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.
The Colloquial Series (Routledge Ltd.), www.routledge.com, is similar to the Teach Yourself series in terms of content, although the Colloquial series places greater emphasis on spoken communication than on reading and writing. As a result, some of its courses rely on transliterations rather than authentic entries for non-Latin scripts.
The Colloquial series contains a number of quality titles in the non-European realm, and some of these courses (such as Colloquial Korean course) provide a thorough coverage of the necessary written elements. The Colloquial courses provide extensive grammatical explanations, which are especially important at the beginning stages. The courses in this series consist of a course book and usually two audio CDs. Although the dialogs in the audio portion are studio recorded, they are written and produced to closely approximate real-life situations.
Hugo’s Three Months Courses consist of a book and audio CDs. Hugo’s courses are well-produced and contain invariably clean audio. There is a good mix of dialogs, reading passages, and examples. Hugo’s has traditionally stayed away from exotic languages and scripts. Hugo’s courses are produced in Great Britain, and the company has focused on developing a solid European language product line. During the mid-1990s, Hugo’s also produced a business language series and an advanced series, but I have not been able to find these in stores for a number of years. Availability is a major issue with the Hugo’s language courses. If you see a Hugo’s course that you want—buy it.
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.
Living Language “Ultimate” Series, www.randomhouse.com, offers more expensive packages than most of the others in the mass market category, the Ultimate series provides the language learner with exceptional value. Whereas the above courses consist of two, three, or four CDs, each Ultimate course consists of a thick course manual and eight CDs. The first four CDs contain audio versions of dialogs from the book. The second four contain annotated portions of the dialogs and additional example sentences, supplemented throughout by an English-speaking instructor who provides extensive grammar and usage explanations. The Ultimate series is constantly expanding. Courses are currently available in a variety of languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, and French. In early 2006, an Ultimate Arabic course was also published. Advanced level Ultimate courses are available for many of these languages. The Ultimate advanced courses are useful even to students who have already attained a high level of language competency.
Spoken Language Services, Inc., www.spokenlanguage.com, produces a number of cassette courses emphasizing speaking and listening skills. Spoken Language Services’ main strength is that it produces some quality full-length courses for languages often ignored by larger publishers, including Malay, Farsi (Persian), and Tagalog. The company also produces good supplemental materials for those studying Arabic.
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 entire 30-lesson, 16-CD 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.
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 two 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.