If you're really serious about learning French at home, you'll probably end up looking into the more comprehensive course at some stage. And you're going to see a lot of people singing the praises of Rocket French, by Rocket Languages.
Rocket French has been around for quite a few years now, even if it doesn't have quite the same profile as bigger players like Rosetta Stone. I first went through the course in 2008, and I've been watching the program evolve since then.
Despite being a bit less flashy than some of the competitors, Rocket French gets consistently good reviews from users, and PC Mag named it "Editor's Choice" in the field of language learning software.
So is it actually any good? Let's take a look...
Generally when I hear "interactive audio course" I think "Great. They're going to make me say a useless phrase over and over again until I rage-throw my phone across the room."
But I've changed my tune with Rocket French's Interactive Audio lessons.
These downloadable episodes follow the adventures (or often, misadventures) of our two hosts in France. Each lesson includes a conversation practice, surrounded by some educational banter between the hosts.
In Rocket French Level 1 there are 30 podcast-style lessons which you can save onto your phone or download onto your computer. Each lesson takes around 20 minutes, which was the perfect length for me to learn a little French on my walk to work.
The important thing to note is that the lessons are not just dull repetition. During the course of each lesson you'll naturally encounter a bunch of grammar and vocabulary, and the two hosts will go off on tangents and explain how this is similar to that, and why you need to be careful about that other thing.
For me, learning the grammar and vocab in context like this seems a lot easier and more natural. I was impressed at how much I learned just from these lessons, without even needing to dip into any serious grammar lessons.
I would even say that if you're looking for a quick crash-course in French to help you while traveling, these Interactive Audio lessons might be all you need.
But if you are aiming for full fluency, you'll need to dive into some grammar lessons. Luckily, Rocket French has that covered too...
Yup. This is the grammar course. Rocket French calls these Language and Culture lessons, but they're mostly grammar and vocabulary — the meat and potatoes of any language course.
In Rocket French Level 1 there are 54 of these Language and Culture lessons. (In addition to those 30 Interactive Audio lessons that I mentioned above. That's 84 lessons in total.)
While the Interactive Audio lessons gently expose you to grammar and vocabulary as you come across it in a conversation, the Language and Culture lessons are more like an actual classroom French course.
For each lesson you get written notes that explain how everything works, and then a bunch of beautiful, slow, clear audio to practice with.
Handy hint: Rocket French doesn't force you to complete lessons before moving onto the next one. You can skip ahead.
But I recommend doing the lessons in order, so that you go through the Interactive Audio lessons for a module before tackling the grammar lessons in that module.
I found the audio lessons gave me a taste of the grammar, and then when I came across it in the Language and Culture lesson, it wasn't as intimidating. I'd think "Oh, I've seen you before... " and it made it easier to wrap my head around and remember.
Want to know another thing that makes things easier to remember? Hang on, this deserves its own little section...
Each lesson inside Rocket French comes with a collection of self-testing tools which are designed to work on all angles of fluency: Listening comprehension, speaking, translating, and being able to find the right words when you're under pressure. You also get a useful flashcard game for every module, and you can create your own flashcard sets. (This is incredibly useful.)
All these tools help reinforce the material you've just learned in a different way, so you can make sure you really know it. They're great for building confidence, and I found that my recall was much better after using them.
These would be good for older kids too.
Tell the truth. Do you ever speak your French out loud? Are you afraid that when you actually have to speak... nobody will understand you?
That's the big problem with learn-at-home French courses. When you don't have a tutor or a class to interact with, there's a good chance you won't speak your French as much as you should. And even if you do... who is going to tell you if your pronunciation is ... errrr ... less than great?
I generally recommend that you spend at least a little time speaking to actual French speakers. But for all those other times, Rocket French comes with a nifty little pronunciation perfecting tool, baked into every audio example in the course.
The Rocket Record tool uses voice recognition technology to see whether your pronunciation would be understood by a French speaker.
It's similar to the voice recognition that lets you make voice commands to your smartphone, so it's pretty darn clever. There are three difficulty levels: At the easiest level I could say things in a pretty bad accent and it would mostly understand me. At the harder level I needed to actually try to sound French.
I'm thinking that if this French voice recognition technology can understand me, then a real French-speaking human should DEFINITELY be able to understand me.
That's a pretty potent confidence booster!
If you sign up for a free trial of Rocket French, you can try this out. (If Rocket Record doesn't work for you, it's because of the security settings in your web browser. I use Chrome and it took me a while to figure out I had to click the little video camera icon in my address bar. After that it worked perfectly!)
Another thing often missing from home-study programs is feedback, reporting, and that feeling that you're actually getting somewhere. If the nerd in you is itching to be top of the class, Rocket French has a variety of assessments built in to chart your progress.
I would say that Rocket French is suitable for absolute beginners through to reasonably advanced students of French. I've been looking at Level 1 in this review, but there's also a Level 2 and a Level 3 if you're ready to move beyond the basics.
In each level there's enough material here to keep you going for a long time.