With the world-wide-web, learning French for free has never been easier: no matter where you live in the world, you just need an internet connection, and you can hook up with your own personal French tutor. Or follow the thousands of, more or less, public figures who regularly publish free French lessons and videos.
But is “free” always a good thing? Let’s see how to ride the “learn French for free” train as a savvy traveler, being conscious of its many detours and pitfalls.
Free French Lessons = Kindness of Heart?
It’s tempting to believe people spend hours writing French grammar lessons, sharing French videos and spreading their love and knowledge of the French language out of the goodness of their heart, or their passion for teaching French.
And actually, for many of us, it started this way. When I first launched what was then called “Learn French in Boston” in 1995 (!!) back in Boston, USA, my intentions were the purest: the web was new, and I wanted to give back to the community thanks to this incredible new tool.
So my favorite tech guy (AKA my husband Olivier) built a small site for me. With a blog with free French vocabulary lessons, and, pretty soon after, audio! I was a pioneer in sharing French audio for free on the web. And I was the very first to give away a free French novel with audio.
But it was not all I was giving. The site also had a page with info on how to take French lessons with me in Boston. And after, a section selling my audiobooks.
So… free French content?
Yes, free… with a marketing message: please buy my French learning method so I can keep creating free French content.
And you need to be aware of that.
Free French = What’s the Catch?
Actually, I believe it’s only fair!
Producing blog articles, YouTube videos and sharing tips on social media takes a huge amount of time… and resources (it’s expensive to have a nice looking site, easy to navigate on a desktop as well as all smartphones, tablets, etc… and don’t even get me started on the cost of maintaining mobile apps!).
So it’s not as simple as it looks.
If you ask me, it’s OK that people – like me – or companies – try to sell you something in addition to producing high-quality free content.
It’s OK, as far as it’s done clearly and openly.
And that’s where the web took a very, very wrong turn.
It’s called “affiliates”. And most of you don’t know what it is when you really should!
The Poison of Affiliates
An affiliate is someone who recommends a product and then gets a commission on the sale they generate.
Two companies that thrived thanks to a very aggressive affiliate strategy are Rosetta Stone and Rocket French.
Here is how it works: a blogger writes an article with a super appealing title like “Learn French in 2 weeks” or “Best French Method Ever Created”.
In it, it explains that RS is just miraculous, that there is no better method out there and that it will have you master French in 2 weeks (not what that they believe it’s right, they are just telling you what you want to hear…)
In this article, there is a link to RS with a special code in it. If you click on that link and you eventually buy a RS product, the tracker will link the sale to my affiliate account. And they will get paid – sometimes up to $90 for each sale!
It’s that simple.
So, suddenly, there is a parallel and lucrative business in recommending these products by any means necessary. You now have an army of thousands of people and web sites vouching for RS: they don’t necessarily believe it’s a great program, nor have they researched the program (a majority of them don’t even care about learning languages!)… and they certainly won’t disclose they are getting affiliate commissions.
So, when you read their article you think they are being sincere, that RS is the solution for you, and you fall into the affiliate trap.
Look at all the sites out there that recommend X or Y method. Always ask yourself:
- do you know the person who writes them?
- Why should you trust them?
- What’s their language expertise? How biased are they?
- Could it actually be disguised advertising?
- Do they produce valuable content on their site besides just these ‘reviews’
As a disclaimer, French Today also has an affiliate program but we are extremely picky about who can sign up. We reject requests every week from shady coupon sites, people who have no language content or expertise or who obviously just want to promote our audiobooks for cash and not because they actually think or care that they are good products.
We want to have affiliates who can add value to our audiobooks and who can objectively review/recommend our products because we are not afraid of an honest review and don’t want our ‘future’ customers to feel like they have been cheated or fooled (this is a very short-sited approach since an unhappy customer would always impact our image, not the affiliate).
Unfortunately, many others on the net don’t have that ethic…
So How Can You Trust Anyone?
You have to be smart, and understand the motivation behind the “learn French for free” world.
Here are a few pointers:
- First, decide for yourself if the content is worth the marketing spiel. Are you actually learning something valuable? Is the writer being honest and personal or is-it all click-bait titles and extremely vague tips?
- Before buying anything though, look for verified customer reviews (like in all the huge sites like Amazon, AirBnB… and FrenchToday of course!)
- Don’t fall for the few “selected” customer feedback: if you don’t know the company or the product, the guarantee is in the number!
- Look for dates on feedbacks as well: when was this feedback posted? Is the company still actively doing business now and receiving constant positive feedback?
- You should always have access to free samples and a simple 100% money-back guarantee, and an easy way to contact customer service.
- If there is a shopping cart, it should have a secure httpS address.
- When someone vouches for a service or a product (like I do with my immersion at a French teacher’s place programs or Skype French lessons), well, you have to be particularly careful. Ask yourself: how do you know that person? Why should you trust the services/products they recommend?
In order to ride the “learn French for free” train smoothly, you need to really trust your pilot, and make sure the train is taking you to your destination: learning French.
As far as I’m concerned, I believe that to master French, you need to follow a clear and structured path. Learn French with a reliable and proven method. And that’s usually not free because it’s a lot of work to put together and develop.
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