In this review, we will take a look at the various publications in the language learning industry, particularly the self-instruction book giant Teach Yourself. From languages to quantum mechanics, Teach Yourself has an extremely wide spread of subjects, but this being a language learning site, we will be reviewing the Complete, Get Talking, Get Started, and Enjoy series of books, with this post primarily covering the Complete series. There are also Teach Yourself grammar, tutors, and other auxiliary parts in languages, which all fall under this huge textbook umbrella. Encompassing a total of at least 65 languages, these self-instruction books have long been the go-to for people interested in learning languages through textbooks, but want to spare themselves from the boundaries of a teacher-convened course. Having depended heavily on these books in most of my language learning experiences, it is time to answer the question that is, how effective these books are.
The back of these books often feature a skill tier system, intended to show the targeted level of competency one can hope to achieve through the course. Some are meant for absolute beginners with zero prior knowledge, while there are more advanced ones that focus more on fluency in reading, writing and conversing. More recent prints feature how each series matches up against the CEFR standard, though this guide is not always accurate. These books often include audio CDs, or online audio for playback to listen to sample conversations or monologues covered in the book. The Grammar series on the other hand primarily compiles the rules of the language — how to form certain tenses, use certain cases, and stuff like these.
The Complete series, although targeted at absolute beginners with little to no prior knowledge of a particular language, it still aims to elevate the learners skills to understand, interact and express opinions with fluency and spontaneity on a diversity of topics. It does seem like an ambitious goal, since it aims to get beginners to an upper intermediate level. They mentioned a discovery method of learning, plus other pedagogical methods which appear to have received praise and trust by learners over the decades.
Included in the set are audio discs containing recordings, although in some cases they come at an extra cost. Alternatively, local libraries may have these books, but the discs may require a separate loan, and subject to availability for loans. Also, you may find older editions of the books, which can differ in content and dialogues, and you might need a cassette player to play the audio in the older versions.
Some sections of the books have supported audio, for learners to pick up standard intonation, pronunciation and other phonetic features which are difficult to simplify and explain in plain text. Crucial sections include the pronunciation guide, which appears to be included for almost all supported language courses, and the main dialogues. One will also encounter listening exercises, with text accompaniment similar to some listening comprehension practice systems. In language courses that do not use the Latin alphabet, such as Russian and Persian, the audio also aims to help learners link sound and letter, with varying coverage depending on the language course.
Overall, the audio part seems to be well-integrated into the learning process, although it only teaches the standard pronunciations of words and often omitting some regional quirks. But from an absolute beginner’s perspective, they might prioritise getting the standard version right first, before learning regional dialects or variations of languages like Mexican Spanish, or Maghrebi Arabic, for example. It is like learning the Tokyo dialect, the basis for standard modern Japanese, first, before moving onto other dialects like Kansai-ben.
Introduction to the Writing Systems
Not all languages use the same alphabets, that is certain. Some language courses have to figure out how to teach the writing system to learners who have no prior experience to any form of that language, while keeping the jargon out. Alphabets like Cyrillic and Greek appear to be more straightforward in teaching, but this greatly changes when coming to Chinese and Japanese kanji. This sparks debate over the adequacy of exposure to a said writing system, since it is impossible to teach 1000 commonly used characters in such a short book. Pronunciations, stroke order and word-forming are all important aspects to take into consideration when teaching Chinese characters and Japanese kanji, which some learners feel have been greatly simplified or omitted in the relevant courses. Therefore, relevant coverage of writing systems is varied between courses, as authors try to balance comprehensiveness and informativeness when introducing writing systems, which are then coupled with pronunciation guides through audio or text.
Several courses to give credit to would probably be Persian and Arabic, which try to introduce cursive abjads (alphabets without vowel indications) to learners, by showing the four variations a letter can adopt. Letter joining, and writing practices are all provided, which reminded me of my first year in Arabic. These exercises are however, compressed into one unit, as compared to the incremental exposure I was given in my Arabic learning experience. In the course Complete Spoken Arabic (of the Gulf), there is relatively little emphasis on the writing system, and learners would adopt the transcription standard laid out in the book in their learning process instead. Understandably, that course aimed to introduce a more colloquial touch to Gulf Arabic, and thus has content that departs from the more standard, Complete Arabic course.
The newer editions of the books feature an info page which starts off each unit, showing the themes covered in a cultural context. It introduces learners to the customs, traditions and culture of the native speakers of the target language, accompanied with a brief introduction to vocabulary covered in the unit. For instance, numbers can be taught in conjunction with expressing phone numbers, time, or currency, and the topic of festivals can include words describing colloquial ways to give well wishes, congratulations and other greetings. The organisation of these vocabulary into thematic units is quite well done, but by no means exhaustive.
Conversations and dialogues in each unit are quite well organised, and follow quite closely to the theme covered in that particular unit. Learners would not be weirded out by the unconventional semantics of “I am an apple” like they would when they learn with Duolingo. This relevance to possible real-life situations, well-organised vocabulary and involvement of the learner in actively filling in word banks make the Teach Yourself Complete series a good all-in-one coursebook for language learning in the aspect of vocabulary.
Towards the end of the book, one can find a brief dictionary of words covered in the course, giving learners the most fundamental vocabulary to converse or travel, depending on what the learners want to achieve, or require in the context. Some display word stems, endings, or other variations that complement the grammatical aspect of the language, such as Finnish, with it having up to four forms per noun, the nominative (the basic), the genitive (the possessive), the partitive singular, and the partitive plural. For a beginner, the dictionary does try to guide the user to follow the grammatical features of each word, like grammatical gender, or other forms of the same word, like the adjective or verb. It is quite well organised, in an alphabetical order, but it could lack other common words learners might want to know when engaging in basic conversations, such as more expressions for food terms, or clothing terms. Should a learner want to travel to a place speaking their target language, these words would help, and complement the grammatical pointers covered in this book. Unlike phrasebooks however, the Teach Yourself series wants learners to try practicing speaking, reading, writing and listening the language first before engaging conversations when travelling. It is after all, a language course, not a surefire, easy and fast way to soak up a language in its conversational entirety overnight. Practice, practical applications, and more practice are still needed in every language learning experience.
The grammar parts in the course are introduced in bite-sized segments, and they try to make it as short and simple as possible, rarely exceeding a page per section. This concise presentation aims to direct the stresses about a language away from the grammar, reducing the stereotype that language learning is tough because the grammar is different or difficult. While the grammar is introduced, this is done so in an incremental way. It tries to reduce the learning curve in grammar, arguably the most daunting part in most learners’ experiences. Introducing feature by feature slowly, like the grammatical cases in Finnish, it tries to let learners get used to the patterns of one or two forms first, coupled with their usage, before moving on to other cases.
This however, might make the grammar seem to be introduced in a haphazard way. For instance, a course can introduce the dative case of a noun in one unit, whilst expanding on other uses of the dative in another unit. Should these be compiled into one unit? There is much debate about it, as a thematic unit can only introduce so much content, and there is only so much grammar that can be introduced in a particular unit. It does seem that despite this organisation, the grammar still aims to be relevant to the content covered in the thematic units, which could, according to the series, benefit the learner better than if all the uses about a grammatical feature were introduced all at once.
There is however, no simple improvement to this, as there is no one-size-fits-all course for all learners. Complementing the Teach Yourself Complete Series with a grammar book could serve as a suggested method for those who want to prioritise the grammatical aspect of the language, while using a learner’s dictionary or reading material could suffice for learners interested in building vocabulary. When we look back at the goals of the courses and intended audiences, the way the grammar is communicated to the readers would be quite well planned, designed, and functional. It does not try to overwhelm the reader with swathes of grammatical text, but still conveys the main message about the features. As grammar is the most technical part in learning a language, courses like these have to aim to be as communicable as possible, and in this regard, it achieves this objective.
There are at least 65 language course in the Complete series, ranging from the more commonly learned ones like French and Spanish, to the relatively less learned like Xhosa and Swahili. Given the diverse spread of languages, albeit generally quite clustered around European languages, it does try to target a wide range of learners based on target languages. Its courses on Irish and Welsh also try to garner interest in languages at risk of extinction, in this case, due to the increasing use of English, and decreasing young interest in the Celtic languages.
In Complete Spoken Arabic of the Gulf, the course tries to take a dive into the variants of Arabic, like those spoken in the Gulf states. Oman, the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar are all examples of countries where Gulf Arabic is spoken, introducing to the reader how speaking patterns in the Gulf are different from Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the Arabic introduced and taught by virtually all Arabic language courses. Unfortunately, other regional variants of Arabic are not covered in extent, particularly Egyptian Arabic and perhaps Maghrebi Arabic. The phonetic variants, differences in vocabulary and idiomatic expressions can greatly depart from the regular ones covered in MSA.
Similarly, the courses for Spanish and Portuguese are expanded to fit the variants in Latin America and Brazil respectively, as these language patterns can greatly differ from their European counterparts. In this regard, the Complete series appears to have a decent spread in not only language diversity, but also regional coverage in variants of some of the languages.
The Teach Yourself Complete Languages series is a well rounded set of language courses for self-learners, offering a decent spread of language courses and associated language features. With its intentions to get learners to at least a conversational level in their target languages, it seems to do well in that area. Given great reviews from various learners, it does appear to be a great coursebook, readily available to prospective learners. The pace of learning may be different and inconsistent across the board, as different languages have different difficulties, like pronunciation, grammar, writing systems or other situations.
As learners progress in proficiency, they should aim to complement this coursebook with other methods of language learning, to help shape a more contextual, practical and realistic language setting which strays, often reasonably far, from the “standard” taught in the coursebooks. This serves as a springboard towards gaining confidence to listen and read articles in the target language, whilst being able to refer back to the book for grammar and the like.
The Language Closet Rating: 8.5/10
Note: This rating is based on user experience, criticism and evaluation through this post. It is in no way an objective stance, nor is it a static rating.
How would you rate Teach Yourself? How has Teach Yourself shaped your learning experiences? Let us know through the comments!
The Teach Yourself series has been an integral part in my language learning experiences, and with it being quite ubiquitous in the self-learning community, I feel the need to give a well-rounded review to see how well the courses do in achieving their primary aims and objectives. This is however, a large expanded topic, which I had to break down according to the series, such as Get Talking, Grammar you really need to know, and Tutor series, all of which have their own objectives and will warrant their own separate reviews in time to come. I hope you have enjoyed reading this review on the Complete series, and stay tuned for the next review.