Chapter 19: The language student’s buying guide

When you visit an online bookstore such as Amazon.com, plug in the words “French language” and click the search button, you might be presented with thousands of choices. A trip to your neighborhood Barnes & Noble is similarly bewildering; there are audio programs, self-teaching texts, and dictionaries, but which ones should you buy?

As someone who has been actively studying languages for about fifteen years, I have had a chance to try all the major language learning products at one time or another. I am happy to report that there are a lot of good materials out there. Language texts and audio programs are usually prepared by dedicated specialists who approach their task conscientiously. (No one figures to make a fast buck off a shoddily prepared language text—the market just isn’t that big.) As a result, most items on the market are good investments. Only rarely have I been thoroughly disappointed by a purchase.

Nonetheless, it is a good idea to head to the bookstore (whether online or in the neighborhood) with a familiarity of the items that are available. Many language products are designed to fill a particular niche, such as vocabulary acquisition, or aural comprehension skills development. In addition, each product approaches the language from a slightly different angle.

Although I discuss the pros and cons of each book, audio course or other resource in the list below, I recommend all of these items. Each one represents a solid investment, in terms of effectiveness and value. After you have used some of these items, you will probably find additional products that interest you. Over time, you will no doubt become a connoisseur of language study materials yourself, with your own list of must-have products.

College Textbooks

College textbooks are seldom entertaining, and they are not created with entertainment in mind. Moreover, college textbooks are expensive. These days, it is not uncommon for a new college textbook to have a price tag of more than $100.

Nonetheless, you should purchase a college textbook for the language you have decided to study—even if you have no intention of ever taking formal classes. College textbooks, their price and drabness notwithstanding, are treasure troves of grammar, vocabulary, and example sentences. 

In the paragraphs below, we will explore some mass market courses that teach and entertain you at the same time. But you still need a no-nonsense, these-are-the-rules textbook to provide a thorough, scholarly outline of the language. (Later, you should also acquire a textbook designed for a second-year or advanced course.)

Despite the expense and inevitable dryness, a well-written college textbook will serve you as a reference for years to come. In fact, I still use an intermediate Spanish college text that I purchased for a class way back in the 1986 – 1987 academic year.

The easiest way to acquire a college textbook is to simply go to the source. Every college has a campus bookstore. Navigate your way to the textbook section, and look for the shelf that says “German,” “Russian,” or whatever language you have chosen to study. It is often possible to buy a used textbook, although these may be only slightly discounted from the price of a new book.

Many language textbooks written for the academic market today also include audio CDs. Purchase one of these textbooks if you can find one.

Entry-level Mass-Market Courses

The products in this group each consist of a structured course book and audio cassettes or CDs. At the time of this writing, all of these packages can be purchased for less than $100, and most are priced at less than $50.

These courses can be ordered through Amazon.com, or selected from the shelves of the larger bricks-and-mortar bookstores, such as Barnes & Noble or Borders. However, be aware that publishers in general, and language material publishers in particular, are notoriously inconsistent in regard to inventory levels and availability. Publishers also have a tendency to discontinue items without warning. Therefore, if you see one of the items listed below on your next trip to the bookstore, it would be a good idea to go ahead and buy it—you might not find it again. The same goes for items you see listed in the online bookstores.

In the past, I have made the mistake of delaying a purchase on the assumption that I could always buy the item at a later date—only to discover shortly thereafter that the course had gone out of print. And a considerable number of the language courses that I have purchased—some as recently as recently as the late 1990s—are no longer available today.

Teach Yourself (NTC Publishing)

Each Teach Yourself language course consists of a book and two audio CDs. Most of the course books can also be purchased separately; but the CDs are worth the marginal extra expense. Teach Yourself courses are affordable, thorough, and engaging.

Compared to their competitors, 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 top-notch Teach Yourself courses in exotic languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Korean, and Tagalog. If you are learning one of these less commonly taught languages, then your first step might be a Teach Yourself course.

As indicated above, one strong point of NTC’s courses is their serious approach to non-Latin writing systems. In recent years, the company has also begun to develop an additional series of low-cost, concise textbooks for students struggling with scripts such as Arabic, Urdu, and Russian. (I recently purchased Teach Yourself Beginner’s Arabic Script, by John Mace.) Be sure to investigate this series if your language studies take you outside the Western European sphere.   

NTC also sells an advanced audio program series entitled Improve Your Spanish/French/German. The advanced courses are only available in the three most commonly studied Western European languages. These programs are good investments for intermediate students of Spanish, French, and German.

  

The Colloquial Series (Routledge Ltd.)

In terms of content, the Colloquial series is similar to the Teach Yourself series, although the Colloquial series places greater emphasis on spoken communication than on reading and writing. As a result, some of their courses rely on transliterations rather than authentic entries for non-Latin scripts.  However, the Colloquial series contains a number of quality titles in the non-European realm, and some of these courses (such as Colloquial Korean) provide a thorough coverage of the necessary written elements.

The Colloquial courses provide extensive grammar explanations, which are especially important at the beginning stages. The courses in this series consist of a course book and an audio CD component. Although the dialogs in the audio portion are studio recorded, they are written and produced to closely approximate real-life situations.

Routledge has provided particularly good coverage in the South East Asian area. In 1995, Colloquial Vietnamese was one of the first quality mass-market Vietnamese courses to appear on the market.  For beginning students of Bahasa Indonesia, Colloquial Indonesian is one of the best options currently available (although NTC recently produced a Teach Yourself Indonesian course that is also quite thorough). Routledge sells a Colloquial Malay course; and Colloquial Cambodian is perhaps the only up-to-date, readily available course for the seldom studied Khmer language. (A great number of the Southeast Asian materials on the market seem to date back to the Vietnam War era.)

Routledge also produces a number of reference grammars and dictionaries that are worth investigating. Unlike most of the industry, Routledge maintains an easily searchable website that can be found on all the major search engines. You can view their selection at www.routledge.com.

Hugo’s Three Months Courses

The Hugo’s Three Months courses each consist of a book and three audio CDs. Hugo’s courses are well-produced, and contain invariably clean audio. There is a good mix of dialogs, reading passages, and example sentences.

Hugo’s has traditionally stayed away from exotic languages and scripts. (The company produced courses in Japanese, Arabic, and Chinese—using transliterations rather than delving into the authentic writing systems.) Hugo’s courses are produced in Great Britain, and the company has focused on developing a solid European language product line. During the mid-1990s, Hugo’s also produced a business language series, and an advanced series, but I have not been able to find these in stores for a number of years.

Availability has been a major issue with the Hugo’s language courses. If you see a Hugo’s course that you want—buy it.

Just Listen ‘n Learn

This series is published by Passport Books, a division of NTC Publishing. Each Listen ‘n Learn course contains a course book and three cassettes. (The company is gradually making the transition to 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.

Living Language “Ultimate” Series

Although these courses are a bit more expensive than most of the other packages in the mass market category, the Ultimate series provides the language learner with exceptional value. Whereas the above courses contain two or three CDs, each Ultimate course consists of a thick course manual and eight CDs. The first four CDs contain audio versions of dialogs from the book. The second four CDs contain annotated portions of the dialogs and additional example sentences, supplemented throughout by an English-speaking instructor who provides extensive grammar and usage explanations.

The Ultimate series is constantly expanding. Courses are currently available in a variety of languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, and French. Advanced level courses exist for most of these languages. The Ultimate advanced courses are useful even to students who have already attained a significant level of competency in a language.

Living Language is a division of Random House. You can view their course packages online at www.randomhouse.com/livinglanguage.

Spoken Language Services, Inc.

This company produces a number of cassette courses which emphasize speaking and listening skills. Spoken Language Services’ main strength, in my view, is that they produce some quality full-length courses for languages that are often ignored by larger publishers, including Malay, Farsi (Persian), and Tagalog. They also produce some good supplemental materials for those studying Arabic. The Spoken Language Services website is located at www.spokenlanguage.com.

Visual Education

Visual Education is a “study aids” company located in Springfield, Ohio. They produce study cards and flashcards for a variety of topics, including mathematics, science, and Bible studies. They also have an extensive language-related product line. I have used their vocabulary and grammar card sets over the years while studying several languages. The material presented on each set of cards is quite extensive, and will serve the learner well through the intermediate/advanced stage.

In addition, Visual Education produces a “Think” series, each of which consists of study cards and an accompanying cassette. These are good, although they are not as flashy and entertaining as some of the other cassette courses described in this chapter. But once again, the content presented is quite solid.

Visual Education seems to be focusing on the study card niche, and their basic product line has not changed much since I first began using their materials about ten years ago. However, they are the only company I am aware of that sells vocabulary cards for Arabic, Korean, and Chinese! While their products form a supplemental part of your language-learning toolset, they are nonetheless worth purchasing. Additionally, Visual Education products are very reasonably priced, and almost always in stock. For more information, see their website, www.vis-ed.com.

Pimsleur

Pimsleur language courses are based on the Graduated Interval Recall and The Principle of Anticipation learning methods developed by Dr. Paul Pimsleur. Pimsleur was a celebrated linguist who received a Ph.D. in French from Colombia University. He subsequently taught French at UCLA, and was involved in the language programs of several other prominent universities. Through extensive research, Pimsleur determined that the components of a language are assimilated most quickly when they are absorbed through hearing. Therefore, the fastest way to learn a new language—according to Pimsleur—would be to focus on the listening component.

Whereas the courses from Teach Yourself, Hugo’s, etc. divide the learner’s attention more or less equally between reading and listening exercises, the Pimsleur courses focus exclusively on audio. Pimsleur courses do not contain thick course books. Instead, they consist entirely of cassettes or audio CDs, and often a small supplementary booklet.

Each Pimsleur course is broken down into discrete lessons. When a lesson opens, an English-speaking narrator gives a short introduction, and instructs you to listen to the conversation which is to follow. You then hear a dialog spoken between two native speakers in the target language. When the conversation concludes, the narrator explains each element of the exchange, and the native speakers repeat the words syllable by syllable.

Difficult words are pronounced several times, so that you can completely absorb the phonetic structures. The narrator also provides extensive instructions regarding usage, and native speakers break in with additional examples. Then the original dialogue is played again. Amazingly, you find yourself understanding a complete verbal exchange in a foreign language—although it had been total gibberish a short while ago.

In subsequent lessons, you are given impromptu quizzes on language that you learned earlier. Completely out of the blue, the narrator may ask, “What is the Portuguese word for engineer?” After a brief pause, a native speaker pronounces the word, and you think to yourself, “Ah, yes, that’s it.”  Pimsleur’s technique of prompting you to recall the words you learned in previous lessons etches the course content deep into your memory. (This is the Principle of Graduated Interval Recall.) Repeated quizzing and reinforcement moves the components of the language from short-term memory to long-term memory.

The Principle of Anticipation works by forcing you to produce the right word or phrase to fit a situational context. For example, the English-speaking narrator may say to you, “A man has just offered you a cigarette. Tell him that you don’t smoke.” (By this point, you will have learned how to tell someone that you don’t smoke in a previous lesson, so you should be able to retrieve the correct language—or a close approximation.) Then, for reinforcement, a native speaker recites the answer. This particular component of the target language is now engrained in your bone marrow.

Pimsleur courses can be purchased for a wide variety of languages. Some of the more exotic selections included are Thai, Vietnamese, Hindi, Armenian and Farsi. Pimsleur has also created intermediate and advanced courses for many of the more widely studied languages, like Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Russian.

Despite the ingenuity of the Pimsleur system, the courses do have certain drawbacks. Although the language presented in each lesson is drilled (almost) effortlessly into your head, the amount of content in a single unit is small in comparison to the lesson content of more traditional courses. This means that the learner can complete an entire 30-lesson, 16-CD course with a fraction of the vocabulary that a much shorter (and cheaper) course can deliver.

Another issue is cost. At the time of this writing, full-length Pimsleur courses cost as much as several hundred dollars. In many cases, the language learner could buy four or five of the book and CD courses (Teach Yourself, Hugo’s, etc.) for the cost of one Pimsleur course. If your language study activities are restricted by a tight budget, then the Pimsleur courses can quickly consume a large portion of the money you have allotted.

However, the cost may be justified if you are learning a language with difficult phonetics. By the time you have worked through a Pimsleur program, the pronunciation of Arabic, Vietnamese, or Russian will seem much less formidable. Moreover, the all-audio format of Pimsleur courses provides the commuter with an unparalleled “hands-free” study session.

I recommend the Pimsleur programs if a.) you can afford them, and b.) your schedule dictates a lot of hands-free study time. They are indeed a highly effective study tool.

FSI Courses

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 FSI course usually costs several hundred dollars.

FSI courses rely primarily on grammatical drills, using example sentences. While FSI courses contain a lot of material, some students find them to be a bit on the dry side. Indeed, FSI recordings feature monotone speakers who drill you endlessly with example sentences like, “Where did you buy your new car, Mr. Jones?”  Nevertheless, the knowledge that you can absorb from these courses is significant. If you can learn without being constantly entertained, then an FSI course will definitely be a worthwhile investment. 

VocabuLearn (Penton Overseas)

Each VocabuLearn package consists of two cassettes or CDs, which are filled with “audio flashcards”. There is also a compact booklet that contains a transcript of the audio material. VocabuLearn recordings are designed to assist the student with bulk vocabulary acquisition. A single unit of each program is dedicated to a particular category, such as nouns, verbs, etc. When you turn on a VocabuLearn CD, you will first hear a bell tone. Then you will hear an English speaker say, for example, “the grass”, and a native speaker of the target language says, “la hierba” (if you happen to be listening to the Spanish language recordings). The process is then repeated—again and again, through a long list of words. In the middle of each side of a CD, another bell tone sounds, and the order switches: the foreign language word is spoken first, followed by an English translation.

I don’t know exactly how long the VocabuLearn series has been around, but I have been using it since I began studying Japanese in the late 1980s.  The VocabuLearn format is extremely simple, but also very useful. These programs have a way of inserting large amounts of practical vocabulary into your head with repeated listening. On numerous occasions, I have been surprised to find new vocabulary items from these recordings falling into my consciousness at exactly the right moment.

The only down side of the VocabuLearn programs is tedium. Because there is no narrative or dialog to engage your interest, you may find your mind wandering after a while. I usually make it a rule to limit my use of VocabuLearn to thirty consecutive minutes.

It is also a good to idea to employ these recordings after you have soaked in a bit of the target language through other study materials. Since VocabuLearn essentially contains large amounts of vocabulary outside of any meaningful context, you may not retain much if you listen to the recordings before you are exposed to other materials. First work through a few chapters of a Teach Yourself course, or a few Pimsleur CDs. You will then find yourself recognizing some of the words on the VocabuLearn program, and absorbing many new ones.

VocabuLearn audio programs are available in a wide variety of languages, including Hebrew, Portuguese, and Armenian. Advanced VocabuLearn programs can be purchased for most of the major languages.

Immersion+ (Penton Overseas)

The daunting speed of real-life conversations is one of the most troublesome obstacles faced by the intermediate student of a language. Everyone seems to talk so fast. The student often feels that if people would just slow down, he would be able to understand everything. The problem is that real world conversations do not slow down, and the student must train himself to comprehend the language at this speed.

The Immersion+ CDs are a tool that students can use to overcome the “everyone talks so fast” problem. Each Immersion+ CD contains a series of conversations based around realistic situations. The dialog is first spoken at a natural speed, then at an artificially slow speed, and then again at the natural speed. As you listen to the slow reading, you will be able to catch the bits and pieces that you miss in the initial full-speed reading, then confirm your comprehension when you hear the full-speed reading again.

One of the strong points of this series is that the conversations are engaging and entertaining. The scenes are varied, and several different storylines are present throughout each CD. In one vignette, two elderly women discuss their dissatisfaction with local politics. Then two men are golfing and talking about the weather, and the chores they have to complete later. A woman and her friend are planning a shopping trip. A married couple endures a series of misadventures while going out to dinner.

At the time of this writing, Immersion+ CDs are available in all the major Western European languages. They can be ordered direct through the Penton Overseas website (www.pentonoverseas.com), or through any bookstore.   

Movies

There is a wealth of language study opportunities to be found at the neighborhood Blockbuster store. Movies are one of the most entertaining language study tools. The vast selection of movies available assures that you will never run out of new titles to view. Moreover, the DVD technology of recent years has given the language learner even more options.

When you are in the beginning stages of language study, a movie in the target language may seem like an impossible hurdle. The actors speak impossibly fast, and it seems that you can only catch a word here and there. Don’t worry, though—movies are a good training device at any point in your studies, because they provide practice in recognizing sounds and anticipating dialogue through context.

Back in the days of VHS, the selection of films that could be used for language study was limited to the “foreign language titles” section of the video store. While many quality films are made outside of Hollywood, it was often difficult for me to predict whether or not a movie would suit my taste. Standards of entertainment vary from culture to culture. Moreover, the “foreign language titles” tended to be dominated by particular genres for each language. Japanese films were usually samurai epics, French language films were invariably artsy character studies, and every Chinese film seemed to feature a peasant struggling against an evil landlord.

Today, however, it is possible to study languages while viewing the familiar Hollywood offerings. DVD technology has added foreign language tracks to most films. For example, this past weekend, I watched the John Woo film, Windtalkers, in Spanish. I would have rented the film even if it had been available only in English, but the Spanish language track on the DVD enabled me to kill two birds with one stone.

To find out which language tracks are available on a DVD, look at the “Special Features” section on the back of the DVD package. You will see separate listings for the audio tracks and subtitles. When you insert the DVD into the player, you can access the language options by selecting the “Audio Setup” and “Subtitles” options on the main DVD menu.

A good study technique is to set both the subtitles and the audio track to the target language. This will help to improve your aural word discrimination capabilities, as you will be able to read the foreign words at the same time that you are hearing them. If you are still a beginner, then you may choose to turn on the English subtitles and the foreign language audio, to see if you can catch the gist of some of the dialog.

At present, many new DVD releases are limited to English, Spanish, and French language tracks. However, I have also seen new releases with Thai, Portuguese, and Chinese tracks. You will just have to check each DVD. (I recently purchased a Chinese movie on DVD that has a Mandarin and a Spanish audio track but no English audio track.)

You can purchase foreign language films (or Hollywood films with foreign language tracks) online. Amazon.com has a wide selection of movies in most languages. I have also found a number of foreign movies in the brick-and-mortar stores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble. (If you happen to be studying Japanese, you will benefit from the recent anime craze. My local Borders bookstore stocks no less than a dozen animated Japanese-language DVDs.)

When selecting a movie, try to select one that is heavy on dialog. There is no way to absolutely determine this factor from the package, but some general rules apply. Comedies and dramas usually contain more dialog than action films and monster movies.

Although movies are good study tools, documentaries and talk shows are even better. These formats consist entirely of spoken content. The language employed in these programs is typically more standardized than that contained in movies. Pronunciation is usually sharper, and the speakers do not compete with the sounds of car chases, gunshots, or other distractions that are present in movies. Documentaries and talk shows also tend to contain more sophisticated vocabulary.

The problem with documentaries and talk shows is that they are often difficult to find. Because of low market potential, they are not distributed through mass-market channels like Blockbuster and Amazon. The best way to acquire a foreign-language documentary or talk show is through a native speaker who is willing to tape a program when he or she makes a return visit to his or her home country.

Depending on where you live, you may have access to foreign-language television channels. I remember being able to choose from several Spanish channels during an extended business trip to El Paso. Cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and Miami also offer programming in languages other than English. In Cincinnati, it is now possible to gain access to Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish programming through cable and satellite TV. This is an investment that you may want to consider when you reach the intermediate stage in your target language.

Remember that movies and other television programs are supplements.  Though helpful, these resources are only reinforcements for the language that you have learned through textbooks, vocabulary study, and audio courses. Don’t be tempted to rely on them as your primary study device.

The Internet

The Internet has opened up new worlds to the language student that were unthinkable even in 1994 or 1995. There is a lot of material freely available on the Internet that will be valuable for intermediate and advanced students. There is also a limited number of free tutorials which will serve the beginner.

On the Internet, you can locate news in any major language. One of the best sites for a wide variety of coverage is CNN.com. At present, CNN offers news in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Korean, Japanese and Arabic. Although much of the content throughout each of these sites is the same, there is a slightly different emphasis based on the region in which the language is spoken. For example, CNN’s Spanish site provides more extensive coverage of Latin American issues.

As mentioned in a previous chapter of this book, MSN.com and Yahoo provide foreign language content in a number of languages. The foreign language links are easy to spot on either site. Once you have navigated to the area for a particular language, you will be able to access news, articles, as well as search engine capabilities in the language.

Most of the well-known foreign language newspapers, such as Le Monde, El Pais, and the Yomiuri Shimbun have their own websites. If you know the name of the periodical you want to find, you can execute a search engine query for it. If you just want to find out what is available, execute a search engine query for “Spanish language newspapers,” for example.

If you have a high-speed connection to the Internet and a set of computer speakers, then you can take advantage of a world of audio and video foreign-language web content. In terms of the variety of languages offered, one of the best sites is the Voice of America (www.voa.gov). This site has broadcasts in practically every language on earth. Another good site is the NHK (Nihon Hoosoo Kyookai) site, located at www.nhk.co.jp. Although the site is primarily in Japanese, NHK broadcasts in all major languages.

For the beginner, there are some basic tutorials posted across the Internet that explain the basics of a number of languages. Most of these are personal web sites maintained by individual language enthusiasts or educators. The quality of these sites varies, but some of them are definitely worthwhile. Locating such sites is the most difficult aspect of using them, as they are scattered throughout the millions of web pages on the Internet. Among the search engine and general portal sites, Yahoo probably does the best job of organizing these tutorial sites into lists. When you navigate to Yahoo’s home page, select “Languages” under the “Social Sciences” heading.  Then select “Specific Languages,” and you will be taken to a list of tutorial sites. About.com is another good place to look for online language tutorials. About.com maintains an extensive list of links for the more commonly studied languages.

Educational Software

For a long time, I was skeptical about language-learning software. However, I recently tried it and I was pleasantly surprised. The onscreen environment adds a dimension to language study that cannot be precisely duplicated with a textbook, or even by a textbook with CDs. This is especially true when you are learning the pronunciation of a new language. Language software enables you to point and click on a word, phrase, or picture, and then instantaneously hear the correct pronunciation in the target language.

Two of the best known producers of language study software are Rosetta Stone (www.rosettastone.com) and Transparent Language (www.transparent.com). Both of these companies offer affordable, quality programs which should be especially helpful for the beginner.

Specialty Language Stores

Most of the language-learning materials described in this chapter can be purchased off the shelf or ordered through any major bookseller. However, language-learning materials represent a specialized market. Don’t expect to drive to the neighborhood bookstore and find language materials as easily as the latest Stephen King novel or Chicken Soup book.

There are a number of retailers who specialize in serving the language student. Some focus only on the languages of particular area, while others stock materials for any language that you might possibly want to learn.

I have personally ordered from the retailers listed below. You can reach all of them over the Internet.

  • Audio-Forum: (www.audioforum.com) Audio Forum sells more than 280 courses in more than 100 languages. Audio-Forum is a particularly good source for the FSI (Foreign Service Institute) courses.
  • Cheng & Tsui: (www.cheng-tsui.com) Cheng & Tsui is a haven for students of any of the Asian languages. From Cheng & Tsui’s website, you can order courses for learning Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean.  Their inventory includes courses for intermediate and advanced students.
  • Sasuga Japanese Bookstore: (www.sasugabooks.com): This is the place to go for everything Japanese, from beginner’s texts to authentic materials written for native Japanese speakers. They also sell an extensive selection of books about Japanese culture, business, and history. In addition, Sasuga has a walk-in location in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • China Books & Periodicals: (www.chinabooks.com) As the name suggests, this San Francisco-based store is focused on the China-related niche. Along with Cheng & Tsui, this store will become one of your primary resources if you decide to study Chinese.

General Tips for Buying Language Materials

  • Always try to buy items that include a textbook as well as tapes or audio CDs. Reading comprehension and listening comprehension are two different animals. For most languages, your ability to understand written material will be several levels ahead of your ability to understand what is spoken. Therefore, you can never have too much recorded material that is supported by a textbook. Textbooks by themselves are helpful, and listening-only programs (such as the Pimsleur CDs described above) also have their place. But in my experience, nothing beats a thoroughly written instructional text paired with a solid audio component.
  • No single book, audio program, or software is a “silver bullet” for learning a language. Therefore, you should buy as many items as you practically can. As indicated above, each product category fulfills a different need. In addition, each author or editorial team will include some elements of the language, and leave other elements out. Therefore, there is much to be gained by buying multiple products within the same category. A Hugo’s course will compliment what you learn in a Teach Yourself course. VocabuLearn CDs will enhance your progress in the Pimsleur programs. It is never an “either/or” issue where language-learning materials are concerned. More is always better.

Additional Notes

  • In recent years, there has been a trend for audio recordings to be produced on CD rather than on cassette. Many of the above courses can be purchased in CD format.
  • If you don’t have any luck finding a particular package on Amazon.com or BN.com, there are other means by which you might obtain the course. Brick-and-mortar bookstores often stock out-of-print titles that they still happen to have in inventory. It would also be worthwhile to search the shelves of a used bookstore, such as Half Price Books. Half Price Books sells used books, as well as publisher’s overruns. They have an extensive selection in all book categories, including foreign languages. ( I have found a number of out-of-print gems in their Cincinnati stores. ) You can also purchase books through their online service at www.halfpricebooks.com.
  • Your public library should have many of the above courses. Although you can’t purchase a course from the library, this public resource may be the fastest method of gaining access to an out-of-print course.
  • Out-of-print titles are sometimes revived. If you search for a title and are initially told that it is no longer available, continue to check again at two- or three-month intervals. You might even write or call the publisher, and ask them if there are any plans to give the item a second life.

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