Can You Learn To Speak French Fluently With Language Software And Web-based Instruction?

The Internet has revolutionized the world of language self-study. Before, we had tapes then CDs and books, now we have downloadable products and even totally web-based courses. And there are so many excellent sources of authentic materials in the form of podcasts and recordings of all sorts.

The features seem promising: Exciting graphics, lots of audio-visual material, speech recognition and pronunciation correction software, dictionaries and reference works.

Big names in the field of language packages include Rosetta Stone, Fluenz, Rocket Languages, Transparent Language, Living Language, Tell Me More, Babbel

But do they work? Can you really earn to speak French fluently in the comfort of your home and at your own pace with a computer, headphones and a microphone ?

My answer is “maybe.”

Let me first state, for full disclosure, that I do not currently use any software-based product. Some years ago I toyed with some inexpensive packages, but they are now sitting on a shelf gathering dust.

Here are my observations

1. Despite all the glowing testimonials and reviews about these products, I have yet to see anywhere examples of written or video testimonials IN FRENCH by users.

Here is what I would really love to see:  A sort of  before and after video diary of someone from day one when he or she first downloads or buys the package to the end of the last lesson .  We could have a little video clip after every lesson. We would follow the weekly progress and see the final results.  Wouldn’t it be great if the user could demonstrate what they learned in terms like the following?

Eh bien, voilà, nous sommes arrivés à la fin, malheureusement. Merci de votre patience. Pour vous donner une idée des progrès que j’ai pu faire, je vous propose une toute petite présentation personnelle et mon appréciation de ce produit. Je m’appelle….

2. Very high attrition rate. I read somewhere that something like 99% of buyers give up using these products within a few months. The problem is not the products themselves but the limited motivation of the users. Learning a language takes time and a huge amount of effort that few people are willing to give.

3. It is not very clear what the promised outcome will be in terms of any of the recognized language proficiency scales. How much French will you actually be able to speak at the end of the program?

Most products have various levels from beginner to intermediate or advanced. But what does that mean exactly? It’s very hard to tell from all the hype.

My impression is that the so-called advanced levels are no where close to to levels of French that we are studying in this blog. But I may be wrong.

4. Since I strongly believe that actual contact with native speakers is an important success factors, I notice that many of the products do include some form of interaction via Internet with instructors or even other learners. This is an excellent development and augurs well for the future.

5. I am certainly biased. I believe that nothing can beat immersion and working with a native-speaker teacher or coach who can give me the corrective feedback that you need.

That said, I see these products as potentially useful tools for my language toolbox. Some are better than others because they fit my learning style and circumstances.

In my opinion, the great advantage of these products is the fact that you can go over the material as much as you want. And you have sound and video. These are excellent features, but I don’t think that you will end up speaking French fluently and accurately just with one of these packages.


Can You Learn To Speak French Fluently With Language Software And Web-based Instruction? — 2 Comments

  1. I just found your blog and think it is really useful, particularly because my near-term goal is to become proficient in spoken French. (Actually, I want to learn all of the language skills, but I need to do well on the TEFaQ proficiency exam, which only tests oral comprehension and speaking.)

    I thought I’d weigh in on the usefulness of Rosetta Stone. I agree that their promises are a bit vague. I also found, when researching the product, a glaring lack of evidence of user success. (I also found that most negative reviews are written with the fervor of a religious zealot, and are almost always by people who clearly (and often admittedly) have not actually used the product, or have only used the demo. It’s really kind of odd… most people dismiss it out of hand and won’t even allow for the idea that it might actually work for some people.)) So, I thought the truth probably lay somewhere between the extreme negative comments, and any claims Rosetta Stone may make. (Although, again, their claims are vague.)

    Well, I think it is an absolutely wonderful product and very cost-effective, despite it being one of the most expensive self-study products out there. (It is still much less expensive than classes.) Of course, like any other method for learning the language, it must be supplemented to be most effective. (I really don’t think this is a flaw… think about anything else… even classes have in-class instruction and interaction, textbooks, at-home exercises, language lab work, etc.. For the most part I supplement RS with resources available for FREE on the internet, so I don’t have to pay more than what I paid for RS.)

    I’m a bit into Level 2 and already feel a million times more advanced than I was when I began, and my conversational abilities have taken off because I’ve just learned futur proche and passé composé. (And, I have a sense of what it takes to actually interact in French in a francophone area, because I lived in Montréal for two full years, and have visited France seven times, all before I knew ANY grammar, so I really couldn’t converse in French at all.) I’m learning a lot of very useful vocabulary and grammar, but, because of the oft-derided foundational work (you know, the “useless” stuff like “the boy is under the ball,”) I also have the ability to generate new wording rather than just parrot what I hear and I’m understanding more and more of what I hear on Radio Canada.

    I actually started a blog with the goal of providing that missing piece of information… videos of an actual Rosetta Stone user speaking French with some spontaneity. (Really, WHY aren’t there any such videos out there?) Unfortunately, the blog was taking up way too much time so I dropped that endeavor. But, I know from personal experience that one CAN actually become proficient with Rosetta Stone. If I have learned this much just a little over 1/5 of the way through the 5-level program, I know that by the end I will have the tools to interact fairly fluently in real life. (I mean fluent in the sense of being able to talk spontaneously in most real life daily situations.)

    I do think it all comes down to motivation. It seems that I’m one of the rare people to even push through to the middle of Level 1, at which point one learns introductions and greetings and the language becomes to become more “real” and useful. RS is “fun” but can be very repetitive (and needs to be) and people can get impatient and stop using it. I keep thinking that if only they’d push all the way through the first level and into the second level, they’d get excited and realize the potential for true progress.