Audio courses and review

I find a certain method of review a great foundation for conversation.

Audio courses vary considerably in how (or whether) they review what they’ve already taught. I group them into three general categories based on how useful I’ve found their review methods. I find a certain method of review a great foundation for conversation.


The most useful: Review by creating new sentences 

Some courses teach new material by asking users to create sentences in their target language by translating sentences from English. For example, such a course might teach that hablo means “I speak” in Spanish and español means “Spanish” (the language). “How do you say, ‘I speak Spanish?’” I pause the audio and answer, “Hablo español.” The teacher or better yet a native speaker says the correct sentence, and I repeat.

The course goes on to teach other material and then comes back and reviews the word hablo by asking me to make a new sentence. “Francés means the French language. How do you say, ‘I speak French’?” Answer: Hablo francés. Now I’ve reviewed the word hablo and created a new (for me) sentence in Spanish. After an hour, I’ve said a lot of new sentences aloud, and after 10-12 hours, I find myself starting to talk to myself spontaneously in my target language. That’s a tremendous foundation for conversation. 


Courses in this category include Michel Thomas, Language Transfer, and Boostcamp (by Language Transfer)–the same courses I mentioned in my recent blog article, “Creating new sentences aloud, part one.”


Audiolingual Method courses (such as the old FSI courses available for free on the Yojik website) fall under this category as well. Learners are encouraged to memorize the dialogs at the beginning of each lesson. Then, in the grammar drills section, certain sentences from the dialog are used as model sentences for the drills. Following cues, learners create new sentences by substituting words or somehow altering the model sentences (e.g. making them negative, changing them into questions, etc.). They then hear and repeat the correct answers. They’re supposed to do the drills with the book closed. It’s possible, however, to listen to and/or read the drills with the correct answers once or twice first, then do the drills one or more times with the book closed. No matter how it’s done, they review by generating new sentences in their target language or learning 6-12 sentences that exemplify a grammatical point instead of just 1-2 sentences. 


Many people claim that Paul Noble is similar to Michel Thomas, but when it comes to review, it’s not. 


Somewhat useful: Review by recalling already-learned sentences 

Audio courses in this category start off the same way–teaching one or two sentences that exemplify a grammatical point or a useful expression–but review by asking users to recall the sentences they learned earlier. For example, the word hablo is taught with the sentence Hablo español and reviewed with the same sentence, Hablo español.” After an hour, I’ve said Hablo español” several (or many) times. After 10-12 hours, I’ve learned a fair amount of useful example sentences, but I don’t spontaneously start talking to myself in my target language. (Other people have reported that they do, but that hasn’t been my experience personally.) 


There’s a way I get around this shortcoming: After a lesson, I review some of the sentences on my own, and then create new sentences by substituting words from one sentence into another (and hope that I don’t make grammatical errors in the process, since I have no one to check my work). I talked about this in my blog article, “Creating new sentences aloud, part two.”


Courses in this category include Pimsleur, Paul Noble, Rocket Languages, and Glossika. They’re all fine courses. I use them and recommend them to others; I just have to work harder to supplement them in order to get the same results as the courses in the first category. 


Less useful: No review 

Next you have many courses that include no review whatsoever, but they at least provide a lot of example sentences. I have to split my time between continuing with new lessons and reviewing old lessons. (Granted, even in the first category, I might study a lesson twice, if the material is completely new and difficult for me–but twice is sufficient.) Here, spaced repetition might be useful. Hypothetically, I could review a lesson after a day, a few days, a week, etc. In addition to review, it’s also helpful for me to create new sentences on my own after reviewing the lesson, though I have no way to verify whether I create the new sentences correctly. (This will be the topic of my third installment which I haven’t written yet, “Creating new sentences aloud, part three.”) 


Courses in this category are basically audio phrase books, like the old cassette Language/30 courses (some available now for download at eStories). A good contemporary example is Book2 (also called 50 Languages), which is free of charge. I like these courses, too, but they aren’t my first choice. 


Some audio courses are primarily lists of words to be repeated. They’re still far better than learning just from a book without audio, but pedagogically they’re far inferior to everything I talked about above. Review means replaying the audio many times, and if I make my own sentences, they’ll probably be both grammatically incorrect and unnatural to native speakers’ ears. I would consider these courses last resorts or mere supplements. 


Examples include the Behind the Wheel series and Vocabulearn. Actually, a surprising number of courses aimed at tourists and inexperienced language learners fall under this category. I tend to lose interest after 10 minutes and am not motivated to review them, personally. 


No matter what 

My approach as a beginner is to create new sentences and to use mostly audio courses whenever possible. A textbook with a lot of audio (e.g. Dos Mundos) or dialogs with transcripts (Olly Richards’ Conversations series or Innovative Language podcasts) are helpful for reading and listening practice and can grow my vocabulary, but I tend to minimize written material as a beginner if I can. While dabbling in Tagalog this winter, I didn’t have that luxury, but in Swahili, I do. 

How I became an auditory learner

I hope my example will show you that it’s possible to train yourself to switch modes of learning.

Like most people, I started out preferring to learn languages primarily visually, from textbooks and the like. Audio input was also important, but it was meant to support the written textbook and certainly not to stand alone. As a result, I tended to know spelling better than pronunciation, and reading was a lot easier than listening. 

Fortunately, one of the first foreign language courses I bought (after completing Spanish Now, Level 1, a self-study textbook with audio found in many US bookstores) was Just Listen ‘n Learn Spanish published by Passport Books. It was a textbook with 3 audio cassettes (yes, this was a long time ago), but the book was intended to support the audio rather than the other way around. The course (now way out of print) was centered around short dialogs between a couple of hosts and native speakers. If they weren’t speaking at native speed, they at least spoke fast enough to maintain their natural intonation and rhythm. To me, as a beginner, it felt like they were speaking native speed. I get the impression that the host or hostess would guide the conversation, but that they couldn’t control what the native speaker would say–except in the listening exercises at the end of each section, which were totally scripted and slowly-spoken. I loved that course. It was also my first introduction to a primarily input-based approach to language learning. 

I also bought and started studying Practice and Improve Your French (also on cassettes with books to support them), which was even more listening-based than the Just Listen ‘n Learn series–but targeted to low-intermediate or high-beginner learners. The dialogs were scripted, but read by enthusiastic voice actors which made it entertaining. 

I struggled a lot in Japan and South Korea because I still preferred to learn visually, and because I’m a reclusive introvert. Even though one of my goals for living in Japan was to master the language, I spent most of my spare time doing reading practice and never learned conversation until years after I returned to the US. 

Then I started delivering pizzas and driving hour-long commutes to various IT temp jobs. This gave me a lot of potential study time in my car but little time in front of a desk (which was–and is–usually too messy to study at anyway). This situation forced me to change my study tactics. 

I either had to use completely-audio materials (such as podcasts intended to teach a foreign language to beginners) or primarily-audio materials (Audiolingual Method courses, which included a textbook but which were intended primarily to be studied by audio). Over time, I discovered Pimsleur (which I studied for a long time but then got sick of) and then Michel Thomas (which I still love). More recently, I discovered Glossika (which I like) and Language Transfer (which I like even more). I’ve spent a lot of time listening to podcasts by Innovative Language (which I like) and Deutsche Welle (which I love). 

When there is an accompanying textbook or PDF, I either listen to the audio first before reading the text (e.g. podcasts), or I read the textbook first and then put it away and use only the audio (as in the case with Audiolingual courses). 

Over the past few years, I’ve grown accustomed to learning primarily via audio. I no longer study in my car (because of concerns of distracted driving, and also because of problems with my car stereo). However, I study more and more in bed with the lights out. I try to study every morning when I wake up, working on making it a habit. Less regularly, I often study either when I go to bed (listening to dialogs until I get sleepy) or when I wake up in the middle of the night (making it easier to get back to sleep). 

If there are transcripts of the dialogs to read, I do so during my lunch break at work, and only after hearing the dialogs a few times. 

All of this listening and speaking makes it much easier for me to speak the language. Good listening comprehension takes a very long time to learn even with a mostly-audio approach, but it still comes easier now than it did when I used a primarily visual approach to learning. Now I often discover myself talking to myself in this or that language, spontaneously and unintentionally. That didn’t happen when I learned from primarily visual materials. 

Eventually I practice conversation with tutors via italki, but I’ve already written blog posts about that. Note that resources like italki and Skype didn’t exist when I started learning languages, and I only discovered them a few years ago. 

I hope my example will show you that it’s possible to train yourself to switch modes of learning. If you want to master conversation and listening eventually, try to rely less on written resources for learning languages. Find a balance that works for you, but it might take you a long way out of your comfort zone and even be frustrating sometimes. That’s normal: It doesn’t mean you’re stuck forever in a visual mode of learning. It just means you need more practice with audio resources. 

Sentence build-ups

The point of this method is to make difficult things easy.

One of my favorite methods in learning languages is repeating recordings of native speakers, trying to speak as quickly as they do and copying their intonation, rhythm, and other aspects of their pronunciation. I pause after each sentence of a dialog and repeat it at least three times. If the sentence is too long, I pause it after each clause. Another day, I go through the same dialog again. Eventually, the long sentences that were difficult become relatively easy to say.

I believe this method has helped me immensely in my language learning. Not only does it improve my pronunciation–making it easier for native speakers to understand me–but it also improves my listening skills. The rapid speech of native speakers doesn’t bother me as much because I practice speaking quickly via this method. I believe that everybody learning a foreign language should spend part of their study time repeating after recordings–if conversation is one of their goals. It might even improve a person’s reading skills, especially if they’re a beginner.

They don’t even have to be dialogs. They could be individual sentences, such as those used in an audio phrase book such as Book2 or Language/30. Or you could do it with Glossika. Even the example sentences from the grammar section of your textbook will work, if they are also recorded in an audio file or an audio CD. If they aren’t, maybe you can hire a native speaker to record them for you.

Shadowing is a similar method which other people recommend, but which I haven’t tried. Essentially, you’re doing the same thing as I do, except you don’t pause the recording. Instead, you repeat what you heard while the speaker is still saying the sentence. You try to finish the sentence soon after the speaker did. This requires you to listen and speak at the same time. The technique sounds too stressful for me, which is why I pause the recording and repeat three times instead.

Once you have some practice repeating after recordings in your target language, you can even practice with written sentences. That is, you can use example sentences that you find anywhere–in a grammar book, in a textbook that doesn’t include audio, in a phrase book, or in a written article. With this technique, you start with the long words in the sentence and practice saying them until they are easy to say. Then you take short phrases (prepositional phrases, etc.) and repeat them a few times. Then longer phrases and clauses. Eventually, practice the full sentence until it’s easy. Review these same sentences another day. You may or may not need to build them up again.

I often do these steps in reverse order: First, I do sentence build-ups with the written dialog until I can say every sentence somewhat easily (or at least each long clause within the sentence). Then I repeat after the audio, listening for anything I’ve been saying incorrectly and focusing on correcting my errors. However, this way is risky because you can learn to say things incorrectly and then repeat them incorrectly after the audio. Still, it’s much easier (and less stressful!) to do it this way. Stress makes it harder to retain what you’re learning. If you have to adapt a method to reduce your stress, do so.

Don’t try this method for long periods of time. A few minutes here and there through your day will be much easier and give you better results, I think. If it starts becoming too difficult or you start feeling fatigued, stop. Come back later and try again. What’s difficult the first time might be surprisingly easy later or on another day. In fact, that’s one of the mottos I live by: “Everything is hard before it is easy.”–Goethe

The point of the sentence build-up method is to make difficult things easy. This includes speaking quickly, pronouncing long words, sounding more like native speakers so they understand you better, saying complex sentences, and understanding rapid speech.

What is the Audiolingual Method?

Audiolingual courses are extremely dry and tedious by nature, but even completing a few chapters can be helpful.

The Audiolingual Method of teaching languages was popular in the mid-20th Century in the United States. The most well-known examples today are the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) courses freely available on the Internet (because their copyrights have expired) or available for purchase from Barron’s “Mastering” series, Monolingual Books, and other sources. But some are university textbooks, such as Modern Russian 1 by Clayton Dawson, et al., Beginning Chinese by John DeFrancis, and Beginning Japanese: Part 1 by Jorden and Chaplin. Many of these courses are taught using the Latin alphabet rather than the language’s writing system, though separate readers are available to learn to read the language.

When completing a course, learners know a thousand or two thousand words and a lot of grammar. They can’t use the language yet (in conversation, for example), but if they continue their studies independently or in a country where the language is spoken, they can allegedly learn very quickly, having already mastered the grammar. That is, they can focus on meaning–having already mastered the form–instead of having to think about both at the same time. In short, a learner using an audiolingual course starts off learning more slowly than someone using a modern method, but has the potential of surpassing other learners later. The tortoise transforms into a hare–eventually, after completing a long, tedious course. I believe it because I learned French grammar first in high school and college and couldn’t use the language, but later I could master French through reading, listening, and conversation and ignore the grammar because I already knew it.

The method was designed to be used with a teacher, a class of students, a textbook, an audio recording with hundreds of hours of audio, a language lab (because MP3 players and smartphones didn’t exist yet, and these courses were originally recorded on reel-to-reel audio tape) and some homework. Nowadays, some ambitious language learners like myself use them independently, but keep in mind that they were intended to be used with the support and guidance of a teacher.

Here’s the method: Memorize one or more dialogs which include examples of the new vocabulary and grammar taught in the chapter. Memorize it really well before continuing through the chapter! The better you memorize it, the less stressful the grammar drills will be. Also read the dialog’s notes and the chapter’s grammar explanations, but only as much as you find them helpful—that is, they aren’t the primary means of learning grammar. Then do a lot of grammar drills with the teacher and again with the audio recordings, using the textbook sparingly. That is, the drills are mostly audio. Everything is spoken at native speed even from the first or second lesson, so that you can get used to the rhythm, accent, intonation, etc. (prosody) and so that you can understand native speakers sooner. At the end of each chapter, for review, the course may or may not direct you to translate sentences and/or engage in extremely limited conversation activities.

The grammar drills are of various types. In Transformation Drills, the teacher or recording says a list of sentences and asks learners to make them negative, change them into questions, or change them in some other way. In Substitution Drills–the most common type–the teacher says a sentence and then a word. The learners take a word out of the sentence and put the new word in, changing word endings as needed to make the new sentence grammatically correct. In Expansion Drills, the teacher starts with a very short sentence, then keeps adding phrases to make longer and longer sentences.

The method is based on the behaviorist approach to psychology: Repetition and correction were believed to be the way to learn any skill, even grammar. Behaviorism is no longer commonly accepted, but the better audiolingual courses continue to be useful nonetheless. They provide many example sentences to demonstrate each grammatical form and force learners to speak and listen at native speed.

There are exceptions–such as the FSI Korean course because of weaknesses in its design and because Korean grammar has actually changed a little in half-a-century. Since FSI courses were designed for foreign service personnel, they use formal registers of speech–which is not a problem in most languages, but I think it is a problem in Korean. Native Korean speakers say they don’t talk anything like the FSI Korean course teaches.

Also, some FSI courses (notably for Portuguese) use a “programmed” method which involves listening to a lot of short language segments and selecting answers in order to make learners notice features in grammar and pronunciation. Programmed courses can still be helpful for complete beginners but they are designed very differently than the courses I’ve been describing. FSI also has pronunciation courses for French and Arabic, which are freely available for download from websites such as Yojik. I’ve never used them, so I can’t review them.

Audiolingual courses are extremely dry and tedious by nature, but even completing a few chapters can be helpful. The Russian grammar I’m the most comfortable with is the grammar I learned from Modern Russian 1. I could understand Japanese native speakers more easily after completing a few chapters of Beginning Japanese: Part 1. And now I’m studying Beginning Chinese because of its use of sentence build-ups to give me practice with very short sentences before I have to learn to pronounce longer ones (and because the course includes optional books which teach Chinese characters gradually with a lot of review).

In a future article, I plan to share ways I adapt audiolingual courses to make them a little closer to a comprehensible input approach, less tedious, and/or more useful as preparation for conversation.