I want to learn a new language. Can you help me?

I am often asked, “Do you know a good language course or program?” And, yes, there are few good ones, and a lot of bad ones.

When you do a Google search for free language courses, you will spend weeks sorting through the search results. Let me help you out: none of them are worth your time.

The same goes for all (and I do mean all) language learning apps for mobile devices. Most of them are free, while others are peddled for three or four dollars. They’re all equally useless. At best, they can be used as an addition to an existing program or course you’re using, but never as your sole language learning tool.

Essentially, there are only three main programs/courses on offer today that are worthwhile trying and/or spending your money on: Rosetta Stone, Assimil and Fluenz.

Each one has its strengths, but also, sadly, a lot of downsides – some more than others.

For this review, I have focused only on “French”, as this is one of my working languages. But my conclusions and observations are equally valid for any other languages offered in the respective program or course.

Rosetta Stone

You see the advertising on TV, online and in magazines. More recently, your local bookstore may have also put up a separate shelf or display for Rosetta Stone courses.

The underlying principle of Rosetta Stone is “immersion”. You are guided through the language, from zero to one hundred, through several levels and lessons of pictures and text. All you ever see and hear is French, the language you intend to learn.

Thus, you’re shown a picture of a woman running, and the voiceover and text tell you: La femme court. Great.

After several such pictures and adding to your vocabulary, you’ll be shown a picture of a horse that runs (Le cheval court.), and voilà, now you know the word for horse.

It’s not a bad approach, but slow, and also a bit unrealistic for adult learners who usually want to see quick results (at least quicker than what they get through Rosetta Stone’s child-like immersion method).

The pictures are sometimes ambiguous, which causes the learner (and even someone like me) to click on the wrong picture (e.g., you are prompted to click on a picture where a little girl does something, but there is also another picture that would apply, and because the little boy looks like a girl, you end up clicking on the wrong picture).

The speaking component is flawed, unfortunately. For some exercises, you are expected to speak into the mic, and the software then either accepts your reply as correct or not. There seems to be a time limit, so you start speaking right away, but often the software fails at that point, because its own voice recognition of what you say doesn’t kick in right away.

In the French course, specifically, there is an added problem: sentences are not pronounced correctly, or in the way a natural speaker would say them. I am talking about liaison, the linking from one word to the next.

Apparently, the speakers, who appear to be native French speakers, must have been instructed to speak clearly and separate their words (even at the higher levels of the course), which means they don’t liaise their words as French speakers would when they speak in a natural environment. They only liaise articles and nouns, but ignore virtually most other forms of liaison.

This will bring a rude awakening for anyone who has studied all five levels of Rosetta Stone, and now thinks he or she has achieved the top level. Equipped with the Rosetta Stone style of speaking French, after all five levels no less, learners will find it very difficult to watch a French newscast or talk to actual French-speaking people.

I already mentioned the slow progress of the program. Even at the halfway point of the five levels, learners will have learned barely enough to construct sentences along the lines of “There is” or “There are” or “I can see….”. More complex structures, or talking about more abstract ideas, are out the window.

Rosetta Stone courses aren’t cheap. They run special promotions sometimes and if you catch one at the right time, you can save several hundred dollars. But the product is still immensely overpriced.

Even more so if you add a special monthly subscription for TOTALe, the online component of the course with supplementary reading material, games, message boards and the chance to practise what you have learned with a tutor via videoconferencing.

Some of the tutors I have seen are nice and kind people, but teachers they aren’t. Most of them also use very slow Internet connections and poor audio equipment on their computers, which makes it hard to understand them. And quite often, the connection is lost, and you lose an entire session that you have already paid for (and, no, there doesn’t seem to be a money-back guarantee).

Also, during the tutor sessions you’re not alone, but share the time with two or three or more learners. You actually end up hearing more of what these learners say than of the tutor.

That the Rosetta Stone method is not very effective was made abundantly clear to me when I listened in on such tutor sessions. After weeks of repetitive staring at the same pictures again and again, most of these learners could not even repeat the simplest and most basic words or sentences.

My advice: if you choose Rosetta Stone, don’t bother with the online option. Just focus on the course and go through the levels until you are done.

Also: regardless of what Rosetta Stone tells you, make sure you have a good dictionary and some French textbook that explains grammar and structures. Otherwise, you will be lost and won’t learn much.

How to obtain the course: from the website www.RosettaStone.com, you can order the course of your choice. You can opt for delivery on discs or choose the download version. So, if you’re particularly anxious to get started and don’t want to wait for the package to arrive in the mail, just choose the download option, and you’re ready to go.

Assimil

This one is a series of language courses originating in France. Honestly, this program offers courses in languages that you would have a hard time finding anywhere else. In fact, Assimil is the only provider that offers a separate add-on for Le québécois.

Almost all language course providers offer the different varieties of English and Spanish, for example, but no one , except Assimil, has a special component for Quebec. In my view, you are not a professional language course provider, especially when you operate from within North America as Rosetta Stone and Fluenz do, unless you also offer Canadian French.

Now, with Assimil you can learn all the main and common languages, but also tons of exotic ones. However, this is not a software-based course. Instead, you have books and CDs and/or MP3 discs.

The Assimil method is part immersion, part structured learning. You read and/or hear the lesson text, and underneath it, in the book, you get explanations in footnote form about what you have just read or heard.

I think this is a great method. This way, the adult learner still gets to benefit of the immersion approach, while being able to speed up the process and gaining a better understanding of what’s actually happening.

You are taken through a passive phase at first, followed by the active phase of learning. For the first 50 lessons, you are supposed to only absorb what you read and hear. Then, starting with lesson 51, you go back to lesson 1 and use the English translation of the text to translate it back into French. Then you study lesson 52, followed by the “activation” of lesson 2, and so on.

I think this is a very good approach, and going by some of the videos I have seen that learners have uploaded, I must conclude that it works – particularly after seeing a video posted by someone who had been studying Mandarin using Assimil. After just four months, he managed to talk for several minutes, freely, and his pronunciation and accent also sounded quite good.

One problem (in the book): the phonetic transcripts are only approximations, and oftentimes dead wrong (again, I am referring to the French course). But if you go by what you hear on the CDs, you will be fine.

In fact, the native speakers speak an unnaturally slow French only for the first three or four lessons, but then really pick up the pace. By lesson 15 (out of 120 or so), most of them speak at a native and natural speed.

In addition, and this has been criticized about Rosetta Stone: with Assimil, you acquire actual speaking and conversation skills very early on, whereas it may take you several weeks, if not months, before Rosetta Stone finally lets you in on the secret of how to tell someone your name or inquire about someone else’s name. (As long as you can describe pictures about men who run, women who run, or horses that run, according to Rosetta Stone, so it seems, you should be ready to work as a UN interpreter in a matter of weeks!)

A whole Assimil set, that is, the beginner/intermediate and the advanced courses (books), as well as the CDs and/or MP3 discs, barely costs $100.

It may cost a bit less or a bit more, depending on the language you have chosen: the advanced course is not always available for all languages (yet), and some languages (say, Mandarin or Japanese) also require the purchase of books on the writing of characters.

The beginner/intermediate course takes you to the B2 level of language proficiency (as defined by European standards), whereas the advanced course will elevate you to C2 (master of proficiency), which is the highest proficiency class in the European system.

I think Rosetta Stone and Fluenz will, at best, get you to C1, but generally just to B2.

How to obtain the course: in Canada, these courses are readily available in Quebec bookstores and can also be ordered online to be shipped to anywhere in Canada (www.assimil.ca).

Fluenz

This one has a unique approach among the courses reviewed here. Like Rosetta Stone, it doesn’t come with a book, but is used either on your computer or online via the browser or mobile apps.

After a brief introductory video on the lesson coming up next, you hear a dialogue or conversation, spoken by true native speakers – and at a natural pace right from the very beginning.

You can choose to listen to the dialogue without subtitles, with subtitles in the language studied or with subtitles in both English and the language studied.

Afterwards, you’re taken to the tutorial session, a video, where a tutor (Sonia Gil for most of the Fluenz courses) explains all the details of the dialogue/lesson you have just heard. She explains grammar and gives pointers on pronunciation (although Gil’s own French pronunciation isn’t always very good – for example, she has a hard time pronouncing the French u, as in sucre, saying “soooocr” like an American).

But that doesn’t even matter so much, as long as you focus on the native voices you hear in the actual dialogue. At least, unlike with Rosetta Stone, in Gil you have someone by your side who will explain every little detail of the lesson (sometimes, though, she goes overboard too, dwelling on the same point for what seem never-ending stretches of time).

After the tutorial, you move on to the “workouts” – highly repetitive exercises of typing out what you read and hear. There is also one element where you get to record your own voice within the software, but there is no voice recognition or accent analysis. The recording is only for you, so that you can listen to yourself afterwards.

Every learner is different, and the workouts may be right for some, but I’d venture the guess that the vast majority of learners will fall asleep during the workouts, especially those who aren’t fast typers on a computer keyboard and who will grow tired of typing the same sentence or word for the umpteenth time. (Even worse when done on a mobile phone or tablet.)

Frankly, you can do the first workout and then skip to the end of the workout session where you will be shown several tables of all the words, phrases and sentences developed during the dialogue and the various workouts.

Besides, if you really studied the dialogue and paid attention during the tutorial video, you’ll ace any of the workouts anyway.

In French, again, there is a bit of problem with the liaison. Sonia Gil mentions it briefly and then goes on to say that for the first few levels or so, it won’t be taught or incorporated into her tutorial sessions. As a result, she says, Vous êtes…, without linking the s and e of the two words.

She claims this approach furthers the learner’s process of learning to communicate early on, but if the learner ends up speaking French like that, I doubt he or she will be very successful.

Thankfully, the native speakers in the dialogues (some of whom, be still my beating heart, actually sound almost québécois) don’t follow Gil’s silly rule and liaise the hell out of their lines.

Overall, Fluenz, I think, does provide good value. For adult learners who want to learn a language quickly and be taught in a manner appropriate for adults, this course is certainly a good choice.

How to obtain the course: Here is where it gets tricky. If you are like most people today, you will visit www.Fluenz.com from a mobile device, which means you’ll get to see the company’s mobile site. When you click on Buy Now there, however, you’re taken to Fluenz’ mobile online shop, which is hosted by Amazon. And there, for each item, it says that Amazon will ship these items only to buyers with a US billing address. (Amazon is “anti-foreign”, and particularly anti-Canadian.)

From the regular site, though, you can access the proper online shop. But once there, you see there is no option to purchase the course as a download. Rosetta Stone gives you the choice, but Fluenz doesn’t.

Or so it seems.

After some investigating, a Fluenz staff member informed me that there is a download version. But you need to know the “secret handshake” to get in. In other words, when you complete the order in the online shop, initially for discs to be shipped to a physical address, you must enter Fluenz’ own address as the shipping address and complete the checkout.

Then, when you’ve paid and done everything else, you open the online live chat and tell support staff that you have just purchased the course and you would like to be given the link for the download, as you will not require any discs. Only then will you receive that state secret of a website that contains the download links for your course(s).

Not exactly straightforward, is it?

Surely, there’s room for improvement.

Finally, let me say a few words about “immersion”.

Immersion is how children learn languages. This is how we all learned our respective languages as children. But for adults, an immersion-only approach (like Rosetta Stone) will take learners some of the way, but never to the destination, which is complete fluency and a secure command of all the aspects of a given language.

While we all have an inner child, we also have an adult brain, which keeps analyzing and questioning everything we see, hear or do. In a way, that adult brain stands in the way of absorbing a language in a child-like, i.e., immersion, manner.

But it can also act as an accelerator, because if done properly, structure/analysis and a bit of immersion can get the learner to full fluency (including for academic purposes) within a few years – in some exceptional cases, in as little as a year or two.

A child who absorbs the language, as we all know, spends five years before he or she first attends school, but usually can’t read, write or even pronounce all sounds of his or her native language yet after such a long period of time.

This is all the proof you need in order to know why immersion-only doesn’t work for adults. After all, what adult wants to babble like a four or five-year-old?