Teach Yourself a Language
Home-Study Language Programs that Work
If like me you failed to acquire fluency in a foreign language despite years of classroom instruction, take heart: There is home study.
The advantages are obvious: You can study every day at your own convenience instead of relying on a teacher. You dont have to pay for tuition. And you
dont have to compete with a dozen or more other students for the attention of the teacheror hear their poor pronunciation and grammatical errors.
Having felt miserably isolated on my last visit to countries where I couldnt speak the native language, I acquired all the major
series of home-study programs available and tested their effectiveness.
Although I tried all the popular computer-based programs, I quickly found that their promises didnt deliver. Most are simply toysuseful,
perhaps, as supplements to a real course of study, but altogether too slow, too disorganized, and too dependent on catchy graphics rather than solid instruction
or sensible organization.
These programs arewith one exceptionsimply textbooks tarted up with computer icons. The exception, the "Transparent
Language" series, assumes you can learn a language just by reading it and looking up words. For me that doesnt work.
Nevertheless, CD-ROM programs have garnered so many rave reviews from computer magazines that they must have some appeal to people who
love computers. So if your idea of fun is customizing Windows 2000 on a Saturday afternoon, by all means plunge in and get a copy of one of these programs.
You won't master a new language, but youll have more fun than I did. And computer programs are cheapinvariably under $100.
A Program That Works
Pimsleurs comprehensive course has all the virtues lacking in most others: clear instructions, lots of practice, and continuous
review. Each word or phrase is introduced, then quickly gone over again, practiced once more a few minutes later, and then again at the end of the 30-minute
The programs inventor, legendary language teacher Paul Pimsleur, believed he had come up with a "memory schedule" that
dictated the amount of practice needed, and there is some research showing that his approach is indeed much more effective than standard textbook-driven methods.
New words are integrated into the context of what has already been learned, and almost everything is reviewed continuously throughout the course. By the middle
of the second course (about 45 lessons), I could speak well enough to hold a conversation with Mexicans at a local bar.
Another advantage to Pimsleur is that it is incredibly easy and requires no book or written exercises. You simply pop the cassette in,
listen and repeat for a half an hour, then stop. Two friends who used the Pimsleur tapes also gave glowing reports. Both said the program was far superior
to anything else they had tried. Some vendors are so confident in the programs virtues that they offer a money-back guarantee. (Amazon, which sells
the programs for considerably less than most other vendors, does not seem to offer the guarantee.)
There are, however, two problems with Pimsleur. First, the program has no explanation of the grammar. You learn by doing. (Explanations
can be found in any standard text, so this is not as big a problem as it might seem.) This is deliberate. Pimsleurs course is designed only to teach
you enough to get by in a foreign countryto introduce yourself, find a hotel, order a meal, and other such practicalities.
The Scholars Choice
If you want to really master Spanish or any other language, you will probably prefer the appropriately titled Mastering Spanish or one
of its equivalents for another languagea series produced decades ago by the U.S. governments Foreign Service Institute (FSI) to train its diplomats and consisting in a series of tapes. (For comprehensive materials on the less-common languages go to www.fsi-language-courses.net.)
Since the program was designed for diplomats, it emphasizes a formal level of the language that is probably ideal for government officers
and corporate executives but rather stiff for more casual travelers.
These, however, are mere quibbles. There are so many cassettes that its certainly possible for a disciplined student to do without
a teacher. And the exercises are easy to do and offer lots of practice.
Another advantage of Mastering Spanish and similar entries is that it is very cheap.
Pimsleur, by contrast, charges $300 for each level, so if you want to go the whole hog youre going to spend more than the price
of a roundtrip ticket to Madrid in the high season. Libraries, however, are beginning to stock at least the first level of the program, so you can probably
get it on loan. Also, cut-rate vendors such as Amazon.com offer the program used for under $200. You can save even more by buying the short Pimsleur program (otherwise
a waste of time), then using the discount deal that comes with it.
Courses based on different principles than Pimsleur or Barrons exhibit a common set of problems: The "Living Language"
series, for example, introduces a huge number of vocabulary items in each lesson, then drops them as it goes on. You learn (or rather are exposed to) dozens
of words for use in restaurants; then these are dropped and you get words to use in shops. And so on. The idea seems to be that you will learn them all in
a week and not require any practice later on. That doesnt work for ordinary people, who need lots of hammering away to really get firm. Programs such
as the "Teach Yourself" series have the same sort of problems. The only person I can imagine succeeding with these programs is someone who took
several years in school and simply needs a quick brush-up. If thats you, then Pimsleur and the FSI courses are probably too slow.
French with Tears
The Annenberg/CPBs popular "Dest-inos" (for Spanish) and "French in Action" series are based on an unlikely
premise: that students can master a language more or less just by watching videos. I found myself unable to stay awake during "Destinos," which
rattles on with endless conversations that are too fast and too complicated. A friend had a similar problem with "French in Action," whose book
goes so far as to offer explanations of French grammarin French. The program reduced my rather smart friend (who has a B.A. in Spanish) to tears. Once
youve mastered some of your new language with the Pimsleur or Barrons courses, however, these programs can be useful supplements offering a relatively