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.
Even though it's been around for a few years now, it's still a relative baby compared with the likes of Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur's French products.
This "baby" is giving the big kids a run for their money. PC Mag recently named Rocket French "Editor's Choice", beating Rosetta Stone to the top spot. But does it really work?
Well, let's take a look...
Generally when I hear "interactive audio course" I think "Great. They're going to teach me how to book another hotel room..." and I promptly fall asleep.
Most courses just teach you useless conversations that you have no hope of applying in regular life. I also think it's a cheap way of avoiding doing any grammar. I hate learning grammar, but I know that it's necessary if I want to master French.
But I've changed my tune a little with Rocket French's interactive audio course. I've been learning much more useful things... like how to flirt! Who doesn't want to be able to flirt in French?
Rocket French Premium contains over 60 interactive audio lessons that you can download to your portable listening device, burn to CD, or play right there on your computer.
What surprises me most is how much I'm learning and remembering from these lessons. The lessons are not just dull repetition, and it doesn't progress so fast that you forget it all in an instant, or so slowly that you're driven mad. Each lesson takes around 20 minutes, which is the perfect length for me to learn a little French on my walk to work.
I've been very impressed at how much I have learned through this audio course, without ever needing to crack open a text book. I can now listen to some of my favorite French music and — for the first time — understand the words!
Each lesson covers a bunch of grammar and vocabulary, and during the lesson 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 found it quite impressive how much I learned just from these lessons, without even needing to dip into the other component of Rocket Spanish — the "Language and Culture" lessons.
You could learn an awful lot of French just using the Interactive Audio Course, but if you really want to take things to the next level there's a really good grammar and vocabulary course that accompanies the interactive audio course. (They call it "Language and Culture", but it's really grammar and vocabulary — the meat and potatoes of any language course.)
This part is more like an actual "classroom" French course. What I like is that the grammar isn't drilled into you in brain-numbing fashion, but comes about gradually (like with the audio course) and is mixed in with a lot of conversation practice, vocabulary, puzzles and cultural topics to keep things interesting.
You work through this part of the course online at your own speed, but you can also print off the notes if you want to step away from the computer. This section of the course comes with a lot of that beautiful, slow, clear audio as well.
Each lesson inside Rocket French comes with an impressive collection of self-testing tools, which 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 really useful flashcard game for every module, and you can even create your own flashcard sets. (This is incredibly useful.)
All these tools present 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've found my recall is much better after using them.
These would be good for older kids too.
What's great is that a lot of other publishers would probably try to sell these testing tools separately. (Some French courses you'll see are essentially just tools like this... and nothing else!) But at the moment these are all included when you buy Rocket French.
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?
Put those fears aside, and put on your nerd glasses, chum, because you're about to start talking to your computer. 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 must say, this is much more useful than the old Rocket Record (which just played your voice back to you). Part of me thinks that if this 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!
There's a little example for you to play with about halfway down the page on the Rocket French website, if you want to give it a go. (If it doesn't work for you, it's because of the security settings in your web browser. I use Chrome and it took me AGES to figure out I had to click the little video camera icon in my address bar. After that it worked perfectly!)
One of the things 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. There's enough material here to keep you going for a long time. The course is also interesting enough to be suitable for older children... particularly the games.