Fluenz – Language learning for grownups

Look for the red box.So many language programs boast their superiority by claiming they teach you the same way you learned your native language as a child. Not Fluenz.

“Up until now, people have been limited to the ‘see a picture, memorize the word’ language programs that teach adults as if they were children. But, adults learn differently from children,” says Carlos Lizarralde, co-founder of Fluenz. “That’s why Fluenz f² introduces a tutor who incorporates the user’s knowledge of English grammar and syntax as leverage for reaching fluency in the shortest time possible.” Part of what Fluenz advocates is using a student’s native language to their advantage; emphasizing similarities in Romance languages and grammatical similarities with Chinese, for example. That makes sense to me.

Having had some good luck with Rosetta Stone’s intuitive, yet far more expensive TOTALe program, I decided to put this theory to the test. I opted for French, a language several people I know can speak — that way, they can tell me how I sound. I also have some experience learning French, so I figure I can make a fair assessment of how the lessons are structured.The first tool with which Fluenz bestows you when you open your shiny red box is Fluenz Podcast access. The Podcasts are currently offered in Mandarin, Spanish and French. While I think it’s a good idea to have the sounds of your language of choice in your ear, I’m not sure how much one can actually benefit from just hearing another language. I’m pretty good at tuning out English podcasts, let alone French. Skeptical, I downloaded French 1. It included peripheral vocabulary and pronunciation tips from two speakers having a conversation. I can’t see myself truly listening to this unless I was desperate, but it would be helpful for people who want to immerse themselves as much as possible. You could put it on in the car on the way to work, or your iPod on the train (though on the train, I wouldn’t recommend repeating the words out loud).

Digging deeper into my Fluenz materials, I found a handy little pocket guide of 100 or so essentials like “Hello” (but by the way, if you’re an adult who doesn’t know how to say “Hello” in French, no one can help you) and “I need a lawyer.”

Next in the box was a lesson guide. To get going, I popped the DVD Rom disc into my MacBook and double clicked the .osx file. It wouldn’t launch. I tried several avenues and eventually succeeded with a simple reboot — maybe that was only a glitch for me, but in case it wasn’t; rebooting worked.

A teacher appeared on the screen to introduce the lessons. She was very clear, and made good sense. She encouraged students to learn in whatever way best suited them — to watch a dialogue with subtitles or without. This way, you can choose whether to learn the sounds first or the meaning first. Also, you can skip ahead if you feel you’re already comfortable with some basics.

One thing I found useful was that you were able to return to wherever in the lesson you were if you happened to quit to check your e-mail. The program takes awhile to launch, though, so it’s best not to try and multitask.

Realizing there was no way I could take the lesson without devoting my full attention to it, I dove fully into Lesson One. It took me about 2 hours to complete. The pretty, well-spoken teacher was so friendly and clear that sometimes I wanted to scream at her for being condescending, but I think that’s just my own impatience with sitting still in front of my computer and not checking e-mail. In Rosetta Stone, you are constantly engaged by clicking through pictures, whereas in Fluenz, there are stretches where you just need to hang tight and listen (and repeat).

As I relaxed and accepted I was just going to have to learn like I would in a class, and as she explained in detail the pronunciation, meaning, and grammatical abilities of each word, I started to have a really good time. This program makes Rosetta Stone seem like silly games for children. It’s a fun way to learn, but I think Fluenz is right: I’m not a child, and I can learn faster if you teach me like an adult.

By the end of Lesson One, I was listening and typing words in (and spelling them correctly), speaking phrases into my built-in computer microphone and playing them back alongside the pre-recorded phrases to check how I sound, and using “est-ce que” question structure like a champ. The lesson closed with a video pat-on-the-back from my nice teacher and a promise that after the next lesson, I’d have more verbs and nouns and be able to carry on basic conversations from Canada to Marseille.

For anyone who can truly drop everything for a couple of hours per day to learn a language, I would recommend Fluenz. It doesn’t require internet, so you can use it anywhere (like, you could take it with you to Africa and not worry about whether you’ll have WiFi), and at $210 for Unit One (I only completed Lesson One, there are 30 in Unit One), Fluenz f2 is a terrific value — much cheaper than a lot of the alternatives. I give Fluenz an A+ for bringing language-teaching back to what works, and not trying to find some fancy way to “trick” me into learning. Look for the red box.