name a few. And let’s not forget that your proficiency level, learning goals and preferences will also play into your suitability for a program. 

With all that said, it’s really not that strange to be putting Duolingo and Rosetta Stone side by side like this.

Both have been praised highly in the industry, so why not investigate what each of them does right?

And to be as objective as possible, I also have to discuss where each falls short, and perhaps see whether the new beats the old when it comes to learning a new language in this day and age.

Rosetta Stone: The Language Program Behemoth from the ’90s

What Are the Benefits of Using Rosetta Stone?

Rosetta Stone might not be in the form of a game like Duolingo, but it has quite a few features that help to increase learner engagement.

Rosetta Stone is all about immersion. The core lessons on Rosetta Stone are built on word-picture associations. So rather than having translations or any sort of instruction on new words, you’re given visual clues to understand terms in your target language. It’s like how you learned your mother tongue as a kid.

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This might just be a personal preference, but I like how the levels have been structured on Rosetta Stone. Instead of the generic proficiency levels, Rosetta Stone is divided into five levels and are based on themes:

  • Levels 1-2: Fundamentals and Connection
  • Levels 3-4: Exploration and Clarity
  • Level 5: Conversation

This structure seems less intimidating and more approachable for learners over the “beginner,” “intermediate” and “advanced” labels. I feel that having these levels makes it more about the learner finding their comfort in a new language rather than ultimately being classed as an expert.

Another great thing about Rosetta Stone is that you can potentially practice all four language skills on the platform. I find that many online language programs often lack speaking practice, mainly focusing on pronunciation and not on real communication with native speakers.

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Each lesson on Rosetta Stone contains exercises to practice all four skills, and the pronunciation activities are equipped with their TruAccent speech engine to compare your recorded speech with native speakers.

Additionally, conversation practice is also available through Live tutoring sessions. As an immersion program, the sessions will be carried out in the target language.

The Extended Learning Tools also further your language skills. For example, Stories is a collection of short literature that you can read, listen to or even record yourself reading along. There’s also Phrasebook, which is always a helpful reference when you’re on the go.

Seek & Speak is an AR game that helps you practice vocabulary with your surroundings and everyday objects.

The lessons themselves can feel a bit repetitive at times, so the Extended Learning Tools are a nice touch to the whole program.

What Are the Downsides of Using Rosetta Stone?

Since the lessons are structured with the core lesson and exercises, you’re looking to spend around a half hour or so on each. This isn’t by any means a long lesson, but for busy people who struggle to make time to study, this time investment might not be ideal.

And given that the focus is on conversational skills, there won’t be too much on grammar and reading comprehension. As you know, grammar isn’t completely necessary for fluency. However, the minimal mention of grammar may not bode well for certain learners.

Rosetta Stone also misses the mark on incorporating cultural notes in lessons. It’s hard getting to know and understanding a language without the context it flourishes in.

What Are the Costs of Using Rosetta Stone?

You can sign up for a three-month subscription ($11.99/month for a total of $35.97) or an annual subscription ($7.99/month for a total of $143.88) with Rosetta Stone, which gives you access to one language. If you want lifetime access to all the languages, you can pay a flat rate of $299. (All these prices are as of October 2021).

Rosetta Stone occasionally has sales so it’s possible you can get it even cheaper.

There’s a three-day free trial with a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Also, note that live coaching sessions are separate fees, around $14 to $19 per session.

Who Should Be Using Rosetta Stone?

With lessons based on native speaker audio and visual cues, Rosetta Stone caters to heavily to auditory and visual learners.

The immersive nature of Rosetta Stone can be intimidating for some, especially for those who prefer to learn in their native tongue. Although a complete beginner is more than welcome to try it out, Rosetta Stone is best for false beginners so they don’t feel like they’re being thrown in the deep end.

As the lessons are based on everyday conversations, travelers can also benefit from this program.

Evidently, Rosetta Stone is a bit on the pricey side, so budget-conscious learners may be wary about paying for this program. Even if they were serious learners, the price tag is definitely limiting, which might lead them to Rosetta Stone alternatives. If you have a bigger budget to work with, Rosetta Stone could be for you.

Intermediate learners of Spanish, French, German, Italian, American and British English will be happy to know that they have a “Fluency Builder” learning path available to them. That’s where you have more freedom in your lessons, learning through interests and specific skills.

As for the rest of the language courses, only the “Foundations” learning path is available. So, in general, Rosetta isn’t the best option for intermediate learners.

The minimal focus on grammar might also be a point of contention for intermediate learners and above who need to learn sentence constructions in order to advance their skills. And the program might be a tough adjustment for analytical, by-the-book learners.

How Accessible Is Rosetta Stone?

With its hefty price tag, Rosetta Stone isn’t an option for those wanting to learn a language for free. But accessibility isn’t only tied down to the price.

Rosetta Stone is both a web and mobile app. The mobile app has limited capabilities, so you’ll need to use Rosetta Stone on your desktop for a better user experience. Both apps have a simple enough interface to navigate.

Lessons are available on and offline, but the fact that the mobile app is subpar to the web version makes it slightly less convenient to learn on the go.

There are 25 languages to learn on Rosetta Stone, but not all of them go up to Level 5. Some language courses will get you further in conversational fluency, while others will leave you needing more.

The Extended Learning Tools are also limited to certain languages.

Duolingo: The Cute, Gamified Experience and Today’s Most Popular Language App

What Are the Benefits of Using Duolingo?

Now, who wouldn’t want to tackle a new language by playing a game, with the guidance of an adorable green owl named Duo?

Essentially, Duolingo is a language learning game that takes the monotony out of learning by gamifying grammar exercises like fill-in-the-blank, multiple-choice, sentence-reordering and speaking activities. It’s a fun way to build your vocabulary before you commit to a more rigorous program (if you even want to go down that route, that is).

And rather than being limited to English instruction, you can learn through your mother tongue or another language you may be fluent in, as long as it’s part of the extensive list of language course offerings.

If you aren’t a total beginner in your target language, you can take the placement test, although starting from the beginning serves as a nice refresher in my opinion.

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Even though it’s a game, Duolingo is actually structured well as a learning program. Modules and levels are organized into a tree to help you see your progression. And like any regular game, you have to complete a level in order to unlock the next, as well as complete a certain set of modules before unlocking the next set.

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Other than these personal gaming goals, you also have the opportunity to compete with others, joining competitions and fighting your way to the top of the leaderboard.

For additional reading and listening comprehension for some languages, you can also check out the Stories section. Each story will earn you a certain amount of XP, moving you further up the leaderboard.

Duolingo also has some language podcasts for intermediate learners if you’re looking for long-form listening practice.

What Are the Downsides of Using Duolingo?

You have to use the app every day to maintain your streak. The amount of time spent on the app isn’t much (between five and 20 minutes a day), but the issue is in remembering to use the app every single day.

Another cost is that the app relies heavily on translation. Translation comes in handy for language beginners, but for progression beyond the basics, you’ll also need to start challenging yourself by learning through contextual clues, similar to what you’d do while reading the interactive subtitles on FluentU videos.

Also, speech recognition on Duolingo isn’t the best. It’s fine for a free app, but you’ll definitely have to look elsewhere if you want native speaker feedback.

What Are the Costs of Using Duolingo?

Duolingo has always been a free app supported by ads, but a couple of years ago, the Duolingo team added an option for premium subscriptions.

For $6.99 a month, Duolingo Plus provides you with an ad-free experience, a progress tracker, unlimited mistakes to learn at your own pace and the ability to adjust your learning streak in case you miss a few days. Additionally, you can use Duolingo offline.

You can try all these features out yourself with the two-week free trial.

Who Should Be Using Duolingo?

As a free gaming app, Duolingo is perfect for learners on a budget, as well as those who need extra motivation. It doesn’t matter whether you’re learning your second or fifth language—Duolingo is a great place to get the ball rolling.

Duolingo has received a lot of flak for not catering to advanced learners, but app creator Luis von Ahn promises only to get you to advanced beginner and early intermediate. As he once shared with Forbes, the app is simply meant to be fun “and not a complete waste of time.”

It’s worth noting that beginners of popular languages (like Spanish, German and French) who maintain their streak on Duolingo can reach B1 or pre-intermediate level. Plus, Duolingo is currently improving its courses to possibly get learners to B2 or intermediate level.

Although Duolingo may not be suited for intermediate and advanced learners, it has the potential for complete beginners and false beginners to reach the intermediate level. Travelers can also take advantage of Duolingo, but I do think there are better apps out there specifically for travel and survival phrases.

How Accessible Is Duolingo?

Given that it’s a free app, Duolingo can be used by anyone regardless of budget, as long as you have access to an internet connection. And if you choose to upgrade to Duolingo Plus, you can use the mobile app offline.

Duolingo is both a web and mobile app, with a clean yet visually appealing design that’s simple to use, whether you’re tech-savvy or not.

Another point that makes Duolingo accessible to the masses is that you can learn through your native language. This is great for non-native English speakers, as well as polyglots who want to double down by learning a new language with another language they’re pretty proficient in. This also makes it convenient for expats and immigrants who need a refresher on their mother tongue.

With its price point, interface, beginner friendliness and different language options for instruction, Duolingo is very accessible.

Does the Newcomer Beat the Old School App in Reaching Fluency?

Which Is Better Overall?

While Rosetta Stone is old, it certainly isn’t irrelevant. Rosetta Stone paved the way for companies to combine language learning with technology, so without it, there probably wouldn’t be a Duolingo to begin with.

Plus, it’s still recognized as one of the best online language learning platforms out there. It may be an oldie, but it certainly still is a goodie.

So to answer the question of whether new players like Duolingo are pushing mainstays like Rosetta Stone out of the game, it’s a firm no. We’re talking about two completely different apps with very different target audiences.

Each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Even though they both have places for improvement, they manage to maintain a strong presence in the online language education space. Duolingo is impressive for making language education accessible and approachable to the masses, while Rosetta Stone really utilizes the senses to help you build your conversational skills.

But if I had to pick one, though, I’d say that Duolingo has the slight edge. I think that Duolingo does better in increasing interest and motivation to learn new languages. And I have to admit, as much as I love learning new languages, I’m not always motivated to practice.

And with more people around the world learning Asian languages, Duolingo admittedly does a better job addressing global language trends with its selection of 37 languages for English speakers and around 106 language courses in total. To reiterate, Rosetta Stones offers 25 language courses.

Will These Apps Make You Fluent?

Of course, fluency is possible with either option, but only under certain conditions. You also have to manage your expectations.

Conversational fluency is possible with Rosetta Stone if you also sign up for the tutoring sessions.

Duolingo will also need to be paired with language exchange practice. I know someone who used Duolingo for three weeks (with one italki lesson per week), and she managed to record herself speaking Indonesian for three minutes straight!

Remember, being conversationally fluent isn’t about knowing all the grammar points or knowing 5,000 of the most common words.

Yes, there’s a certain number of words that you’ll need to know in order to have a conversation in your target language. However, conversational fluency also refers to how comfortable you are in expressing yourself. Even with limited vocabulary knowledge, some beginners are capable of having a basic dialogue due to sufficient practice with native speakers.

And actually, the two programs complement each other pretty well. With Duolingo, you’ll learn vocabulary and basic sentence structure. With Rosetta Stone, you’ll get a chance to practice what you learned using all four language skills.

The only thing that would be missing from a complete language learning regimen is access to authentic content in your target language.

A great complement would be FluentU, which lets you learn through authentic videos like music videos and inspiring talks. With interactive subtitles, quizzes, and spaced repetition, it’s engaging and effective. 

So, how do you feel about these two programs now? Even though I’ve pitted Duolingo against Rosetta Stone, don’t feel pressured to pick one over the other. Both resources are stronger when supplemented with other resources—you just find out what that perfect combination is for you!

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