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Language Study Resources

Language study resources and books

Educational Software
Language Learning Aids

"If the acquisition of a new language is your goal, then you have a formidable challenge ahead of you. The good news is that there are plenty of resources to help you reach your goal. In recent years, the demand for foreign language skills and foreign language instruction has given rise to a vast language training industry. There are many options, and at least one is likely to meet your needs and interests.

For those who prefer to learn independently, there are self-study courses based on books, CDs, online software, including apps that run on your mobile devices. Those who learn best in an instructor-led group setting may want to consider a language camp or other formal course. Alternatively, you may want to combine the two; independent study and classroom training are complements—not mutually exclusive choices. The language skills that you gain through an audio CD course or online will bolster the skills you acquire on a language program or through a language immersion vacation, and vice versa. You will actually progress faster if you expose yourself to a variety of study formats.

As you plunge into your language study, you will probably come across worthwhile learning resources that are not mentioned below. We encourage you to let us know if you discover any especially unique study materials or programs."

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 Educational Software

For a long time, I was skeptical about language-learning software. Then I tried it and was pleasantly surprised. The on-screen interactive environment adds a dimension to language study that cannot be precisely duplicated with a textbook, or even by a textbook with audio CDs. This is especially true when you are learning the pronunciation of a new language. Just be sure, as with all software that your computer can support its system requirements, and do note that most players in the language study software field have gone to the subscription model, though you can still buy CDs and download the software in most cases.

The first of these is Rosetta Stone (www.rosettastone.com), which has software programs that feature a “contextbased” teaching method that links on-screen images to spoken and written elements of the target language. For example, the user might be shown an image of a dog. Beneath the image, the word “dog” is written in the target language. When the user selects the image, she hears a native speaker pronounce the word. The company has ingeniously devised images to communicate verbs, prepositions, and other parts of speech as well, so the user is able to learn a foreign language without the intermediate step of translating from English. Rosetta Stone’s has moved largely to an online "subscription model" as have so many others.

Pimsleur (www.pimsleur.com) produces language courses based on the Graduated Interval Recall and The Principle of Anticipation learning methods developed by Dr. Paul Pimsleur, a celebrated linguist. Through extensive research, Pimsleur determined that the components of a language are assimilated most quickly when they are absorbed through hearing. Pimsleur courses therefore consist entirely of cassettes or audio CDs, and often only a small supplementary booklet.

Each course is broken down into discrete lessons that include an introduction and a dialog spoken between two native speakers in the target language. When the conversation concludes, the narrator explains each element of the exchange, and the native speakers repeat the words syllable by syllable. Difficult words are pronounced several times. The narrator also provides extensive instructions regarding usage, and native speakers break in with additional examples. Then the original dialogue is played again. Amazingly, you find yourself understanding a complete verbal exchange in a foreign language—although it had been total gibberish a short while ago. In subsequent lessons, you are given impromptu quizzes on language that you learned earlier.

Despite the ingenuity of the Pimsleur system, the courses do have drawbacks. Although the language presented in each lesson is drilled almost effortlessly into your head, the amount of content in a single unit is small in comparison to the content of more traditional courses. This means that the learner can complete an entireCD course with a fraction of the vocabulary that a much shorter (and cheaper) course can deliver. This leads to the next issue: cost. At the time of this writing, full-length Pimsleur courses cost as much as several hundred dollars (better prices are available at Amazon.com). In many cases, the language learner could buy four or five other courses for the cost of a single Pimsleur course. However, the price may be justified if you are learning a language with difficult phonetics. Moreover, the all-audio format of Pimsleur courses provides the commuter with an unparalleled “hands-free” study session.

Transparent Language (www.transparent.com) courses also use images to communicate concepts. However, they include English translations of new words and example sentences, which make them more like conventional classroom instruction. Transparent Language offers a wide variety of programs, each of which takes a slightly different approach. (They also offer a “Kidspeak” series for children.)

Note: There are also many new apps available for tablets and smartphones that show great promise, and websites, and video sites such as Youtube that offer basic free lessons to get you started.

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 Language Learning Aids

College Textbooks are seldom entertaining, and they are often on the pricey side. Nevertheless, they are treasure troves of grammar, vocabulary, and usage examples. The easiest way to acquire one is to go to the campus bookstore of a nearby college. It is often possible to buy a used textbook at a discount off the cover price. Many language textbooks written for the academic market also include cassettes or audio CDs.

Entry-Level Mass-Market Resources

These products consist of a structured course book and audio CDs. Most can be purchased for less than $100, and many are priced at less than $50. These are available through Amazon.com and the larger bricks-and-mortar bookstores.

Teach Yourself (NTC Publishing) language courses consist of a book and two audio CDs. Most of the course books can be purchased separately, but the CDs are worth the marginal extra expense. Teach Yourself courses are affordable, thorough, and engaging. Teach Yourself courses do a particularly good job of handling non-European scripts. The Thai, Arabic, and Chinese courses in this series are the best in their price range—if you want to learn to read and write. There are Teach Yourself courses in less frequently studied languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Korean, and Tagalog. NTC also publishes an advanced series, available in German, Spanish, and French.

Just Listen ‘n Learn is published by Passport Books, a division of NTC Publishing. Each course contains a book and a set of audio CDs. This series is available in a number of languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, German, French, Russian, and Spanish. Advanced and business-oriented courses are also available. Unlike some of the other series, the Listen ‘n Learn courses consistently stay in print. The audio portions of many of the Listen ‘n Learn programs contain extensive recordings of impromptu, on-location interviews. This is a contrast with most other programs, which rely solely on tightly scripted studio recordings. The advantage of the Listen ‘n Learn approach is that you will hear the language as it is spoken for actual communication purposes in the real world.

Foreign Service Institute, or FSI, courses have been developed by the U.S. State Department to assist members of the U.S. diplomatic corps in learning a foreign language. In principle, the FSI courses are similar to the mass market courses like Teach Yourself. However, most FSI courses contain around a dozen cassettes and a thick course book. FSI courses are also more expensive; a full-length course usually costs several hundred dollars. FSI courses rely primarily on grammatical drills, using examples. While the courses contain a lot of material, some students find them to be a bit on the dry side. If you can learn without being constantly entertained, though, then an FSI course will definitely be a worthwhile investment.

VocabuLearn (Penton Overseas) packages consist of audio CDs, which are filled with “audio flashcards,” and a compact booklet that contains a transcript of the recordings. VocabuLearn CDs are designed to assist the student with bulk vocabulary acquisition. One unit of each CD is dedicated to a particular linguistic category, such as nouns, verbs, etc. The process relies on the repetition of long lists of words. During the first half of each recording, the foreign language word is spoken first, followed by its English translation. Then the order is reversed—and the English translation is spoken before the word or phrase in the target language.

I have used VocabuLearn recordings since I began studying Japanese in the late 1980s, and I have found the format to be simple but very useful. These materials have a way of inserting large amounts of practical vocabulary into your head with repeated listening.

The only down side of VocabuLearn is tedium. Since there is no narrative or dialog, you may find your mind wandering. I usually make it a rule to limit my use of Vocabulearn to 30 minutes. It is also a good to idea to use them after you have soaked up a bit of the language through other study materials.

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