I'm not going to go into a lengthy breakdown of the Rosetta-Stone software at this point in time, but I do wish to make a few comments, especially geared towards those thinking about buying.
To start, I bought the RS-German 1-2 set. I know I probably should have bought 1-5 for the cost savings, but having tried many language tools before, I didn't want to fork out the money for something, only to find it didn't work or I got bored of it and put it down. I figured sets 1 and 2 would be enough to get me started and help me find out whether or not I liked it, without going broke.
In short...that plan has worked. I do actually enjoy the software, it's easy to use, works great on my computers, and can be addictive.
It is NOT a cakewalk, though (and I don't think RS would disagree with me on that). It's not something you can just stare at for a few hours and then bing, you know German. You do have to engage your brain, focus, and study. That said, however, it is very easy.
Okay, I've read a lot of reviews where people state that RS's speech recognition is whack. From what I can tell, the vast majority of these complaints are from users who don't have things setup correctly.
While most of the RS application is ready out-of-the-box, the microphone adds a bit of complexity.
For starters, the microphone is just like any other microphone...all kinds of things can cause your voice to sound wrong. Background noise, mic positioning, not making an effort to talk clearly or having food in your mouth, etc.
Second, RS knows that not everyone is going to be able to speak perfectly from day one. To accommodate this, they have an adjustment in the speech-recognition settings to set the level of sensitivity. Basically this tells the software how strict to be about what you say. Set low, you could probably say anything and it'll accept it. Set high, and you'd probably have to be a German linguistic PhD with crystal-clear voice to pass. So, naturally, the adjustment out-of-the-box is set around in the middle.
The word "sind" which is pronounced like "zint" is an example. For me, I find I don't always get my "d" to sound like a "t", and sometimes I still pronounce "sint" when I should say "zint". Fortunately the setting I have allows me to be a little loose in my pronunciation, and if I get the overall phrase right, it's like a live person saying "good enough." RS takes what you've said overall and figures things out. It doesn't always stress over the tiny bits.
If you find RS is really giving you a hard time on the speaking bits, try adjusting things down a slight bit. On the other hand, if you're getting away with really screwing up the phrases and passing, do yourself a favor and raise the difficulty up. You're trying to learn to speak properly after all...don't let the software let you cheat.
Use the tool how it is supposed to be used.
RS is a language-immersion tool. The best way to use this program is to put yourself in the mindset of kindergarten student. (Trust me, I know that sounds odd, but it does help.) You have to have a little less care for immediate definition, and a little more faith that it will make sense eventually. Don't expect anything or try to make sense of everything. Just relax, sit back, and experience things. There's a method to the madness, as they say.
Remember, the RS software isn't trying to just make you memorize words...it's trying to train your brain. To do this, the software introduces tiny bits of language into small pieces of phrases and pictorial descriptions, repeatedly, in different ways. Eventually your brain figures it out for you.
Think of it this way...Rather than just show you a deck of flash cards that say "Red = Rot" and "Blue = Blau", you are given a large number of real-world instances with colors. Believe it or not, your brain works better in the real-world than it does with strict translation of disassociated words.
The trick is knowing that you may not always get the definition of a word from the first use of it. That's okay, and leads me into my next tip:
Don't reach for the dictionary...
It is so tempting to sit there with a German/English dictionary while you use RS, but it'll hurt you more than you think. When working on my grammar I really got frustrated at times when a particular part of a phrase just didn't make sense to me, and I was getting wrongs left and right. Then I realized that's actually how we learn. You kinda have to get lost first, before things start to make sense. It may sound backwards to anyone used to seeing language tools that focus on memorization...but it does work. Your brain starts to pick up on the little things that clue it into what's going on, and pretty soon you'll be wondering why you had difficulty with it at all.
If you simply pick up a dictionary and read what the word means, your brain will fixate on that. Chances are you won't be as flexible with the meaning, and you'll probably lose the real meaning in the process. The brain isn't a spreadsheet of vocabulary words.
Use the software with the knowledge that you don't always have to get it right. It'll make sense eventually, and sometimes you just have to go back and do it again. Use the pictures, look at everything in the lesson page, look for the hints. Is it feminine or masculine? Is it singular or plural? Possessive? Young or old?
They're not dumb...
Believe it or not, but the makers of RS probably aren't idiots.
I read a lot of reviews where people talk about how a lesson might have you pick which image matches a phrase, and it's easy to guess the picture because of one part of the phrase. For example, if you don't understand the entire phrase, but you recognize the word for green, and only one of the picture choices has something green in it, you aren't having to learn the phrase to get the right answer.
This actually happens about half the time in the program, and it might seem dumb at first. You may think that RS has screwed up, making it possible for you to "win" without learning. However, the trick is on you. It's just another method of repetition. Don't focus on what you're NOT getting...focus on what you ARE getting.
First off, you recognized the word for green. That's good. Second, you're starting to get little snippets of the meaning of the phrase you don't recognize...even though you may not know it consciously.
The objective is placing something familiar (the word for green) in with something unfamiliar. Little by little, and after a few more lesson pages and alternate uses, it's going to click. In a way, it's kinda like trying to figure out what someone has written when the writing is a bit messed up. You might be able to pick out a couple words you recognize, and from those and the context of the writing, figure out the rest. You may not translate the whole thing, but you get the jist of it, and that's enough. That's all you're expected to do. Don't get hung-up, just keep your mind open, enjoy your little freebie victory, and keep rolling along.
Use the companions...
RS comes with an audio companion, which is basically the same phrases from the program, without any interaction. It's almost exactly like those language learning tools that are just audio and you listen to people speaking words over and over...except with RS there is only the language words, and no translation.
Use the audio companion not so much to learn words, but learn pronunciation. Hear it, speak it. Get your mouth used to making the sounds and stringing the words together.
I HIGHLY recommend getting one of the companion apps, too. I have the RS app for my iPod-Touch and my iPad-2, and they're awesome! You can take them with you, and whenever you have some time you can go through things, helping to ingrain things into your brain.
Don't be afraid to go back...
Even though the lessons are sequential, there's nothing at all wrong with going back and repeating a page, a section, or a whole lesson. In fact, it's a good idea!
Here's the sneaky little evil-kinda thing about the way RS works: you're learning, even when you don't think you are. You may not know it at the time, but your brain is picking things up. It may not be a whole picture yet, but like pieces of a puzzle, eventually everything starts to look less like a scatter of bits and more like something you recognize. The more times you go through a section, the more chances your brain has to pick up some more bits and try to arrange them. Have faith that this is happening, and you'll be surprised. You'll catch yourself suddenly following along, or speaking, and not even realize that your brain is translating.
It's kinda creepy actually...but...in a good way.
RS's online stuff, is there for a reason...
Okay, when you buy RS you get like 3-months of free online access, and then you pay (at this review point in time) $20 a month. Seems steep, but for what you get, it's actually amazingly cheap.
The games are fun and help cement your knowledge, but what's better is the online sessions with native speakers, and of course being able to reach out to RS for help.
You shouldn't be afraid to interact...the very fact that you're using this software means you don't know the language, so relax.
It's not a race, and it's not magic...
It doesn't say anywhere (and RS doesn't state it either) that if you do lesson 1, then lesson 2, and so on, until you've done them all, that you will suddenly know German. It's not supposed to work that way.
Yes, okay, if it's not then why are things in a sequence, right? Well that's simply because each bit builds on the next. Once you've mastered one section, proceed to the next for the "next bit" or something new.
Think of it this way. If you're that kid in kindergarten, does the teacher walk in, go through a deck of flash-cards with the A-B-C's once, and then suddenly every child knows the ABC's? No, of course not. You go through again and again, and you look for A's in words and explore and try not just flash-cards but books and pictures and other things, and eventually you get it.
RS is not a deck of flash-cards.
There's a reason why people say that the best way to learn a language is to make friends with someone who speaks that language. You get immersed in the language, you use it in real-world ways and engage in it in a way that your brain understands.
It used to be that RS's learning system was the next best thing to having a native-speaking friend...but with version 4, now you have both. The software will teach you, and that real native speaker is just an online session away.
I guess that's all I have to say right now. Basically, recognize that it IS software and you might need to play with the settings a little. Also, put down your expectations, clear your mind, be open-minded, and let your brain explore. If you're expecting to suddenly or magically know German after one pass through a single section, it's not going to happen (and frankly, it shouldn't).