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FAQs about learning languages on your own

3. The best programs


I have tested dozens of programs for more than 10 languages, and this page reflects my opinion on the best I found. I am in no way connected to any seller nor to the US government, so be ensured that this has been made in all honesty.


A. Foreign Service Institute and Defense Language Institute programs

The Foreign Language Institute (FSI) is the branch of the US Department of State that teaches foreign languages to diplomats. .


This is the part of the Pentagon that teaches foreign languages to military men and spies from other agencies. Based in California, they teach more than 10% of all the adult foreign language courses taught in the USA.


Both of these Institutes make books and tapes, some of which excellent, based on audio lingual principles. The problem is that there's absolutely no coherence whatsoever between the programs and even within sometimes. The most popular programs are re mastered and sold commercially, but if you have to buy direct you can be disappointed at the mere look of your course. But don't be fooled, within those xerox copies of typewritten pages from the 60's with no illustrations nor colors lie treasuries for dedicated language learners. In extra, you get the privilege of some insight into the interests of some american diplomats in the 60's : "Quién llamó a la policía? - Yo, señor. Los manifestantes están rodeando el edificio" (FSI Spanish, programmatic course volume II).


To get the latest picture you should contact the people listed in the next question, but here's a short list :

FSI programs available through Barrons : Spanish, French, German, Hebrew, Portuguese, Italian, Japanese, Greek, Korean
By clicking you go to Amazon which sells for about 55$ with 12 tapes each, two volumes available.

FSI programs available through Audio Forum : all the above at double the price plus hungarian, turkish,

FSI and DFLI programs available through NTIS : all the above at triple the price plus serb, croatian, and many others. It is to be used as a last resort only, as the books are very expensive, oftent delayed and have a terrible layout. However, for some languages you won't find anything better.


You can buy these programs through several channels : FSI programs are sold by Barron's Educational series at low prices, which are to be bought through, but you will some only at Audio Forum, a good but unreasonably expensive language programs mail order company. For the rest, you have to cope with the NTIS, a self funded (=very expensive) US federal office that sells hundred of thousands of documents printed on demand.


Americans may compete with the French to be the worst foreign language learning people, but they have the best programs. Is that because the publishing market is so huge, because of their efficiency minded spirit, or for the needs of Imperialism ? I don't know.


B. Dr Pimsleur tapes

Dr Paul Pimsleur was an american linguist with his idea on how languages should be taught. At the end of his life, he began to sell language programs solely based on 30 minute recorded lessons, that people could use in their cars. This serie has been bought by Simon and Schuster and now they work on now languages and expand the existing programs.


You are supposed to use one 30 minutes lesson a day, without breaks. A gentle voice begins to talk to you, as would an elderly gentleman wishing to introduce you to a foreign language. Listening and repeating (at loud voice), you learn how and when to say useful phrases, with a near perfect pronunciation. The method is the smarted I've seen, and is very much efficiency oriented.


A full method has 90 lessons of 30 minutes each. If you do one a day as recommended, you need 90 days. Some other programs have only 30 lessons, but you should buy them only if you can't find anything bigger.


Yes, it is efficient. I have used the italian and russian packages with great success, and so did some of my friends. The only hicks are that you will need some advanced material to "finish" the language, and that it does not teach you how to write. This might be of little consequence for spanish, but if you're after chinese, this is another story.


Too much for 45 tapes, but it's still acceptable if you consider the quality of the programs and the time and energy it saves you. At the time of writing, a full 90 lessons program cost about $700.


In many places except in your local bookshop. I bought them directly from the publisher, Simon and Schuster, but they were the most expensive. If you go to my choosing your language page and click on the language you want to learn, I will point you to the cheapest price I found.


C. Other programs

There are thousands of programs, books and other means to learn languages on the market. If it is available and you can afford it, my best advice is to buy either a Pimsleur or a FSI program. Otherwise, you will have to review many different options before you start with one.


This is rather easy if you can look at it in person. First count the tapes : the more, the better. There are few languages out there that you can learn without ever hearing them, so you should not compromise on this. Then try to find out the doctrine behind the program / book. Is it "old school", with the grammar rules, then the examples, then the exercises ? (if yes, leave it) Does it have meaningful dialogs with phrases you could use ? Is it big enough ? Take your time when buying because you will read that book for months, so you can make expensive mistakes in terms of time and energy, not to speak of the price of the book.


Berlitz makes excellent phrasebooks that every beginner should own. However, you can't learn a language with this or the other books they publish. Too bad, the glossy covers are so much nicer than those of FSI...


Assimil is not the worst book you can buy, but it's totally insufficient to learn a language and will take you as much time as another, better program. The pity is that they are so marketable, a real bookseller's dream. But don't get caught if you think that with an Assimil book it will be "easier to learn the language". It just won't. On the tapes they only have somebody reading the dialogs, no drills nor any oral exercise. And the phrases in the dialogs are not that useful.

One day I was at the French/Spanish bookshop in the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, and I asked the owner if he sold   FSI or Pimsleur tapes. He answered that no, he did not, but that they had better tapes. As he actually had some FSI material, I thought I was on something hot until I saw this nice gentleman show me his "fantastic tapes", Assimil, one of the worst rip off you can find. I pointed that I knew the tapes and that they just did not work, because they have no drills, few tapes and unusable dialogs. He satisfied answer was that they were "very popular" and that he sold quite a lot of them every year. What could I say, he was right, after all most people that buy language books will never speak their target language, so what's the matter?


This is a good "old school" serie, but it will not be sufficient to learn any language. However, for some obscure languages, this is the best you will find.


This method is sold in Switzerland between the cabages and the toilet paper at the Migros, and is quite popular as a commidity. If only we could by fluency in foreign languages at the Migros ! Needless to say, this is a very bad program, totally unsufficient to learn anything useful and a waste of time. The good thing is that it's cheap, so at least you won't regret the money you lost.


It's a good thing to have a grammar book you can use as a reference in case of doubts. There are many of those, and old fashioned ones are often very good and quite cheap. Of course, if you begin with the grammar book, you will be disappointed, but as a refresher it's very useful. I listed those I can recommend in the choosing your language section.





I have made every effort to ensure that this text is free of errors or copyright infringement. Nevertheless, some may have slipped through. Also, these pages only reflect my opinion on language learning, limited by my own experiences and knowledge. I invite you to contact me if you feel something is wrong and should be corrected. (requests about American political correctness will be dismissed)

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