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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 don’t have to pay for tuition. And you don’t have to compete with a dozen or more other students for the attention of the teacher—or hear their poor pronunciation and grammatical errors.

Having felt miserably isolated on my last visit to countries where I couldn’t speak the native language, I acquired all the major series of home-study programs available and tested their effectiveness.

Computer Games

Although I tried all the popular computer-based programs, I quickly found that their promises didn’t deliver. Most are simply toys—useful, 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 are—with one exception—simply 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 doesn’t 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 you’ll have more fun than I did. And computer programs are cheap—invariably under $100.

A Program That Works

Pimsleur’s 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 lesson.

The program’s 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 program’s 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. Pimsleur’s course is designed only to teach you enough to get by in a foreign country—to introduce yourself, find a hotel, order a meal, and other such practicalities.

The Scholar’s 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 language—a series produced decades ago by the U.S. government’s 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

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 it’s 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 you’re 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 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.

Other Alternatives

Courses based on different principles than Pimsleur or Barron’s 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 doesn’t 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 that’s you, then Pimsleur and the FSI courses are probably too slow.

French with Tears

The Annenberg/CPB’s 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 grammar—in French. The program reduced my rather smart friend (who has a B.A. in Spanish) to tears. Once you’ve mastered some of your new language with the Pimsleur or Barron’s courses, however, these programs can be useful supplements offering a relatively simple vocabulary.

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