Foreign Service Institute (#FSI) Language Courses–great free resource!

When I am networking, one of the typical “getting to know you questions” that facilitators like to spring on the unwary is “name one memorable fact about yourself.”

Although I was reluctant to do so at first, due to my inbred Midwestern modesty, I now say “I know half-a-dozen foreign languages.”   This is because no matter what else I would say to a person in getting to know them, they would invariably pick up on this one fact that I am multilingual and remember that, and sometimes only that.   “Oh yeah, I remember you, you’re the, um, language guy, right?”    I decided not to resist what works, and so I now use the label of “multilingual” as part of my “branding” while networking.

Okay, so I end up telling people I’m the language guy so they’ll remember me.   But I don’t like to boast, because my skills pale in comparison to one of my personal language-learning heroes, Benny the Irish Polyglot who runs the website    I personally prefer the term “multilingual” to “polyglot” because the latter conjures up the picture in my mind of a “thick-tongued parrot”.    In any case, I am fascinated with Benny’s methods and his people-centered approach.

But when people ask me, what do you recommend to study a language, what do I tell them?

One of the things I tell people who want to study Chinese is to go to the Foreign Service Institute’s Language Courses website,, because the foreign language courses which have texts and audio to download are well-developed courses and, most important of all for frugal foreign-language fans, free!

I used the Standard Chinese:  A Modular Approach back in college at the University of Illinois.   Its modular approach was geared towards practical language skills, as can be seen by the titles of the modules Orientation, Biographic Information, Money, Directions, Transportation, etc.    The explanations of grammar are very clear in the Comprehension and Production (listening and speaking) tapes, and they are practiced in the Drill tapes and then put to the test in the exercises that accompany each unit.

The ONLY caveat I have about the FSI Foreign Language Courses is that they are old-fashioned in terms of vocabulary.   You are not going to find “software” or “cell phone” in the vocabulary lists, since these courses were developed almost 50 years ago.   Also, the lack of political correctness may be a bit of a cultural shock for some.   In the Spanish course, there is a phrase “la gente aqui es muy sucia” or “the people here are very dirty” which made me laugh out loud, along with “no quiero bailar con la gordita”, or “I don’t want to dance with the little fat girl”.    Nevertheless, if you want to really PRACTICE listening and speaking a foreign language, these courses are very helpful.    I would have them be a supplement rather than a main course for those studying a particular language.   I have used not only the French, German, and Spanish courses and found them helpful in practicing grammar.

But particularly for those wanting to learn both Chinese grammar and vocabulary on a limited budget, I would definitely recommend the Chinese course.

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