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.