Updated: June 14, 2015
Learning a Foreign Language - Fluenz vs Rosetta Stone - Fluenz ReviewWe take Fluenz home and try Italian level 1 & 2 -- detailed review and our results...
I may not be the only person who has tried both Fluenz and Rosetta Stone language courses in the same month, but I am certainly one of the few.. I decided to review their Italian lessons in 2010, in preparation for a trip to Italy. Having completed Levels 1 & 2, it's time to share our findings. This guide will go over the Fluenz Italian course in detail (all the languages they offer come in the same format, so this also serves as a Fluenz Spanish review, Fluenz Mandarin review, etc.), outlining the good and bad things about Fluenz language lessons, while comparing how Fluenz stacks up to Rosetta Stone. Will you speak like a native after these courses? Will you be able to get by on a vacation? Will you wish you'd never spent the $200-$400 to buy one of these courses? Find out!
Best Foreign Language Software - Fluenz Spanish Review - Fluenz French - Fluenz Mandarin - Fluenz ItalianAs a newcomer to the world of foreign language instruction, Fluenz began with Mandarin lessons and expanded to include Fluenz French, Fluenz Italian, and Fluenz Spanish. Fluenz currently (as of 2010) offers the following language courses: Mandarin (3 levels), Spanish (5 levels), French (2 levels), and Italian (2 levels). These courses are available singly for about $180 per level, in 2-level packs for about $325, and in 3-level packs for about $420. In comparison, Rosetta Stone sells single level courses for about $205, and 3-level courses for abuot $460 -- pretty close, slightly more expensive. So how does Fluenz compare to Rosetta Stone? In the Fluenz vs Rosetta Stone debate, Fluenz likes to point out in their marketing materials these key differences:
- Fluenz offers video instruction by an English speaking tutor
- Fluenz offers explanations and translations in English
- Fluenz offers many more dialogues between native speakers (though they are short)
- Fluenz focuses more on travel related learning - ask for directions, order a meal, etc.
- Fluenz offers 13 types of exercises instead of 4
- Fluenz comes on DVD instead of CD, allowing them to include more video info
Fluenz Italian Review - Using Fluenz Software
The user interface for the Fluenz lessons is pretty Spartan -- the menu/intro screen is mostly black with just numbers listing the lessons (when you mouse over them, a brief summary of the lessons appears at the bottom of the screen). You are supposed to go through the lessons sequentially, but nothing stops you from clicking ahead or going back to review a prior lesson. The software does track where you last left off, but oddly enough, that is really the only personal interaction you have with the entire program -- it doesn't score or grade you in any way, it doesn't keep track of which lessons you had trouble with, it doesn't know which words you keep forgetting -- absolutely nothing. So this gets to my first complaint with both Fluenz and Rosetta -- these DVDs/CDs are basically presented using pretty simple multimedia technology from 10-15 years ago, and there really is not much in the way of genuine user interaction or personalized tracking and learning that a computer can be so good at. In addition, neither company offers any kind of supplemental online material -- additional practice exercises, more advanced vocabulary lessons, a chance to interact with an online community that is also trying to learn a language, etc. It's almost as if these CDs were published in 1992 or 1993 and there is no Internet out there to be leveraged in this learning experience. I see this as a major shortcoming and am a little shocked that online interactivity is totally ignored by both of these companies. On with the lessons..
Best Foreign Language Lessons - Best Way to Learn Foreign LanguagesEach lesson in the series is lead/instructed by a young woman named Sonia. While she is very attractive, I found myself wondering if a 25-30 year old (she doesn't look any older than that) is really qualified to teach 4 foreign languages. In any event, each lesson follows pretty much the same format, which is:
- Quick video intro by Sonia
- A dialogue that lets you choose between Italian Subtitles, Italian/English Subtitles, or No Subtitles; the dialog then has a picture of a speaker with an audio track of the sentence they say (and subtitles if you choose, to read what they are saying), alternating with the second speaker, back and forth several times. You click NEXT to move on between sentences. The people change from lesson to lesson so you hear a variety of male and female voices and accents (a few are ALMOST impossible to understand without subtitles!). These dialogues are all very short - usually just 6-10 short sentences, with just a few new words being introduced.
- Instructor (Sonia) reviews the dialogue, line by line and word by word where needed, explaining everything in English.
- A list of Italian words that you repeat out loud, clicking the PLAY button to hear and compare them.
- A phrase matching exercise - you drag the Italian phrase on the left onto it's proper English translation on the right (I found these more useful to try to do in reverse -- read the English phrase on the right, try to think how you would say it in Italian, then look for that phrase on the left).
- Then a match a word with one of 4 pictures exercise - helping you think visually.
- Then a typing/translation exercise - type the given English word or phrase in Italian.
- Then a more intricate type/translate the English phrase into Italian (if you can't get the answer right, click the ANSWER button at the bottom and the correct answer is filled in for you).
- Then a "write the words you hear" drill - click the PLAY button to hear something spoken in Italian, then type/write it in Italian. This is a good exercise for getting your ear to hear the spoken words (TIP: F3 is a shortcut for the play button, allowing you to hit F3, hear the word(s), type in your answer, and hit ENTER to continue without having to pickup up your hand, grab the mouse, and hit the PLAY button again..)
- Then a sentence building drill, where you here and then type the Italian phrase as it grows (I go.., I go to the museum.. I go to the museum in Piazza Duomo... I go to the museum in Piazza Duomo today...I go to the museum in Piazza Duomo today, with a friend.. -- this leads to a LOT of repetitious typing...hope you are a good, fast typist!).
- Then a speaking exercise, using the microphone.
- Then a pick the best answer drill, where a short sample question lets you pick from 3 choices for the best answer.
- Then another typing exercise where you listen to the original dialogue (so long ago!) again, and type in Italian what is being said, line by line.
- Then another phrase matching exercise - drag the Italian sentence on the left onto it's best English translation on the right. I found it useful to speak aloud each Italian phrase for practice as I worked through these.
- Then a phrase repeating exercise - see an Italian phrase, click the PLAY button to hear it spoken, then try to repeat it yourself in Italian.
- Then a final closing video of Sonia, speaking in English, with any final comments.
One other note. On the audio CDs (1 for each level), Sonia speaks English while native-speaker Vanessa speaks Italian. They review portions of the course, having you repeat and try to say things you have learned. Many of the practice phrases are exactly what was covered in the lessons, no new material, no challenging dialogues. So not super useful unless you are just looking for something to use when not at your computer (on iPod, in car, whatever). I found myself sticking to the lessons and pretty much skipping the audio CDs.
Fluenz Review - Fluenz Italian LessonsOne good thing about Fluenz is that it focuses on useful words and phrases for travelers. It really is designed for travelers that want some basic language skills that they will use in everyday life. If you think about an average vacation, you can almost get by without speaking any foreign language -- you may need to read a few signs, recognize prices, check into a hotel, get a cab, and go to a restaurant. Sure, it would help if you spoke the native tongue fluently, but you really can get by with just the most basic stuff. Fluenz takes care of this. You immediately get into lessons involving food, restaurants, asking directions, etc. You're not going to have a super intellectual conversation with these skills, but you will certainly feel better when you are trying to order your meals 3 times a day while in a foreign land. Level 1 works only on present tense verbs, keeping things pretty simple. Having studied Spanish for 6 years in school, I found myself cruising through the first 30 lessons in Level 1, ready to move on to Level 2. If you have never studied a Romance language before, you might find some of the verb conjugations confusing since we skip most of that in English, but the lessons progress slowly and continue to build on what was learned before, so even someone with no prior experience should be able to make significant progress over the course of a few weeks.
Fluenz Italian Level 2 begins with some past tense work (I went, you were) and continues to build vocabulary. There is still a lot of stuff about food and ordering in a restaurant (primo, secondo, etc.). Refreshingly, they also covered useful modern words like internet, cellphone, and computer. As the lessons went on, there were more new verbs like can and must, and more work on directions - behind the church, to the left of the kiosk, etc. Stairs and elevators, going up and down. Time - last month, next year, this week. To find, look for. I feel like I am really making progress here.
We continue with a lot of practical lessons - to make, do, use, to like and not like, start, finish. There is a review session every 6-7 lessons -- no new material is introduced, you just go over vocabulary and grammar you have already learned. Unfortunately, there is no tracking of what YOU have actually learned or had trouble with, just an overall review of the material. The real help here would be, for example, to review flashcard-style 100 words or more, and actually track the ones you know and don't know, then drill the 20 that cause you problems, and finally hone in on the 5-6 things that consistently throw you for a loop.. Alas, no such thing in Fluenz..
Onward with more dining help - desserts, salt and pepper, bring me this or that, please. Some adjectives - easy, hard, tired, nice, tall, short, interesting. Getting a reservation, renting a car, insurance, license, etc. Sending a package. Going to the doctor or drugstore - head ache, stomach ache, medicine. As you can see, this is again all very practical material for someone planning a trip to Italy, not necessarily for someone who wants to start from the ground up and really learn to speak a language like a native. I found myself sometimes wishing lessons had more material, or more lessons overall. For example, lessson 29 in Italian 2 offers these new words: if, because, why, between, place, send, package. Now I don't know about you, but I don't like being one lesson from being "finished" and just now learning "if" and "because" and "why" -- these are words I need. I probably need 50 more lessons that point out 4 or 5 little key things like this, but instead I am almost finished. So Level 2 comes to an end. I feel like a learned a lot. Overall, I liked the format and drills, and I feel like I can get by OK on my own in Italy -- again, I'm not going to be giving speeches or anything, but I think I can get by with waiters, hotels, museums, stores, etc. which is what I really need.
Does Fluenz Work?Having completed Fluenz Italian 1 & 2, I felt I had a really good grasp of the basics of the language, especially for travel purposes. Again, keep in mind that that is what Fluenz is aiming for -- making your foreign travels easier by giving you the practical language you need to feel comfortable and get by in your day to day interactions while traveling. When I went to Italy, I found myself forming questions in my head, arranging verbs, thinking how I would say or ask things. And of course, as it turns out, almost everyone who works in a touristy area of Italy, in restaurants and hotels -- they all speak pretty good English and quickly address you in English, making it tough to impress them with your Italian! Nevertheless, I was able to hold my own at several museums and tours, carry on my small portion of a several minute chat with an old shopkeeper woman, manage taxis, tickets, menus, etc. using my Fluenz skills. I think it really gives you a feeling of confidence that you can speak correctly, which you don't get from just reading a phrase book or looking through a dictionary or using Google Translate on your smartphone. So to answer the questions from the beginning, will you speak like a native after these courses? No. Will you get by on vacation? Yes. And for me, more importantly, will you have a desire to continue your education in Italian and pick up some more workbooks, look into online practice lessons, listen to online Italian news broadcasts? Yes. The Fluenz courses serve as a very good, working introduction to the language, and while pricey, they are worth the investment for most users. Here's my list of the things I like about the Fluenz courses:
- Video - in this day and age, it is nice to see video used in a course like this, even though it is only a small part of each lesson
- English instruction -- Rosetta Stone prides themselves on immersion, with no English at all in their language courses -- you just see, hear, and learn. They say this is how children learn. Problem is, kids brains really ARE wired to learn like that; HOWEVER, ADULTS that are already fluent in one language are NOT wired like that, and some English explanation and instruction is really essential. Fluenz gives you an instructor that teaches in English.
- Practicality/Usefulness - while Rosetta Stone shows you pictures of things like men playing soccer outside, which will rarely come up on your travels, Fluenz starts right out of the gate with practical, useful day-to-day language skills you will use. EVERYTHING in these lessons is useful, nothing wasted.
- Reviews -- I like that every 6 or 7 lessons there is a review session to reinforce what you have learned. This is essential in mastering and remembering a language.
- Repetition - even though I got sick of all the typing involved, you really need to think, see, read, write words over and over to learn them, and you get a lot of this in Fluenz, like it or not.
- Ease of use - The program and lessons are easy to use, progress is obvious from beginning to end. I never felt confused or lost.
- Depth of Material - I felt I left the course with a pretty solid vocabulary, and knowledge of key verbs that I would need. Could I have learned more? Yes. Did I learn a lot? Yes.
Complaints about Fluenz - Improvements We'd Like to SeeOf course, as we noted along the way, Fluenz is not perfect. So here is a summary of all my complaints about Fluenz:
- Too expensive -- all these language courses should be priced at more like $100, maybe $150 for an entire series of lessons. Using a DVD/CD at home is not the equivalent of taking a course at a local community college and should not be priced as such.
- There is no personalization in the software - no tracking, no extra practice based on needs, etc.
- There is no use of the Internet -- lessons should be tied into supplemental online exercises, reviews, vocab practice, etc. I can see not including workbooks, practice sheets, etc. in printed form in the box, but no excuse for not including this material online at essentially no cost to the company. I would love to login to their website and find 20, 50, 100 more video dialogues of real speakers in real situations, with subtitles showing the Italian and English so you can see and hear how real people speak and learn to pick up the language in conversation, which is REALLY tough. It would take Fluenz probably just a week to do something like that, and then it would be available to benefit a million customers, forever.
- Need more verb conjugations -- I think in the first 30 lessons we only saw andare, volere, and essere conjugated (I go, you go, he goes, we go, you (p) go, they go..). This is a tough topic for English speakers, more practice is needed.
- It takes a lot of time to get through these lessons -- if you can't commit the time every day or every other day, think twice about spending the money on it.
- More vocabulary -- with only 6-10 new words introduced in each new dialog/lesson, I felt like I could have learned much more. Sure, you will forget some, but you will also remember some and likely recognize it when you see it or hear it later.
- Skip the copy protection stuff on the DVDs - people investing to learn a foreign language are NOT software pirates and should not be forced to keep inserting the DVD every few times they want to practice their lessons -- don't treat your customers like criminals.
- Man, there is a lot of typing in these lessons -- if you are not a pretty good typist, they will take a long time. I'm not sure there is an easy way around learning and typing words/sentences in a computer'based environment -- just tough on the hands after a while.
- There should be an auto-correct function, or something that shows you your error -- as it is now, if something is wrong, you have to review an entire sentence character by character trying to find where maybe you missed a letter or made a mistake (sometimes even just an extra space throws it off).
- There are a number of errors in the program - for example, when you have to match a word with a photo, in a few cases the answer was wrong -- you had to click on the picture of the wine even though the word you were trying to match was ice. These kinds of mistakes should have been caught during testing...
So overall, I liked the Fluenz courses and would recommend them, despite their shortcomings. They fill a niche different from what Rosetta Stone focuses on, and they do a pretty good job of it. Yes, I wish they were cheaper, but they are not.. So if you are serious about getting the basic language skills you want and need for your travels, open the wallet and invest in Fluenz. You'll be impressed with what you can do. (BTW, we checked prices, Amazon lists these products for slightly cheaper than if you buy them direct -- if you are already an Amazon customer, we suggest you stick with 'em and buy from them -- all Fluenz products at Amazon here)