When it comes to value for money and overall effectiveness, it's hard to go past Rocket Spanish. There's a huge amount of learning material packed into each level for a pretty darn reasonable price, and a free trial so you can give it a whirl before you buy.
You get what is essentially three Spanish courses: A 31-lesson interactive audio course which is great for listening to in the car, a 33-lesson "Language and Culture" course which goes into greater depth and explains the grammar, plus a suite of testing tools which work on your retention, pronunciation, writing and listening skills.
I especially like the interactive audio course: Each lesson is around 20 minutes long, and I'm constantly surprised at how much I learn in each short lesson.
If you're going to get just one Spanish course, this is my top recommendation. It gives you everything you need to get well-rounded Spanish skills, and it offers tremendously good value for money compared to other courses and software out there.
Amazing value for the price. You get an audio course as well as a grammar course so you don't need to buy them separately. One-off purchase (no subscription fees) and free updates for life. Friendly community. Works on PC/Mac, plus a separate app for iOS and Android. Free trial (no credit card required).
Only available online. (Digital download and physical versions with free international shipping available.) Not as polished-looking as Fluenz.
For years I've been a big fan of the French equivalent of this course, so it's hugely exciting to have a Spanish version.
Hotel Borbollón, is a little unconventional in a variety of ways.
First, there's the delivery: Each lesson day (3 per week) you'll be emailed a link to a customized lesson. Each lesson includes grammar, vocabulary and comprehension activities and takes 10 - 15 minutes to complete. It's a perfect little morsel of learning that is easy to do over your morning coffee.
Once you finish the activities in a lesson, you submit your answers and receive an instant "correction" — also via email. The correction gives you your results, but also includes comments and discussion — a lot of the time this is just as entertaining as the lesson.
As you go, the system "learns" your strengths and weaknesses and tailors the lessons to focus on the areas that need work.
But here's the fun part: All the activities are based around a story: In this case, it's about a surgeon from Buenos Aires who inherits a struggling hotel in Madrid and the hilarity that follows. The lessons use animated videos, comic strips and audio to tell a story full of eccentric characters, different Spanish language accents, and amusing professional and personal situations.
Hotel Borbollón shows that it's absolutely possible to teach a solid grammar and vocabulary course without it being dry and dull. This isn't a course for people who need some pre-packaged phrases to use on vacation — Hotel Borbollón is here to teach you how the language works. Just in a light-hearted way.
Rock-solid grammar course, wrapped up in a story-oriented format that makes it enjoyable and memorable to learn. Features a wide array of Spanish-speaking accents. Fun format with videos, comics and audio. Smart AI adapts the lessons to your level after a period of "training".
You only receive one lesson per day, up to three lessons per week, so it's not suitable if you're impatient and looking for something to binge. No built-in pronunciation practice.
Click here to get a one-month free subscription to Hotel Borbollón and try it for yourself. Note that the first 7 lessons are essentially a placement test, so don't worry if you find them too hard or too easy. At the end of 7 lessons you'll receive an assessment, and you'll start receiving customised lesson plans.
If neither Rocket Spanish nor Hotel Borbollón tickle your fancy, Fluenz is another solid option.
It also does an excellent job of blending grammar and interactivity so that you actually learn how Spanish works. (Compared to courses like Rosetta Stone which don't teach the actual mechanics of the language — Fluenz seems to have a bit of a vendetta against Rosetta, if you look at their sales material. Reeow! Claws out!)
The biggest selling point for me is the undeniable charm of presenter (and Fluenz founder) Sonia Gil. In each lesson you'll see her popping up to explain the vocabulary and grammar you're learning. Part of the Fluenz philosophy is to restore the tutor experience to the language learning course, and it works: She's smart, sympathetic, and encouraging, and I want to stick through the course just so I don't let her down!
Like Rocket Spanish, Fluenz offers a nice mix of explanation and testing. You end up with well-rounded skills in listening, writing, recall and pronunciation.
Fluenz Spanish doesn't pack quite as much into each level as Rocket Spanish does and the price tag is a bit higher, but it also has seriously high production values.
Earlier versions of Fluenz were only available as physical copies (so you had to wait for them to be shipped to you), but they now offer a digital download version. The price is the same.
Beautiful to look at. Engaging presenter puts the material into context. Lessons include tests which ensure you've mastered the material. Teaches grammar, rather than relying on gimmicks (watch out, Rosetta Stone!)
No free trial. Hefty download to get started. Harder to "binge" on material... you need to go through all the exercises. No grammar manual — you may need to purchase a separate book if you want a reference.
Michel Thomas was a Polish linguist and polyglot who spoke 10 languages, and whose students included Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Princess Grace and Mel Gibson.
His method was pretty unconventional at the time: He emphasises "no writing, no memorising", and builds up your Spanish knowledge organically — word by word, until you can string them together to form quite complex sentences.
Along the way he explains important grammar and vocabulary points, but they're not the emphasis of the lessons. Don't expect to get a full and detailed run-down of various verb conjugations until quite late in the piece.
The great thing with Michel Thomas is that you very quickly feel like you're winning. He doesn't beat around the bush with polite niceties, he gets you started building sentences from the get-go. And unlike other courses that might artificially inflate your confidence (looking at you, Rosetta Stone), Michel Thomas gives you stuff that's actually useful and usable. So you really ARE winning.
The lessons are structured as recordings of Michel Thomas teaching real-life Spanish students. Some people find this structure frustrating, especially since the male learner in the Spanish recordings is quite slow.
Another complaint is that Michel Thomas himself isn't a native Spanish speaker, and his accent is quite strong and can be difficult to understand. You may need some additional pronunciation practice.
I really like listening to these lessons in the car — especially since I'm not required to write or memorise anything! If I had to learn by audio course, I'd choose either a Michel Thomas course or Rocket Spanish. (Or both!)
You'll feel like you're progressing quickly. Great for building confidence. Grammar is introduced gradually and naturally. You'll learn interesting tricks to remember things. Fun to listen to! Great for learning in the car. Not just dull repetition.
Pretty unstructured. It's hard to know exactly how much you've learned. Michel Thomas is not a native speaker, and has a strong accent. The structure (with other "students" in the recordings) can be frustrating and some people complain that it slows them down. Not good if you're more of a visual learner who likes to see the words.
There are a couple of things that Rosetta Stone courses are pretty good at. One of them is making you feel like you're doing really well, and building your confidence. The matchy-matchy game-like quality of Rosetta Stone is fun, easy, and you'll feel like you're progressing quickly.
Like I've said before, the most important thing at the start is to maintain that confidence and enthusiasm so you don't just give up. And Rosetta Stone is great for that.
But in terms of teaching you to speak elegant, nuanced Spanish... you'll probably need an additional tool eventually.
Rosetta Stone doesn't explicitly explain how Spanish works. You'll see a series of images, and you have to match them to the correct phrases.
It starts with things like 'the boy runs' vs 'the girl drinks', but then it gets trickier: 'the boy is going to eat', 'the boy eats', 'the boy has eaten', etc. You're learning tenses by checking how much food is on the plate in a tiny image.
You'll eventually deduce how some things work (and it might stick in your head better than if you had just been told), but there's only so much that can be demonstrated using images.
It makes you feel like you're doing well. Good for your self esteem! The game-like quality is fun. It's good at locking that information into your memory (because you'll go over it again and again and again!). There's now a subscription version (and an app for iOS/Android) which makes it easier to try, without spending big bucks on the boxed version.
Quite a slow way to learn Spanish. For the amount of time you invest, you won't come away with a huge amount of language skill. You'll probably also need to invest in a grammar textbook, but things will look slightly familiar to you, and that's nice.
Ultimately, the best Spanish course for you is the one that you can stick with. Getting bored or discouraged and giving up is going to hurt your learning more than anything else — so whatever course keeps your enthusiasm burning is the best one for you!
Most of these courses are great for this. Fluenz is great if you like an interactive experience, Michel Thomas is fantastic as an audio course, and Rocket Spanish does both audio and interactive. Hotel Borbollón keeps you coming back with hugely entertaining lessons that only take 15 minutes a day. Even Rosetta Stone might get you interested enough to keep going with Spanish.
But if you can only afford one course, I recommend Rocket Spanish. It really does pack the most value in. You get an audio course for the car, a full grammar course, and all that interactive material as well. You can discover which method works best for you without needing to purchase other courses.
If you're just after an audio course, I'd go with Rocket Spanish (again) or any Michel Thomas product. Michel Thomas probably won't give you as good pronunciation as Rocket Spanish, but it's definitely great for confidence-building.