Tag Archives: French Courses

French Courses I have taken – Part 2 of 1-Year Progress Report

In the first post in this series, I have talked about the goals I have set for myself and whether I have achieved them. Now, in this post, I will talk about all the French courses I have taken with brief comments about how helpful they have been for me. As of now, I am listing the courses – in the course of the next few days, I will add my commentary about each of these courses.

The top 2 courses which have been of tremendous help to me are

  • Michel Thomas French – I have completed all 3 courses – Total, Perfect and Master Class. This is the best value for my time and money of all the courses that I have looked at so far. Michel Thomas is a genius teacher and his methodology is a breath of fresh air in the market overcrowded with long-hours-of-learning-grammar approaches. There are 4 different aspects to learning a language – reading, listening, writing and speaking. I have written those 4 aspects in the increasing order of difficulty. Michael Thomas tackles the most difficult part right away from the first 5 minutes. He does not overwhelm you with lot of details, but builds up the details gradually. I am surprised at how much grammar he has managed to teach in around 12 hours of audio.

    There are a few disadvantages to the course like his French with a heavy Polish accent, the mistakes made by his students, and of course the high price tag. But all of these disadvantages pales in comparison to the tremendous value you get out of this. This would be my top recommendation if you are starting on French or struggling with French. Please click here for a more detailed review of Michel Thomas.

  • Assimil French with ease (first book in the Assimil series) – This is my next favourite. While Michel Thomas gives you a head start and gives you lot of confidence and speaking practice, he misses 2 other important aspects – Reading & Listening. You have to listen to lots of content by native speakers and you have to read a lot of content for your brain to get accustomed to French. There will come a point when your brain has gotten so used to French that it does not seem unnatural any more for you. But if you jump right into French content which is not devised for beginners, you might feel overwhelmed and might lose motivation, although there are some people out there who have managed to learn a new language this way just by immersion. But for the rest of us, Assimil is a great help.

    Assimil provides easy-to-digest and funny lessons which start off very simple, very easy and very slow talking style. The pace of talking and the complexity of lessons gradually increases and you reach native speaker pace in the last 10 lessons with really high levels of French. It is amazing what Assimil manages to achieve in such a short book. The vocabulary is extensive and the grammar becomes so much a part of you without you having to memorize anything by rote. All you have to do is stick to a routine and do 1 or 2 lessons every day – that means around 30 minutes to 1 hour. What is important here is not just reading and listening, but repeating aloud. Let me repeat it again so that it is not lost – Repeating the content aloud is the most beneficial and the most important part of learning with Assimil. Do not miss it!

Here are the other courses I have completed

  • Babbel.com (Stage 1 of the 1-year-long course consisting of 4 stages) – Babbel has lot of fanfare and this was the very first course I have started on and I was pleased with it in the first few days. But soon I realized that the approach is very traditional and you don’t learn a language like this – at least, I don’t learn a language this way. This could be an excellent supplement to another primary course like Michel Thomas or Assimil, but I would not recommend it as the first and the only course that you take. I have written a longer review on Babbel here about 1 year back and yet this is the most popular post in my blog. 
  • LiveMocha.com Active French (All 4 levels)
  • Live classes for 4 weeks conducted in my office

In addition to these courses, I have also done the following which are not necessarily courses, but these materials have helped me to improve my French

In addition to these, I have sampled a number of other courses, but did not pursue them fully – I have done a few lessons in most of these courses to allow me to evaluate whether they would work for me. Here is the list of courses I have looked that I can recall

Michel Thomas French Total: Learning French can’t get easier than this

Most people who have tried learning French have a common complaint about French: French is very difficult to learn; the pronunciation is very difficult, the grammar is extremely hard, and for every rule, there are so many exceptions and so on. I also had the same impression when I started learning French. The few online courses I tried including LiveMocha, Babbel.com and even my favorite Assimil course served to reinforce the impression that French is a hard language to learn.

Enter Michael Thomas. I discovered Michael Thomas after I have completed about 30-40 lessons in Assimil.  When I completed my first hour of the Michel Thomas audio course, I had a question to myself: ‘Is the French language so easy to learn?’.

Continue reading

Review of Babbel.com

I have completed the trial of Babbel.com French course in about 10 days. I and my wife did the lessons jointly and it turned out to be very helpful.

Babbel.com has many courses for French. Depending on your level and interest, you can pick different courses. The course overview is very well-structured and gave me a very good idea of what is covered in each course – I have not seen such clear roadmaps in Livemocha.com or in Busuu.com. Babbel.com had a year-long course divided into 4 stages, with each stage corresponding to a level in the European Common Framework for languages. Stage 1 corresponded to A1. We have completed Stage 1 in 10 days. I have decided to discontinue Babbel.com in favour of Assimil French as explained in my last post.

Here is my impression on Babbel.com based on the 10 days trial:

What I liked

  • Babbel.com is the best site among the 3 that I looked at (other 2 are Livemocha.com & Busuu.com) The interface is very well-designed – the UI looks very pleasing and it was very responsive.
  • There is an overall road map available for the entire course. I was very happy to see that Babbel.com’s 4 stages in its year-long course correspond to A1 to B2 level of the European Language Framework. Every lesson starts with a clearly defined set of objectives and you are shown where you are in the overall course you have selected. Every lesson is divided into 2 parts plus a review session.
  • You are introduced to the material using photo + audio as in other sites. Review is done by multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank type questions. You are also asked to build complete phrases with individual elements given. After the words/phrases are introduced, you are asked to use the words you learnt using scenarios. These scenario-based exercise are very impressive and UI is very well-done. I never got bored during these exercises.
  • There are dedicated lessons to teach pronunciations, apart from grammar and vocabulary lessons.
  • Review Manager is based on SRS (Spaced Repetition System). This means that it will test you on the right words at the right time. The word that you have difficulty will be tested more often.
  • There is a free iPhone App available which has 3000 words. Review Manager is also available on iPhone.
  • The content is presented at a pace that it is not overwhelming. There are no reviews/exercises where you are asked to suddenly take a leap like writing 1 or 2 paragraphs after you have learnt a few words.
  • Feedback is very nicely integrated into your lessons. You can click on the Feedback link on the top and you are asked about your mood. The response is very quick from the support team, although it was not always helpful.

What can be improved

  • The UI is not consistent. In some places, clicking on the picture repeats the audio. However, there are many places, especially the scenario-based exercises, there is no way to repeat the audio. This was very frustrating; as soon as we typed the correct answer, the audio starts and ends in a flash and we have not understood a single word and 2 more sentences are introduced and the UI has scrolled. I want the ability to say continue in every screen and to be able to go back and repeat a sentence multiple times during the review.
  • I was not able to control what words/phrases got into the Review Manager. Many words were introduced in the lesson but they were not added to the Review Manager. In fact, the Review Manager had kept throwing tests on words that I really mastered. The problem here might be typing – I might know a word really well, but might make 1 or 2 mistakes in getting the spelling correctly and Review Manager probably uses this statistic to determine what should be reviewed.
  • As part of the review, you are asked to type the word. This was a feature I really liked in the initial days, but after a few days, I grew tired of getting the spelling correct. I have to focus on 3 things at the same time – training my ears to get the word correctly, learning the meaning of the written word and learning the spelling of the word – Picking up the spoken word and the meaning itself were challenging enough. I would like to have the ability to turn off typing.
  • Keyboard shortcuts are not available except in few places. Whenever there was a ‘Continue’ button, pressing Enter worked, but not always.
  • Though I have completed the stage 1 course which corresponds to A1 level, I still do not have much confidence that I have actually retained the key concepts I have learnt. There should be some additional files which contain the key concepts which can be printed and reviewed offline. Also, there should be options to download the audio so that I can listen to it offline to practice even more.
  • It would be helpful to have a page which shows all the mistakes I have made and it would be great if I can repeat the lessons based on how well I have learnt them (not just individual words/phrases as in Review Manager)
  • First time, when I typed something wrong, the letter became red and I was not able to do anything. I did not remember the correct word and I did not know how to proceed. It took me a while to figure out that I have to click on ‘Help’ to get the hint. This should have been ‘Hint’ at least. I prefer to see a button ‘I don’t know’.

Overall, I am very positive about my experience at Babbel.com. If not for Assimil, I would have probably bought a subscription and continued with Babbel.com – even now, I plan to come back after I complete Assimil course.

I have found the great Assimil French Course

Last week, a colleague from Spain said that he has just started learning French using Assimil French course. He said that his wife has used it few years back to gain conversational fluency in French in about 6 months. I checked it out and wow, what a great course. I am already doing the course in Babbel.com as part of my 2-week trial and also doing the courses in LiveMocha.com with the 1-year subscription I have purchased. However, I was so impressed with this course that I decided to start it immediately instead of Livemocha.com’s courses.

This course had almost all the things I expected:

  • Real-life dialogue as a way to introduce the language rather than loose words and phrases that you have to memorize. I am a fan of learning vocabulary in natural contexts as it works so well and is stress-free.
  • Very high-quality and impressive audio recording where the speakers talk in a way that makes it possible for complete beginners like me to get it
  • The lessons are kept at a reasonable length. There are about 10 phrases in each lesson and the audio runs for 2 minutes. So, I get enough material to challenge my mind, but not so much to completely overwhelm me.
  • There is a pronunciation guide which explains how the words should be pronounced. Even though the audio is available, having the pronunciation guide is so good, as it makes it crystal clear on what sounds are being produced. When I hear a French phrase, I may not be able to completely get all the sounds and stretches correct – this guide really fills this gap.
  • The audios are funny – you end up laughing when you listen to it multiple times. Also, there is a rhythm in the way the speakers talk which also makes it sound better. I listened to the audio so many times, but it is not boring.
  • Grammar is introduced slowly in bits and pieces after you have already encountered at least a few samples of the usages of the rules that are talked about.
  • There are many notes which throw light on the French language and its usage.

Overall, I am very impressed with Assimil and hence I have switched to this course fully as I have completed the stage 1 course in Babbel.com as part of my 2-week trial of Babbel.com.

Which course? – Review of 4 online courses to learn French

We bought a book called Easy French Step-by-Step as the first step in learning French. However, a quick browsing through the book confirmed to me that this book is not the place to start. When it comes to pronunciations, and especially with a language like French, in which pronunciation is the biggest challenge for new learners, reading instructions on how to pronounce in a book is not gonna be of great help.

So, I started searching for websites/software and here are the sites that I looked at:

Busuu.com

This site has been on my radar for a year. I downloaded their iPhone App about a year back and I liked it. I took the first few lessons of the course online and on my iPad and I was very disappointed.

In the first lesson, you are introduced to a variety of introductory words and phrases using flashcards approach. Immediately after this first lesson, you are presented a long passage and you are asked to answer 3 questions. I was completely irritated with this approach. Here I am, a complete beginner trying to learn the first few words in French and their proper prononciations and I am flooded with test material which completely overwhelms me.

I wanted to like this course since it had the best look-and-feel. But content-wise, I felt that it left lot to be desired. Also, the speed of pronunciation of the introductory words was too fast for me – Yes, I can listen to the same phrase multiple times, but even then it is very difficult to get all the real sounds made by the native speaker since my ear is not accustomed to it. A prononciation guide in English for each phrase in the course would have helped.

There is a very active community here and this may come in handy for me at a later stage when I want to practice the language but not now.

Livemocha.com

This is another very popular and heavily promoted site. This site was no different from Busuu.com in their approach. Same flashcards-based approach – very fast pronuniciation, no pronunciation guide in English, etc.

The test were simple unlike busuu.com’s complex review. Here, after learning the words, there are exercises to write about yourself – I am not sure whether it is useful at this  stage. In my opinion, in the first few days of learning, the focus should be on learning words/phrases with proper pronunciation, repeating them aloud, trying to use them in real-world settings and listening to real conversations to see whether any of these words/phrases are used.

There is a community aspect here as well – you can submit your writing/speaking to the community and some native speaker will review and get back to you with corrections.

I decided to give Livemocha a try and I felt this was better than Busuu.com in terms of content and organization, despite the fact that Livemocha did not an iPhone App. The interface is also a bit worse than Busuu.com. I was given an offer to buy their Gold Key offer for $9 instead of $99 – I decided to take the bait, even though I was not sure whether this subscription will do me any good.

Babbel.com

This site looked much more polished and professional than the 2 above. There was a clear road-map given on what would be covered in each course, organized by stages. There is even a year-long course planned for you. They have a free iPhone App.

Busuu.com and LiveMocha.com give you access to many lessons/units in your trial period but here only the first lesson was available and after that, you have to pay to access other lessons in that course. After looking around for a while, I found a way to get a 2-week free trial with access to all the content.

Of the 3 sites that I looked at, this was the one that I was most pleased with after doing one lesson. The interface is quite nice, the content is quite good, they make you type the words which I felt was better to fix the written word in my mind. There was a Review Manager which supports Spaced Repetition System (SRS) – I am a big fan of SRS, I will write a detailed post about it later.

Mangolanguages.com

This was the last one I looked at and here again, I was given access only to one lesson and then I have to make up my mind to purchase. It is a downloadable course unlike the above 3 sites.

But, boy, I was very pleased with this when I saw the first lesson. They have done lot of great things in this course – when a sentence is given along with its translation, the words are highlighted in different colors. If you pick a word highlighted in one color in French and see the same colored word in English, you see the word-for-word translation. This was very pleasing to me as this allows you to get a sense of the way the sentence is formed in French – whether the word orders are the same. Also, rather than memorizing a full phrase without knowing the individual words, you get to know the individual words and then you learn the entire phrase as well.

Here is the first place where I saw a very helpful pronunciation guide in English for each phrase. There was an option to record your voice and play it simultaneously with the native speaker – this was very cool as well. Most sites provide an option to record yourself, but not to offer simultaneous playing of your utterance and the native speaker’s utterance. This will help you to figure out whether you are putting the emphasis on the wrong place or stretching some word where it should not be.

The interface was quite pleasing – Price tag was $79. I almost wanted to buy it, but decided to wait for 2 weeks until I try Babbel.com and Livemocha.com.

So, I am taking Babbel.com and Livemocha.com on a trial.

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