Like Teach Yourself, Routledge is also another powerhouse of language coursebooks, primarily through the Colloquial Series of Multimedia Language Courses, containing courses for at least 40-50 languages. Audio is available through CDs, or through external downloads. Alongside these courses, Routledge also has several Grammar series, and courses focused on the grammar side of things compared to the conversational aspect. The Colloquial series of courses has gained significance in the self-directed language learning community, and some of the languages covered are not supported by the Teach Yourself series. Thus in some cases, the Colloquial Series is an accessible alternative to self-instructed language learning. Examples include Kazakh, Tibetan and Mongolian. Relatively obscure languages in terms of available learning resources indeed. Here, we will be reviewing how well the Colloquial series does in serving its purpose.
The price point of these books varies between courses, but if a learner is short on cash, local libraries may have these available, although audio discs might require a separate loan. In most cases, the Routledge Colloquial series of books should be quite accessible to the learner.
Before we dive into the details, we have to understand what the primary objectives and goals of the Colloquial series are. As the name suggests, these books are more geared towards the conversational side of affairs, by introducing some expressions more readily used in everyday speech, or spoken pronunciations of some words. There are also some bits of the language’s or region’s history, traditions and culture included, as passages, dialogues or exercises, giving the learner more background information on the region.
There is no proficiency skill level mentioned in the books, only that it is largely meant for beginners of the language. After going through several of the languages courses, it does seem to target learners to achieve at least an intermediate level of proficiency, which is on par with the Teach Yourself Complete series of language books we reviewed earlier.
Given the various similarities between the Colloquial series and the Teach Yourself complete series, in terms of overall aim, targeted proficiency level and overall structure, our review will cover similar aspects, such as introduction to the writing system, and audio integration. Some distinctions have to be made, since the Colloquial series appears to be slightly more geared towards the speaking component of the language, compared to the overall balanced approach taken by the Complete series.
Until recently, the Colloquial series came packaged with audio CDs, or cassettes (in the older editions), sometimes offered separately from the main book. This later transitioned to online audio tracks offered free of charge, used in conjunction with the textbook.
Like the Teach Yourself Complete series, 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 Bengali, 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 perhaps omitting some regional quirks. Understanding that the Colloquial series tries to put more focus on everyday expressions of certain phrases and words, the audio certainly complements the text to aid the learner to pick out how letters or characters are omitted, or have their sounds altered in colloquial speech.
Introduction to Writing Systems
For languages that do not primarily use the Latin alphabet in writing and reading, the Colloquial series has a rather inconsistent coverage of the respective languages’ writing systems. Alphabets like the Cyrillic alphabet and featural scripts like Korean often receive well-rounded coverage in terms of pronunciation and writing patterns, but as we move along towards alphasyllabaries and logographic writing systems, we see this coverage tailing off.
I remember using Colloquial Tamil to help guide my learning in the target language, but I realised that the writing system introduced barely extended past the reading guides of the individual characters. As a single character such as க (ka) can represent up to six separate sounds, writing conventions and orthographies should be encompassed to account for such one-to-many character to sound associations. In spelling conventions, there were several letters I still got quite confused even after referring to the Colloquial Tamil’s writing system guide, and unfortunately, this was not elaborated on further in the book. Distinctions such as the use of ந் and ன், both of which represent two slight variations of [n], have to be made as well, as these differences often present themselves as rather subtle to the budding learner. As the book largely uses its own Tamil transcription in dialogue and exercises, I do not find Colloquial Tamil useful in teaching learners how to write and read in Tamil. This came as a slight obstacle, seeing how textbooks in Tamil for language learners are often hard to come by, or otherwise require knowledge in Hindi or other Indian languages.
This same problem shows up in languages textbooks like Japanese, Cantonese and Chinese, where very often, the use of Chinese characters and kanji are quite minimal. Once again, this poses challenges to learners who would like to use the coursebook to aid in reading and writing in the respective target languages.
Colloquial Mongolian takes an interesting step. While the book mainly covers the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet, there are some excerpts that introduce learners to Mongol Bichig, the vertical writing system which looks like Arabic, but written from top to bottom. Within the units, extra information is provided to raise some interesting quirks about Mongolian phonetics, such as the “fleeting n”, and the distinctions between hard and soft “g”. While these are aptly covered, learners would probably want to learn in which cases an “n” would be considered fleeting, or which pronunciation of “g” is adopted in which contexts. These definitely deserve a clearer explanation, to help learners read and write Mongolian.
The grammar bits are broken down into bite-sized sections, to simplify the daunting process for learners when they pick up the inner workings of their target language. What I notice is the seemingly more examples listed in one grammatical section compared to some courses in the Teach Yourself Complete series counterparts. Examples of irregular nouns, or adjectives does help a learner to note some of the most frequently used words that do not seem to follow the grammatical rules listed in the section.
However, the organisation of grammar bits still has rather haphazard organisation, perhaps to suit the organisational needs of the thematic unit. This reflects the same problem as highlighted in the review for the Teach Yourself Complete series, should these general bits be lumped together, or split as and when needed?
Fortunately, Routledge has handy some of their language Essential Grammar series, which offers a more in-depth analysis of how the language works. While departing greatly from the focus on colloquialisms intended by the Colloquial series, the grammar books offer a more complete reflection on the patterns, or usage of grammatical features in the target language. Thus, while these may seem to complement well with the Colloquial series, there are some coverage issues, considering that these two series are sort of independent of each other; a Colloquial series course may not have an Essential Grammar series counterpart. However, if the target language is generally more popular to learners, this should not pose that much of a problem.
Each unit is organised according a certain theme, which is pretty much expected since it gives a more well-organised list of vocabulary for learners to pick up. However, the Colloquial series does seem to have a more diverse set of passages used in the respective units. For instance, a chapter on food can include a passage on actual recipes, and a chapter about travel or meeting people could include an email. There are also additional dialogues included in the unit, giving each unit a well-packed coverage on texts and dialogues, compared to the Teach Yourself Colloquial series, where each unit is filled with cultural information and predominantly dialogues, giving a more limited coverage of passages.
In each unit, there is an extensive list of vocabulary given at the end of each passage, although it does not seem to follow any organisational pattern. In the early units, some letters may be marked (by underlining, or accenting) to indicate stressed syllables. Nouns can have their grammatical genders shown, alongside notable case declension or plural forms. Similarly, the verbs may also have their tense declensions shown. This is helpful in providing learners the additional information surrounding a new word, aiding in the association between word and grammatical patterns involved.
The Colloquial series certainly does cover a number of languages which overlap with the Teach Yourself Complete series, such as Norwegian, Swedish and primarily those languages often sought for by language learners. French, German and Russian are all often brought to mind. However, what the Teach Yourself series could lack, the Colloquial series might have got covered. Languages exclusively covered by Routledge among the two publishers include Tamil, Tibetan, Basque, Breton and Mongolian, all of which do not have their Teach Yourself Complete series counterparts. This garners the Colloquial series a slight niche in the area, even though the introduction to the language’s respective writing systems, or other aspects previously discussed, may fall short in effectiveness. However, this gives learners a readily accessible resource for some languages which they are interested in learning, but are not covered by the other textbook giant, the Teach Yourself series.
There are also some variations of languages covered in the Colloquial series, focusing on the phonetic quirks, or special expressions only seen in the target regional variants. We see this being covered in the Colloquial Arabic of the Levant, Egypt, Gulf and Saudi Arabia, in three separate coursebooks. However, we still see Spanish being covered as two separate entities, one as the Spanish spoken in Spain, and one as the Spanish spoken in Latin America, similar to the coverage of Spanish by the Teach Yourself Complete series.
The Routledge Colloquial series of language learning coursebooks for self-learners definitely offers a well-rounded experience for the budding language learner, making it pretty much on par with the Teach Yourself Complete series of books. However, with the added focus on colloquial expressions in dialogues and speech, the Colloquial series might gain an upper hand in preference for learners who prefer to take a more speech-oriented focus in their language learning goals.
The Colloquial series does appear to suffer from the same, or similar drawbacks and problems as the Teach Yourself Complete series, such as the organisation of grammatical sections. However, the Colloquial series may have outshone its counterparts in terms of the diversity of passages and contexts, such as sample news articles, recipes, emails and written letters. This gives learners a more diverse exposure to these various media, which they may encounter in everyday life. Overall, the Routledge Colloquial series does seem to punch above its self-directed language learning coursebook counterpart to offer a well-rounded exposure for learners, although problems like writing systems still pose a consistency issue in the quality of individual coursebooks. For the absolute beginner, I would definitely recommend this coursebook, given its feature-richness discussed in previous sections.
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 the Colloquial series? How has this line of textbooks shaped your learning experiences? Let us know through the comments!
This is also yet another coursebook which has formed an integral part in my language learning process, although I felt that some were more helpful than others. Starting off from Colloquial Swedish and Russian, I felt that these books proved reliable in learning these languages. However, as I progressed to learn Tamil, primarily with Colloquial Tamil, I found the book to be less helpful in learning how to read and write Tamil as compared to speaking and listening. Nonetheless, this was still better than not having any reliable self-learning textbooks at all. This concludes my review on the Routledge Colloquial series of language learning books, and I will see you in the next post.