When I was approached by Rocket Languages last year to do a review I really wasn’t especially optimistic. The program looked overpriced and I was really unsure of how effective it would ultimately be.
This review of Rocket Languages has taken me far longer than any I’ve done in the past because I really wanted to properly gauge the effectiveness of such a large and expansive program as this over an extended period and I’m really glad that I waited this long.
Every time I do a major review I like to use a new language – one with which I have little or no prior experience. I feel like doing so gives me a more accurate concept of the successes or failures of a program. In following with this tradition I chose Japanese, a language I’ve never really worked with before and also my first serious foray outside the Indo European language family.
This is what I discovered.
The things that are great:
Rocket Languages offers a lot of really cool features; arguably more than any other browser and app based online language learning course that I’ve seen.
Rocket spends a lot of time focusing on the culture and customs surrounding the language you’re studying. This is a large part of why I’m interested in learning languages in the first place and is a motivational tidbit often overlooked by some products that instead focus only on the language as though it isn’t attached to real people.
When I began I was introduced to Japanese writing systems immediately – before I ever learned any vocabulary. This included some history and how and when each of the three systems; Katakana, Hirigana and Kanji; are used.
Most other programs that I’ve used tend not to emphasize writing systems early on in the program; a feature I find valuable. The ability to visualize a word helps me remember it and helps with pronunciation. It also gives me the ability to read; thus unlocking a host of other books, articles and other materials that would be difficult to use without some knowledge of their written forms.
Rocket’s site is quite easy to navigate. It doesn’t have a lot of flashy bells and whistles and actually features a somewhat stark layout. Despite how this may make some people feel I find this to be beneficial. I like that it doesn’t rely on fancy graphics to draw users in instead focusing on what matters; the language learning.
It actually has a networking feature!
My biggest gripe with most language learning software is that they don’t offer much by way of networking with and communicating with other real, live human beings.
Rocket’s forums make finding both real teachers, native speakers and other learners very easy to access. Each forum is divided up by language. So if you’re studying with Rocket French, your forum will be dedicated to French.
I cannot emphasize enough just how important real communication is between learners. While yes – you can probably find learning partners for free elsewhere, the fact that it is directly integrated with the course makes it just that much easier to find people who know exactly what sort of help you’re looking for.
It’s good to see that a growing number of companies have started to realize that the best way to learn a language is through direct communication.
The mobile app is actually really great
Earlier this week I wrote a rather scathing review of some of the worst language learning apps I’ve seen this past year. Despite my recent bout of app angst I was pleasantly surprised – being a mobile learning fanatic – just how solid Rocket Languages’ app actually is.
Most mobile apps – such as those listed above – do not include the vast majority of their parent program’s content. For example Living Language; a fairly large and relatively inclusive piece of language learning software has a horrible app. It includes only a handful of vocabulary words in a basic, boring flashcard format.
Rocket, on the other hand, offers a considerably chunk of its content via its app, making it conveniently available during even short periods of study.
Tried and true audio feature
Rocket Languages offers a very Pimsleur-esque audio lesson during each unit. Pimsleur – another program I actually really like – uses a very solid system of spaced repetition, a system Rocket emulates and incorporates into its curriculum quite well.
The audio lessons feature native speakers (as well as non-native “co-hosts”) whose accents and pronunciation are of quite high quality. You the learner then repeat what they say following their conversation between one another.
This system of learning a language has been quite successful for some time and certainly beats the crap out of picture/word matching.
Rocket is for life!
There are no monthly or yearly subscription fees. Once you buy it it’s yours. A common trend these days among larger, more expensive programs is to charge a “lesser” amount for yearly subscriptions.
If you only plan to study your language for a few months this might be a good option for you, but Rocket’s team seems to know that chances are you’re going to be at this game for a while. By offering you a lifetime package you are squeezing a bit more value out of your purchase.
The Rocket team is very involved in the upkeep and evolution of its product. Updates are frequent making it easy for users to see that the company does in fact care about its product and its learners’ experience.
And the not so great stuff:
As with all things, Rocket Languages isn’t all sunshine and daisies. Despite a large number of great features and a highly multifaceted curriculum Rocket still falls quite a bit short of perfection.
I’m sorry; it is. It just doesn’t offer a lot of fun activities and despite working fairly well as a learning tool for the highly motivated it just never struck me as especially engaging. At times I had to struggle to keep myself focused and working.
The serious problem with this is that if learning isn’t fun its hard to keep doing it. When we’re bored we lose interest, motivation sags and progress comes to a screeching halt. Its incredibly important for a good learning resource to take this into consideration and Rocket, while certainly not the worst, does not excel in this area.
It still doesn’t offer a ton of speaking practice
There are some really great features included in Rocket’s package including the ability to record your voice and learn from your own pronunciation. The problem is that speaking to yourself – while still helpful – isn’t really as effective as speaking to another person.
Now, we’ve already established that Rocket makes it fairly easy to network with other people, which is fantastic. The problem is that it leaves this networking up to you. While an element of independence can be good for some learners in general we’re a really lazy bunch.
When faced with the prospects of making our own contacts and setting up our own chat sessions with another person many of us pale and simply never do it.
Rocket could do more to make sure that learners are in fact taking the most valuable aspects of its product into serious consideration. It would be good to see direct interaction incorporated a little bit more vigorously into the regular coursework.
This is probably Rocket Language’s largest drawback. I would classify this tool under the category of “prohibitively expensive“.
Each individual level rings in at around $150. Most of the largest languages offered have three levels bringing the total price to a whopping $450.
For reasons unknown to me the prices do actually seem to vary slightly from language to language. I’m not really sure why this is but I imagine it has something to do with the man-hours that went into the creation of each course.
Rocket’s representatives claim that no other product offers quite as all-inclusive a language learning experience and that this justifies the price tag. Their assertion is fair but even given this I cannot vouch 100% for Rocket’s cost effectiveness. Rocket is convenient but a dedicated learner on a lower budget could re-create all of the features of the program for free or very little using a selection of apps and free resources.
The audio is good, but annoying
My audio coursework was narrated by “Kenny” from the UK and “Sayaka”, the native Japanese speaker. Their accents and pronunciation were definitely solid and the language content was fine but I could not for the life of me get past the obnoxious, extraneous banter.
It’s clear that Rocket is attempting to create a bond between you, the learner and the characters on their audio course. By making Kenny and Sayaka chatty and personable they’re trying to create a sense of comfort between you and your instructors.
A noble sentiment, but it annoys me just how much they talk about things that I don’t care about. A lot of the lesson is taken up with a little bit too much random (English) conversation, bad humor and cultural tidbits that aren’t always interesting or relevant.
This is in stark contrast to Pimsleur, that can actually be very robotic in nature and extremely impersonal.
It would be nice for a certain middle ground to be reached. One in which I don’t feel like I’m talking to a computer yet simultaneously my hosts are willing to shut up and teach me Japanese.
And the verdict is…
I like Rocket Languages. I really do, but I also didn’t pay for it. My subscription was generously gifted to me for the purposes of this review and if I was asked to pay for it myself I probably could not have done so.
So – unlike most of the products I review – my feelings are quite mixed. As much as I’d like to I can’t fully recommend to every language learner a product that can be essentially replaced in its entirety with other free products. However, if you’ve got a lot of money on hand and are willing to pay for a system that offers quite the inclusive package all located in one convenient place, Rocket may just be for you.
Have you used Rocket Languages before? What was your impression?
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