Saturday, November 6, 2010

Learning Hindi with Rosetta Stone

(Warning: another longish post)

Let me just preface this post by saying that I don’t have to learn Hindi. I am not the Foreign Service employee and am not required to learn it. My husband is. In addition, Hindi is not spoken by everyone in India - far from it. As a matter of fact, according to my Indian neighbor, who’s from New Delhi, only 20% of the Indian population speaks Hindi. The rest speak other regional languages and English. But Hindi is the predominant language of in the northern parts of India, including in and around New Delhi, where we will be posted.

Can I live there without learning Hindi? Probably. But I want to learn it for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because I know it will make our lives in New Delhi easier.  I have wanted to take the classes at the Foreign Service Institute (the training arm of the Foreign Service) ever since we learned we are going to India. Of course, we are not going until May 2012, so the classes that I’d be eligible for (if there’s space available) start in the summer of 2011.

That’s all dandy but we are expecting a baby boy in March and I plan to breast feed him, which may make it impossible for me to take classes at FSI. So, I thought, why not start Hindi now, before the baby’s arrival. Makes sense, right? Well, yes but things are never as simple as we’d like them to be. You see, my husband has not been paneled (officially approved) for his New Delhi post yet, so when he asked his CDO if I could take Hindi classes now that question kinda landed on deaf ears. So, I decided to take things into my own hands and get chummy with Rosetta Stone before all hell breaks loose on/around March 15 (a.k.a. my due date). In case you didn’t know, Rosetta Stone is a famous online language instruction program, which was made available to both my husband and I as soon as we learned we are going to India.

I had read a couple of reviews of Rosetta Stone by other Foreign Service spouses (see here for one on learning Chinese and here for Spanish) and was feeling nervous because they didn’t exactly love it . But at this point, it’s the only tool I have available to learn Hindi, so about a month ago I started working with it spending on average about an hour a weekday (some days I spend two, three or even four hours on it but other days life just takes over and I don’t do any).

So how do I feel about Rosetta Stone Hindi after about a month of working with it?

Well, first of all, I must say that I am very thankful that the State Department provides this tool to spouses for free. If we had to buy the three levels ourselves, it would set us back about $600, so this is a nice perk. It’s also nice that it’s an online platform that I can use at my own time, which gives me a lot of flexibility.

That said, Rosetta Stone has a different approach to language instruction that may be difficult to get used to. If you’ve ever studied a language using the conventional classroom (textbook+instructor) method, you will more than likely find Rosetta Stone’s approach counterintuitive. The company itself describes its language instruction method as dynamic immersion, their words not mine. They define that as similar to the way a child learns a language – by observing what’s going on around them visually, listening to others speak and eventually imitating. I don’t entirely agree because immersion implies physically being in a country where the language is spoken and thus being forced having ample opportunities to practice and improve your language with native speakers. That’s not the case with Rosetta Stone. Plus, a child has a lot more time to learn a language. Let’s see, it took me a good 14 years to perfect Bulgarian and probably about 10 (maybe longer) to get to a equivalent level in English. I simply don’t have that kind of time with Hindi but I guess you have to start somewhere…

There are things about the way Rosetta Stone introduces simple words and concepts that I definitely like.  They use pictures and display them in a logical progression that helps you build visual associations. I am a visual person, so I like that. However, it gets complicated as more and more complex/abstract vocabulary and constructions are introduced because there are no explanations in English whatsoever(none in Bulgarian, either, duh!!!). Everything is in Hindi script and speech plus visuals (pictures). So while it’s easy to understand the words for “dog” and “green”, it was harder to grasp “wear”, for example. You end up doing a lot of guessing and you are never quite sure if you’ve guessed right because again, no explanations! (I have heard that if you buy the program yourself, you get a book with translations but we do not seem have access to that as far as I know.)

For example, there was this series of pictures showing people and cars. They were obviously trying to teach a verb related to cars but I still don’t know if that verb is drive, rent, steal, borrow, like, love or enjoy. It could be any of those, it’s just not clear. A dictionary would have helped but I didn’t have one at the time. Online dictionaries are available too but I have yet to figure out how to type in Hindi in order to use them.

There does generally seem to be a method to Rosetta Stone’s madness though because most things eventually do make sense. Not everything. I guess I am a little impatient.

Hindi is also particularly difficult for me because it uses the Devanagari script, which looks like this:

Beautiful indeed but nothing like the scripts I know (Latin and Cyrillic). Learning to read and write in Hindi is part of Rosetta Stone but it’s hard because you are introduced a couple of characters at a time and a ton of words and phrases in the meantime. At first, I wasn’t taking notes but it quickly became obvious that I simply won’t be able to remember all the words, so I finally started taking notes in this absurd mixture of English and Bulgarian because I only know a handful of Hindi (Devanagari) characters - not enough to write full words or sentences.

Another difficulty I have is the pronunciation. Rosetta Stone does have a speech recognition component, which helps you practice pronouncing all the new words and phrases. That aspect of the program can be a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you do a lot of repetition of words, an integral part of learning a new language. A curse because it sometimes makes you repeat a word hundreds of times, which means that you are not getting the pronunciation right but there’s no one to tell you how exactly to fix it (by showing you where your tongue should be, for example). I sometimes practice when my husband is around and he gets a big kick of listening to me repeat ad nauseum a simple word like bread, which is the same in Hindi but the pronunciation is different. So I guess the added benefit to my learning Hindi is that it provides entertainment to the family.

It’s not all bad though. There are several things about Hindi that I am happy about:

  • it’s a phonetic language – characters are always pronounced the same ways. Yey for phonetic languages!
  • it has no upper and lower case – what a relief, though the characters are hard enough to write without having to worry about lower and upper case.
  • there are quite a few English words in Hindi, such as bread, sandwich, coffee, car, pants, shirt, skirt, dress, coat, so those are easy to remember, though I can’t pronounce them right to save my life.
  • some aspects of Hindi that have no equivalents in English do have equivalents in Bulgarian (genders and formal and informal ways of addressing people).
  • a couple of days after I started learning Hindi I told the moms at our school bus stop about it. Among them are an Indian lady from New Delhi, who speaks Hindi and a Pakistani lady from Islamabad, who speaks Urdu (a language very similar to Hindi). The two of them were very excited about my studies and immediately asked me what I had learned so far. Uuuuuh…. I blanked for a moment but then was able to say several things that they actually understood!!! I couldn’t believe it and neither could they. They were very encouraging, which was a tremendous confidence boost for me.
  • in an effort to get as “immersed” in Hindi as I possibly can without being physically in India, I am also reading books on Indian history and culture. I go to the Falls Church pubic library and come home with huge stacks of books. My latest finds were a textbook on Elementary Hindi, a couple of Hindi-English/English-Hindi dictionaries (which are terrific complements to Rosetta Stone) and several Salman Rushdie books. I am really enjoying that part, so if you have any recommendations for things that will help me master Hindi, please let me know in the comments section below. Thanks!

So while Rosetta Stone is not ideal as a stand-alone language instruction tool, it can be useful especially if you have no other options and can get your hands on some textbooks and dictionaries. The makers of Rosetta Stone actually recommend you combine it with other language tools. But if you have the opportunity to take a class with a live instructor, by all means do so because it will make a world of difference.

And there you have it, my review of Rosetta Stone Hindi.


  1. I'm impressed by your efforts!! It is not easy to motivate yourself to learn a language. This was so interesting! You have piqued my interest in for RS, well, wish it was better but good for you for getting something out of it!

  2. Good that you have some companions at the bus stop to ask questions of if you get stuck! Good luck with your training!

  3. Daniela, Hi nice to meet you. Thanks for the commiserating comment on my post. Nia is absolutely beautiful. I can see that fire in her eyes you talked about. I can only imagine what my girls will be like at 7. Good luck with your language training! We'll be in touch.

  4. Thank you for sharing!
    I have been learning Hindi with Rosetta Stone for the past 6 months while in India travelling around. I fimd it super great and engaging. I am a very visual learner and so it's great for that.

    I have just finished Unit 4 (total of 16 lessons) out of 12 units (total of 144 lessons). Even though I am in India, the majority of the Hindi I know is from this program. I learned a few lessons in that you have to make notes and revise and do memory drills like everyday. It's great since I get to use what I learn that day in real life.

    Also since there is not a single word in english, sole things re difficult to understand. Luckily I tend to have Hindi speaking friends around me here in India who clarify.

    When I don't have friends around, I use Google translate. I downloaded the Hindi keyboard through Google keyboard onto my mobile so I can type the Hindi word in Hindi script into Google translate and I can figure out proper word.

    I find the program pretty exciting as I am very passionate about learning Hindi at the moment.

    I am not able to read the Hindi script. I read everything from billboards, to store names and small little messages around the city. I don't have full understanding but it's fun practicing reading (I feel like a child who just started to read). I am!

    The program didn't give me all the letters, but I went and got them all from a different source and added them into my Hindi notebook where I memorized them. :)

    Since this is the only tool I can find, I purchased the program for $199 USD for 24 months.

    Duolingo (mobile language learning app) is currently developing their Hindi program but it's still in the works.

    Best of luck to anyone wanting to learn!



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