Have course, will travel

7th August 1998 at 01:00
GET BY IN... Travel packs. Major European languages plus Indonesian, Japanese and Latin American Spanish. BBC Pounds 9.99 each.

INSTANT. Book plus cassette. French, Spanish, German, Italian. Teach yourself. Pounds 10.99 each.

IN THREE MONTHS. Book plus four cassettes. Hugo from Pounds 29.95 according to language.

COLLOQUIALS. Book plus two cassettes. 49 languages. Routledge from Pounds 16.99. BREAKTHROUGH. Book plus four cassettes. French, German, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Russian, Japanese, Arabic and Marndarin, Macmillan Pounds 35.

Robin Buss plugs into home language study aids

Most people going abroad this summer need something between a simple phrase book and a full language course. The gap in the market was noted at least as long ago as 1821, when Monsieur St A Simeon published his French Speaker. "While the pupil is acquiring the art of speaking," he claimed, "he will, almost imperceptibly, learn the principal rules of construction." Most of today's self-instructional language teaching materials make very similar claims.

9.3 = It is surprising, given the transformation over the past 30 years in methods of classroom teaching, to note how little the methodology of some home language courses has changed. What is new is the technology: broadcasting and sound recording revolutionised language learning.

The BBC, a pioneer in their use, has come increasingly to favour the "language and people" formula, which incorporates a moderate amount of everyday vocabulary in a series of travelogues. The Get By In . . . series combines useful information about the country with everyday phrases, exercises and minimal grammar (disguised as "language builder"). The travel packs are ideal to take with you, or as a crash course.

Two of the longest established publishers in this field, Teach Yourself and Hugo, now have a range of courses. Hugo offers Just Enough French (etc) and On the Move cassette courses, which concentrate on essential language for travellers. From this month, Teach Yourself has Instant courses in four languages promising that, with 35 minutes' study a day, you'll speak the language of your choice in six weeks.

In reality, of course, you won't put down Instant Spanish and start chatting freely about Picasso or the merits of bullfighting. You will have a vocabulary of 458 words, some basic grammar and everyday phrases. Achieving this reasonable target means following the carefully structured lesson plans and listening to the dialogues: these are not examples of authentic speech, but the course, with its clear guidelines, will be especially reassuring and valuable for someone who has little experience in language study.

Hugo is now part of Dorling Kindersley, so the presentation of its books is very attractive. The core series is the In Three Months course which by the autumn will cover 23 languages, including French and Spanish. The approach is grimly traditional, with exercises in grammar and translation involving decontextualised phrases which are useless except to illustrate a point of grammar. Dialogue and exercises are studio-recorded. This is not the place to look for information about the culture of the country.

The Routledge Colloquials series is less rigid, but still quite orthodox in method and design. The textbooks have no colour illustrations, but plenty of translation exercises and grammar. The course I was sent for review, Colloquial French, puts the emphasis on everyday language and includes a little information on France and its people but the dialogues are still studio-recorded - and sound like it.

In contrast, the Macmillan Breakthrough series (nine languages, plus further and business courses in French, German and Spanish) is firmly centred on the needs of the traveller, with a section on life in the country in each lesson. The books are attractive, with uncluttered layout and plenty of illustrations (including everyday challenges such as advertisements, bills and labels), while the tapes are based on recordings made on the spot, at natural speed, with exercises that encourage students to pick out key words and phrases. For anyone who might eventually like to get beyond simple tourist exchanges, this is the series I would choose.

The next advance in technology was bound to lead to the computer. Macmillan, for example, has a CD-Rom to supplement the Breakthrough French and Spanish courses and Routledge has introduced Colloquials CD-Roms. It remains to be seen whether new technology will make language learning easier. The most important factor is still motivation.

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