Parlez-vous français?

I had a couple of quarters of German during my chaotic college days, but I’ve never properly learned a foreign language. As an older adult I’ve considered a few languages, including Chinese and Hindi. Chinese is just way too difficult. Hindi ought to be easier, because it’s an Indo-European language. It’s related to Latin, German, and English. But the consonants in Hindi are well-nigh impossible, and the writing system isn’t much easier.

A couple of years ago I settled on French. French is both easy and difficult. The vocabulary is quite a lot like English. It’s pretty much a slam-dunk, and at least French uses the Latin alphabet, albeit with half a dozen fussy accent marks. The grammar, pronunciation, and spelling, on the other hand — hoo, boy.

There are probably a dozen different websites and services that would love to help you learn a foreign language. But I have yet to find a good one.

I’ve spent a lot of time learning French on Duolingo. It’s supported by advertising, so it’s free. If you’re using a phone or tablet, you probably want to pay for your membership, as the ads will intrude, but on a desktop computer the ads are off to the side and totally ignorable.

Duolingo is great, up to a certain point, but beyond that point I’ve found it more and more annoying. The audio — the spoken French sentences — is produced by a voice synthesizer. There are no recordings of actual human speech. Of the half-dozen “personalities” the synthesizer has, three are both stupid-sounding and hard to understand. Spoken French is hard enough to understand at the best of times. But that’s how they keep the cost down.

The other problem with Duolingo is that most of the material is presented in single sentence examples. There is generally no context at all. The system does include some “stories,” which are mostly dialog between two of the synthetic voices. The stories are not worthless, but they’re kind of a side show, not the main event. And while you’re wrestling with the examples, you get no explanations. You get to see the allegedly correct answer, but if you omit a “de” after the verb, Duolingo is not going to tell you why it’s needed, or what class of verbs requires it.

A few months ago I got a cut-rate offer for Rocket French, which is part of the Rocket Languages service. So I signed up. The issues with Rocket French are entirely different. There’s a long series of 25-minute audio “stories,” which are narrated by “Paul” (mostly in English, and his pronunciation of French is rather dodgy) and “Claire” (who speaks only French). Paul and Claire are definitely human. The stories could be cut by five minutes; they’re padded out with Paul’s bad jokes. But they do give you some context. There’s seldom any explanation of verb tenses or such salient details, however. You’re just getting immersion. Also, the written text that accompanies the storylets is not free of errors — wrong gender of a French adjective, that type of thing.

The other part of the Rocket package is lessons in various points of French grammar. This is genuinely useful, but the examples are given as short phrases, not even as complete sentences, much less within a context. In these lessons there’s no actual usage of the material you’re being taught.

Rocket French has an audio input system, so you can record your own pronunciation of the French phrases, listen to the playback, and compare your voice to that of the native speaker. There’s no grading of your pronunciation, and that’s fine with me. But you don’t have to do recordings if you don’t feel like it. So in essence, nothing is required of the student in Rocket French. You can just click on a bunch of recordings and quite possibly learn not a damn thing.

Duolingo asks you to actively translate French to English and vice versa, and gives you a few extra points for success. You’re competing with other students to build up your weekly total of points, so there’s an active incentive system, complete with a chart. This is a much better system than what Rocket French offers — but those synthetic voices are just awful.

I’ve acquired a few French books, both grammar books and some stories. These are useful too, but of course books can’t do much to help you learn French pronunciation, and French pronunciation is une chienne.

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