Of all the language-learning products I've tried, Rocket French is in my opinion the most well-balanced, well thought through of them all. The heart of the course is an "interactive audio course" which is similar to other audio courses with the idea that it teaches through conversations, and through repetition. Where Rocket French differs, though, is that the lessons are actually interesting, and often rather funny.
Each lesson is around twenty minutes long, which allows me to knock one lesson off on my way to work. The audio is clear, and the lessons teach you practical language skills like booking a hotel room — and even flirting! — while still giving you a good grounding in grammar.
Beyond the audio lessons, there's also a well-constructed grammar course (with audio), and software games to practice those skills. You can record yourself for instant feedback on your pronunciation — really important when you're self-teaching. It improves your listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing skills, so you end up with full fluency... rather than just a few phrases stuffed up your sleeve.
Best of all, it caters to all learning styles, and compared with the other offerings out there it is very good value for money.
Fantastic value for the price. Suitable for beginners. Comes with a fun and effective audio crash course (good if you're going on vacation) as well as a more comprehensive grammar course, so you don't need to buy them separately. No subscription fees — it's a one-off purchase. Free updates for life. Web-based software works on both PC and Mac. Fully-featured separate app for iOS and Android works on phones and tablets. Free trial.
The grammar course component is not quite as fun as the audio course — it's similar to a friendly textbook, with interactive audio examples. Good for explaining how things work, but it can be a little dry.
If you want to work on your French grammar and vocabulary (rather than survival phrases for taking on vacation), and you enjoy a bit of offbeat humor, then Frantastique is incredibly fun and worth a look.
The course material is structured around an increasingly ridiculous story plot that involves French-speaking aliens and a naked Victor Hugo. (Don't worry — his beard covers everything!) There are cartoons and silly videos, and you’ll be giggling the whole time.
But underneath the silliness there’s a solid French grammar course with clever algorithms that adapt material to your skill level as you complete exercises.
The format of the course is a little different: Instead of giving you all the material at once, it's drip-fed to you a little bit each day. This "little and often" approach is really good for building good habits and allowing your brain to absorb the material, but it might be offputting for anyone who wants to "binge" on their French course.
(It might also be a bit frustrating when you consider Frantastique is a paid monthly subscription.)
Hugely entertaining, if you're not put off by semi-naked cartoon characters. (It would also be good for teenagers, I think.) Smart algorithm adapts to your level after the initial "training" period. A wide range of exercises make it actually pretty fun to learn French grammar.
It’s not designed for complete beginners to learning French — the material is taught exclusively in French (although with English translations available), so it’s best if you’ve already done a tiny bit of French study already.
There isn’t much focus on pronunciation, but the course does highlight differences between different flavors of French — most notably, between French-French and Canadian-French.
It's a monthly subscription rather than a one-off purchase. But this means you can see if you like it without spending a whole lot of money.
If you really enjoy learning through podcasts, then FrenchPod101 has arguably the largest collection of French-learning podcasts online.
I have not personally been through their full collection so I can’t attest to the quality of the lessons in higher levels, but the introductory podcasts I reviews seem to follow the pattern of:
This is similar to the pattern that Rocket French follows in their interactive audio course.
FrenchPod101 is another monthly subscription product. They have different pricing levels depending on whether you just want the podcasts, or whether you want to include all the online interactive tools: exercises, flash cards and line-by-line conversation breakdowns.
At the “Premium” all-inclusive level, if you think you’ll use it for more than three months, it might be better value to consider Rocket French instead. (Similar features, but a one-off purchase.)
Huge array of podcasts, ranging from extreme beginner to advanced. At higher pricing levels you can also use interactive tools online.
The monthly subscription becomes quite expensive when used over the long term. (But they go on sale quite often. Sign up for their free trial so that you know when the sales start, so you can grab a good deal.)
Rosetta Stone's French products are pure "acquisition" method tools. That is... they don't make you learn grammar or vocabulary lists, they just throw you in the deep end and allow you to "absorb" the language by seeing it used in context with pictures and audio — in much the same way as we learn our mother tongue as children (in theory).
In addition to this core learning methodology, the new online version of Rosetta Stone also includes one-on-one lessons with tutors via webcam once you reach a certain level, and a bunch of games.
At first I had my doubts about Rosetta Stone. To be honest, I thought it was a bit of a gimmick. I mean, how much French can you really learn just by looking at pictures? Sure, you can manage things like "the girl drinks water", but there's so much that you can't show in a photo. "I am currently having serious doubts about my purpose in life..." would be tricky.
I concluded that for the amount of money you had to spend (Rosetta Stone was expensive!) there were French courses that would give you bigger bang for buck.
But things have changed a little: Rosetta Stone have ditched the shopping mall kiosks and the big yellow boxes full of CDs, and they now have an online version of the software, as well as an app for iOS and Android.
The massive price tag is also gone: There are new subscriptions that make it a lot easier to try without mortgaging the house. The 3-month subscription comes in just under $50. It works out at $6/month if you pick the 24-month subscription, but that all needs to be paid up front.
And the method? Still gimmicky, but I've come around to it. Of course it's not going to get you fully fluent — there's no one language learning tool that can do that.
But what it does do, it does well. It's good for learning actions (the man eats, the man runs), and simple tenses (the man ate, the man eats, the man is going to eat). It has a heavy emphasis on speaking and voice recognition (although it was very forgiving when I tried it).
But most of all: It really sticks the material in your head. Even if that happens at a slightly tedious pace.
You probably won't be able to rely on Rosetta Stone alone, but it's a good tool to have in your arsenal.
Fun and game-like. Introduces basic grammar in a way that doesn't feel like hard work. Good emphasis on spoken French. Easy to use, either online through the website or through the app. Sticks in your head.
Isn't going to get you all the way to full fluency. There are limitations to the picture gimmick. Voice recognition is a bit iffy — I could say nothing at all and it would mark me correct.
Pimsleur is another old-timer in the language learning stakes. Like Rosetta Stone, most of the products in the "something for everyone" Pimsleur range work on an "acquisition" style approach where you don't explicitly learn any grammar. You just absorb the patterns of speech as you work though the conversations.
The core idea is that most people only use around 2000 words in their every day lives, and each Pimsleur level (there are three levels for French) teaches around 500 words and clocks in at 16 hours. The conversations build on themselves and on things you've learned earlier.
Pimsleur also offer a range of "conversational" courses at a lower price. Some of these are just the first few lessons from the main courses. If you want to try these out, have a peek at the ones available with a free Audible.com trial. You can get a feel for what it's like and save yourself a few bucks if you don't like it.
I consider Pimsleur a good bet if you're interested in improving your pronunciation and mastering a few phrases to help you get by while on holiday. But if you're interested in having more in-depth conversations with French speakers, you're probably best to use it in conjunction with a textbook that teaches you the mechanics of the language.
Lessons are broken into convenient 30 minute blocks. Great for pronunciation. The new digital download (mp3) versions provides better value than the traditional CD sets.
Doesn't really teach grammar. Won't give you an in-depth understanding of the language. Quite "dry" and a little bit dull. Expensive for the amount of French you will learn in each level.
A French course is only going to work if you actually use it. So regardless of what I’ve said here, if there’s one course that you really love to use — do it!
If you’re only going to buy one, in my opinion Rocket French offers the best all-in-one package. It’s very reasonably priced for what you get, and it’s a one-off purchase for lifetime access so you’re not being stung with monthly fees.