Learning Foreign Languages

Revised 1/11/2004

When I wanted to learn Spanish, I was looking for a complete language course(s) that could take me from the beginning level to the most advanced level possible (for a self-teaching course). I was also looking for something that was not too expensive (an oxymoron: usually, the more advanced the courses, the higher the price). In my opinion (and appearantly not only mine, either) there are three important parts to mastering and becoming "fluent" in any language:

1. Language basics - Correct pronunciation and accent of the language
2. Reading comprehension and writing ability
3. Listening comprehension at conversational and broadcast speed (TV/Radio)

The Basics

There are many different language courses available depending how much you already know about your "target language" or how in-depth you want to get. I did a lot of research, checked out many books from the library, read customer reviews at Amazon, etc. After all my research, I came up with the following list of books, depending on your current level of knowledge:
(insert the language you're learning in place of {language}; prices are from
AllDirect.com as of 9/2000)

If you are new to a language and have very little basic knowledge, consider one or more of these:

1. Conversational {language} In 7 Days ($9.00) (Misleading title: seven units, not really learned in seven days;
       still a decent book).
2. Teach Yourself {language} Compete Course($12.00)
3. Living Language:{language}Complete Course ($13.00)
The Conversational... and Teach Yourself courses are dialog-based - each chapter is starts with a dialog; parts of the dialog are used to explain grammar and vocabulary. The Living Language Complete course is vocabulary and topical-based - each chapter centers around vocabluary and phrases; grammar lessons are based on the chapter's vocabulary.

If you already have some knowledge about a language and are willing move at a faster pace, consider these:

4. Hugo's:{language}in Three Months($18.00)
5. Living Language Ultimate: {language} ($45.00)
6. Living Language Ultimate Advanced: {language} ($45.00)
Hugo's is a grammar based course - vocabulary is taught as part of the grammar exercises (the dialogs at the end of each chapter reinforce the grammar), whereas the Living Language Ultimate is another Dialog-based course. These courses cover a lot of material in a very small amount of space. They require one to "read between the lines" and extract basic information from the dialogs without explaining all the mechanics; this is fine if you know something about the language. The Hugo series includes many "non-traditional" languages; unfortunately, the first edition Hugo series are out of print (they have released a second edition). Each Living Language Ultimate course is supposed to be the equivalent of two years of college study (the way I undestand it, the LL Ultimate beginning-intermediate is two years and the LL Ultimate Advanced is an additional two years); I haven't decided on the accuracy of that statement yet.

One important thing to keep in mind: everyone learns differently. What works well for me might not work for someone else. Don't run out and buy these books just because I said so. The important thing to do is to go to your library and check out these books (and/or some different ones, if you see something that looks useful); if your library doesn't have them, you can always use inter-library loan. Listen to and read them before you go out and buy them: that's the beauty of the library system. If you think you can learn from them, great; you know which ones to buy.

Where to buy these courses:
I found that, generally, AllDirect.com has the lowest prices. However, they don't stock all the books that Amazon and Barnes and Noble have. Additionally, AllDirect sometimes lists book titles differently, making it harder to search by title or author. So I recommend checking the prices of the books you want at the big two and while your checking prices, write down the ISBN for each of the books you want. Then search by ISBN at AllDirect and compare the prices.

A few more tidbits of information:

  • I recently discovered a good book at the Language Warehouse: How to Learn any Language (Barry Farber). This book has a lot of great ideas, such as making flash cards, getting a newspaper written in your "target language", using flash cards anytime you have a spare minute (while waiting in line, etc). This book is well worth it, especially if you are learning one of the "not-so-common" languages.

  • I feel that some important words should be explicitly taught at the start of any basic course: Hello, Hi, Goodbye, Good Morning, Good Afternoon, Good Evening, Mister, Misses, Miss, Please, Thank You. Some of the courses I listed above (particularly the "faster pace" courses), tend to bury these words in the dialog and not really explain them (a faux-pas in my opinion). Using the power of Google, I found several sites that list these important words in many languages:
    Jennifer's Language Resources
    Fodor's Learn Now
    Basic Phrases

  • If you only want to buy (or can only afford) one course and want to get to the most advanced level possible, here are my suggestions:
    1st choice:
    Hugo's {language} in Three Months, $18.00 (especially if you are familiar with the language).
    2nd choice (actually a pair of courses):
    2a - Living Language {language} Complete Course (the better of the two) and
    2b - Teach Yourself {language} Complete Course, $25.00 total.
    Covers a lot of material in detail. Comes with four hours of audio. Gets to an advanced level because it covers about 70% of the material included in both the Living Language Ultimate and Living Language Ultimate Advanced courses, but in about 250 pages (vs 800+ pages for both Living Language Ultimate courses).
    Living Language is detailed, both in terms of grammar and vocaublary and comes with three hours of audio. Audio includes pauses so you don't have to use your Pause button. Books are well formatted and are easy to follow. Most of the Teach Yourself books published after 1996 are also well formatted.
    Very fast-paced course: you have to be able to understand the grammar and vocabulary after only a few examples. First editions are out of print; Second Editions are in print, but there are only five languages available (hopefully, Hugo will release more language courses in the future. If you want one of the first editions, you will need to find a used copy.)
    The Living Language course is a vocabulary-based course, and, although there are a few dialogs, they are at the end of the course (I feel that there should be more dialogs - the dialogs in the Teach Yourself courses are used to supplement the Living Language course).

    Teach Yourself only comes with about 1.5 hours of audio (and it is necessary to use the pause button if you want to repeat the words and sentences). The dialogs for certain Teach Yourself courses are not very well spoken: they are monotone and the speakers are speaking very slowly, deliberatly over-accenting each syllable. In addition, some of the pre-1996 Teach Yourself courses are very difficult to read because they are not formatted very well: it is hard to find sections within chapters, and key points are buried within the text.

    Bottom line: Check out the books from your library, and see what you think of them before you buy.

  • The Language Warehouse also has an Internet Resource Database with links for almost every language. Lots of good information. They also have a good section with Tips for Learning Languages.

    What other books/courses are out there?
    If you want to spend some more money, the Pimsleur comprehensive language courses are reported to be far and away the best language courses available (16 tapes or CD per course). The Pimsleur courses are audio-only courses (meaning that there is no "book"). The advantage is that you can use them to learn in your car, etc. The disadvantage with the Pimsleur courses is the price: about $295.00 (list) per course (and there are three courses for each language, that's about $900.00). There is a Pimsleur comprehensive course for almost every language you might want to learn (they're available in far more languages than many of the courses I've listed above). As a side note, Pimsleur also makes a "basic" course for many languages; the "basic" courses have 4 tapes or CDs and are about $30.00 (list). I haven't checked into these "basic" courses yet, but the reviews are mixed.

    The Language Warehouse has some courses that have between 60 and 73 hours of audio for $200 (shipping included). These courses do not include "books", but you can download all the manuals (whether you buy the course or not) from their website. I haven't used these courses, either, but they were produced by the US Government and have a military slant. Get the manual first and see what you think of the course before you buy.

    {Language}: Learn in Your Car is another course that has good to excellent reviews at Amazon (depending on the language you are interested in learning). I haven't used this course, but if you're interested in these courses, getting the complete set (all three levels in one package) is cheaper than buying each individual level. Additionally, make sure you get the set with the cassettes (or CDs), as opposed to only the books.

    Just Listen 'n Learn {Language} and Just Listen 'n Learn {Language} Plus is another series. I have listened to some of them and they are decent courses (each course comes with 3 tapes). They cost about $24.00 each, so they are slightly more than some of the main ones I listed above, but they also similar to the Living Language Ultimate (again, with out as much detail as LL Ultimate). Just like the Teach Yourself Complete Courses, the Just Listen 'n Learn books published after the mid-90's have better formating and are easier to read. The Just Listen 'n Learn books published in the 80's are not very well formatted and are harder to follow.

    Barrons Mastering {language} series is yet another course that can take you to an advanced level. I was not too impressed with the Mastering Spanish set that I borrowed from the library, and I can't really suggest it. First, the book is not very well formatted and the font that was used was a typewriter font (actually, it looks like the book was typed USING a typewriter). It was very difficult to find the beginning of each lesson and the sections within each lesson were not differentiated very well either; it's almost as if the entire book was typed with no indentations, separations, spacing or page breaks. The book also includes a pronunciation guide for almost every pharse. This pronciation guide is very difficult to understand and use; I find it easier to read along with the tape and hear how the spelled word is pronunced.

    Secondly, although the Barrons Mastering course came with 12 - 60 minute tapes, it was very difficult to understand what was being said. I think it was combination of the speakers not inunciating clearly and the mediocre quality of the recording (it wasn't very crisp).

    note: I would stay away from books that do not come with any tapes/CDs. It's hard enough to learn correct pronuciation from a tape/CD; trying to learn pronunciation from a phonetic alphabet is almost impossible. Also be careful of gimmick titles such as {language} in 24 hours or Conversational {language} in 7 days. That's not to say that these gimmick courses aren't good; just don't expect to learn the language in the time frame listed in the title.

    Here are a few grammar books:
    Practical Spanish Grammar, Marcial Prado, ISBN 0471134465
    Advanced Spanish Grammar, Marcial Prado, ISBN 0471134481

    French: A Self-Teaching Guide, Suzanne Hershfield, ISBN 0471837946
    Advanced French Grammar, Monique L'Huillier, ISBN 0521484251

    The The Language Warehouse Tips for Learning Languages page suggests the Teach Yourself {Language} Grammar books (about $6.00 at alldirect.com).

    How to improve you reading and listening comprehension:
    There is an easy, free way to improve your reading comprehension: find and bookmark an online newspaper in the language you're learning. Here's a few links to some spanish and french newspapers:

    El Mundo - a daily newspaper from Madrid
    El Pais - another daily Madrid newspaper
    La Journada - a daily Mexican newspaper
    If you'd like to find other spanish papers, check out Yahoo's list of Mexican or Spainish newspapers. You can also read the Yahoo site in spanish (Mexico) or (Spain site)

    Le Monde - the premier French daily newspaper
    Le Soleil de Quebec - a paper from Quebec Canada
    If you'd like to find other french papers, check out Yahoo's List of French Canadian or France newspapers. You can also read the Yahoo site in French or French Canadian

    If you'd like to find newspapers in any county in the world, look at Yahoo's directory. Once you've chosen a country, click on the "complete list" link to see all the newspapers that are indexed.

    As far as improving listening comprehension, if you have cable or a dish, you might be able to get a spanish or french broadcast channel. Or perhaps there is a broadcast radio station in your area. If none of these exist in your area, invest in a shortwave radio and tune in the country of your choice.

    Intro to Shortwave Listening
    Shortwave Frequencies
    More Shortwave Frequencies
    International Shortwave Broadcasters Frequency List

    Or use the net for streaming audio. You'll need RealPlayer to listen to these files: get the latest version or an older version. Note some of these streaming audio sites only work if you use the latest version of RealPlayer, but the older versions are smaller downloads (you decide).

    Some of these "stations" are music and voice, so at any given time, you may not hear your target language being spoken.
    Spanish - Argentina
    Spanish - AM Mexican station
    Spanish - FM Mexican station
    Spanish - Puerto Rican station
    French - France - part of Radio France International
    French - Radio Canada
    another French - Radio Canada

    There are several good websites that list (or have) streaming audio from various countries:
    Spanish and Portuguese media - Live Radio and TV
    Andre Moreau's Radio Stations
    City College of San Francisco
    UN Radio
    Voice of America, Radio Japan, and Voice of Russia all have webcasts in many languages (even the "non-traditional" languages).

    You can also search Google for
    "{language} radio" realplayer
    where {language} is the language you'd like to listen to.

    Another good site for webcasting is Webcast Pilot

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