Language Study Websites and Resources
"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, and even software. 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 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."
—Edward Trimnell, Language Immersion Editor
= Reviewed by Edward Trimnell
Author of Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One
Language Program Providers
The following do not include the many affordable and reputable locally-operated independent language schools located worldwide. In the Magazine's Language Immersion articles, you will find a number of recommendations for locally-operated schools. We also encourage you to search the archives of TransitionsAbroad.com for past articles on country-specific language programs.
AmeriSpan (117 South 17th St., Ste. 1401, Philadelphia, PA 19103; Tel. 215-751-1100, 800-879-6640; email@example.com; www.amerispan.com) started as a Latin America specialist and now offers educational travel programs, language programs, volunteer and internship placements, and specialized programs involving language immersion for 10 different languages, including Spanish, Italian, German, French, Portuguese, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian. Instruction for all language levels is available, from beginner to advanced.
Language Link (Kay Rafool, Director, PO Box 3006, Peoria, IL 61612; Tel. 800-552-2051; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.langlink.com) provides Spanish language education through immersion programs in Latin America and Spain. Participants range in age from three to 89 and come from diverse backgrounds. Language Link also trains the employees of major international corporations, as well as governmental agencies and non-profit groups. Language Link advises individuals about the best schools for their preferred country of destination. When registering with Language Link, participants pay what each school itself charges (Guatemala adds a small service fee).
Lingua Service Worldwide (5 Prospect St., Ste 4, Huntington, NY 11743; Tel. 800-394-5327; www.linguaserviceworldwide.com) is an independent agent that represents private language schools worldwide. These schools specialize in full immersion, intensive language programs developed with the purpose of teaching a new language within it’s own setting in a short time period. Lingua Service works to provide individuals with assistance in choosing the right school based on their needs.
The Learning Traveller (email@example.com, www.thelearningtraveler.com) offers language-learning programs in a variety of locations around the world. Adult programs are available for those 18 and older; junior programs are available for 10 to 17 year olds. The Learning Traveller also has programs that combine language learning with volunteering, sports, and cultural opportunities.
National Registration Center for Study Abroad (P.O. Box 1393, Milwaukee, WI 53201; Tel. 414-278-0631; study@nrcsa. com, studyabroad.nrcsa.com) has been evaluating programs around the world since 1968 in order to select schools that meet its guidelines. NRCSA has conducted onsite evaluations of thousands of programs, reviewing their facilities, sitting in on classes and talking to administrators, students and teachers. NRCSA works with schools in more than 40 countries, maintaining current information about their programs, dates, fees, lodging options etc. Its mission is to improve international understanding through educational exchanges. Languages available are Arabic, Basque, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, Gaelic, German, Greek, Guarani, Guarifuna, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Mayan, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Quechua, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, and Zapotec.
In addition to the information in this section, we recommend you read Nathan Crow's Teach Yourself a Language. The article offers recommendations for effective home-study language programs.
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.
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.info) 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.
Movies are one of the most entertaining language study tools. The vast selection of foreign films assures that you will never run out of new titles. They are a good training device, because they provide practice in recognizing sounds and anticipating dialogue through context. Additionally, with today's DVD technology, almost all films have foreign language tracks. To find out which language tracks are available on a DVD, look at the “Special Features” section on the back of the package.
A good study technique is to set both the subtitles and the audio track to the target language. This will help to improve your aural word discrimination capabilities, as you will be able to read the foreign words while you are hearing them. If you are still a beginner, you may choose to turn on the English subtitles and the foreign language audio, to see if you can catch the gist of some of the dialog. Web Editor's Note: See our article on Latin American Movies for one group of selections.
Although movies are helpful study tools, documentaries and talk shows are even better. These materials consist entirely of spoken content. The language used is typically more standardized than the language contained in movies. Pronunciation is usually sharper, and the speakers do not compete with the sounds of car chases, gunshots, or other distractions that are present in movies. Documentaries and talk shows also tend to contain more sophisticated vocabulary. The problem, however, is that they are often difficult to find. Consider asking a native speaker if he or she can tape a program for you when visiting his or her home country.
Radio Stations from Arount the World (* Web Editor's Selections *)
Web Editor Note: As with newspapers, there are scores of sites springing up which list international radio stations, though often the connection to the station listed can be problematic. Nonetheless, listening to radio in another language can be an engaging way of learning and cultural immersion.
Live-radio.net provides links to thousands of online radio stations worldwide.
The Internet has opened up new worlds for the language student. There is a lot of valuable material freely available for beginner, intermediate, and advanced students. You can locate news in any major language and download foreign language software CDs and MP3 audio files (sometimes for free). There are numerous free tutorial sites as well.
CNN.com now offers the news in Arabic, Japanese, Korean, and Turkish. (There is a dropdown box at the bottom of the homepage which allows the visitor to toggle between languages.) Lastly, don’t forget about Google: the search engine has become a handy tool for the language student. Google provides free translation tools, and the ability to limit any online search to a specific country or language.
Web Editor Note: There are a plethora of databases and portals which allow you to find newspapers or magazines in the native language. Generally you may browse by geographic location and category.
For a long time, I was skeptical about language-learning software. Then I tried it and was pleasantly surprised. The on-screen 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. There are two major players in the language study software field.
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 beginner level programs retail at $195 (about 200 hours of instruction, 92 lessons), and intermediate programs cost $225 (about 250 hours of study, 118 lessons). They are available for every major language. Choose from a CD or online subscription service.
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.)
Specialty Language Stores
There are a number of retailers that specialize in serving the language student. Some focus only on the languages of a particular area, while others stock materials for many languages. I have personally ordered from the retailers listed below. You can reach all of them over the Internet.
Audio-Forum (www.audioforum.com) sells more than 280 courses in more than 100 languages. Audio-Forum is a particularly good source for the FSI (Foreign Service Institute) courses.
Cheng & Tsui (www.cheng-tsui.com) is a haven for students of Asian languages. Its inventory includes courses for intermediate and advanced students.
China Books & Periodicals (www.chinabooks.com) is, as the name suggests, focused on the China-related niche. Along with Cheng & Tsui, this store will become one of your primary resources if you decide to study Chinese.