November 23, 2013 | Review Period

2013 Holiday Gift Guide: Language-Learning for $13 or Less

I am sick of the endless stream of frivolous holiday gift guides, so I am throwing my own onto the giant pile of presents.

Most things in holiday gift guides do not interest me. They are often too expensive or too useless. I can buy my own Williams-Sonoma strawberry slicer if I really want one.

This Year, Give the Gift of Language!

This Year, Give the Gift of Language!

This gift guide focuses on language-learning on the cheap, and mostly in non-electronic form, though many of the options below are available electronically as well. From my point of view, physical gifts are warmer and cuddlier than electronic files, but of course, what matters here is the response of the gift recipient—not the personal preferences of the gift-guide writer.

Language products are not appropriate gifts for everyone. If you have in your home a fanatical high school soccer player who despises Spanish class above all else, the holidays may not be the most diplomatic time of year to hand him a Spanish verb book, no matter how delightfully you have wrapped it.

The gifts described here are more likely to please people who are happily pursuing language studies and who would benefit from supplementary materials, or those who have characteristics or interests that suggest this realm would appeal—if only someone would lead the way with a nice little gift to get them started.

Say It in German, with Sunglasses for Scale

Say It in German, with Sunglasses for Scale

Dover Publications offers numerous extremely budget-conscious language products, some of which I have written about before on this website.

Say It in German ($5.95) is a wee phrasebook great for travelers and exchange students alike.

Okay, I just went to the Dover site and now I am drooling. The Say It series is also available for Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Finnish, French, Greek, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swahili.

These books will easily fit in a Christmas stocking.

I want them all, and I want them now.

A warning: they are not necessarily the most current phrasebooks out there. The German has been updated, but some of them are quite aged. That means they may be more formal and old-fashioned than is ideal, and they will definitely not have “Internet” and “e-mail” in them if they are from, say, 1958. But language changes only so fast, and they are extremely cute, and extremely cheap.

501 Essential French Verbs, About Two Cents per Verb

501 Essential French Verbs, About Two Cents per Verb

Dover’s 501 Essential French Verbs is a book of verb tables—all the conjugations you could want for not just 500 verbs, but 501! It is a heftier book with a heftier price tag, but still a mere $9.95.

This type of book could be a great gift for high school or college students studying French. If they have an emergency need for the conditional or future perfect of a particular verb, they can just zip to the right spot in the right table and resolve the grammar crisis.

This verb series is also available for verb-conjugating German, Spanish, and Italian students.

Another Dover publication is the book 2,001 Most Useful Spanish Words ($4.95), which would be a wonderful addition to that stack of reading material you keep in the bathroom. 

I know that doesn’t sound like an effusive recommendation, but it is! Although this is not the kind of book you would normally sit down with and read for two hours, you could definitely get through a small sampling of vocabulary with each visit to the, er, facility.

2,001 Most Useful Spanish Words

2,001 Most Useful Spanish Words

In alphabetical order, this book lists highly useful words, each with a translation and a sample sentence illustrating its use. I have the 2,001 series for several languages (they are published for French, German, and Italian as well as the Spanish pictured here), and the sample sentences are modern and often witty.

When attending to life’s biological necessities, would you rather read about Miley Cyrus’s changing looks in People or relearn five cool Spanish words that you remember from back in the day?

Now let’s switch to English learners. This same series is also available for Spanish speakers learning English: 2,001 Palabras Inglesas Más Útiles para Hispanoparlantes. I haven’t held that one in my hands, but I am going to go out on a limb and figure it has a construction similar to the books targeting native English speakers.

Hippocrene's American Phrasebook for Poles

Hippocrene’s American Phrasebook for Poles

McGraw-Hill's English Articles and Determiners

McGraw-Hill’s English Articles and Determiners

For the native Polish speakers in your life, Hippocrene Books offers Rozmówki amerykanskie dla Polakow: American Phrasebook for Poles ($11.95).

For the native-anything-but-English speakers in your life, McGraw-Hill offers English Grammar for ESL Learners, English Articles and Determiners Up Close, English Pronouns and Prepositions, and more. These books range from $12.00 to $13.00 and offer gobs of exercises to reinforce the concepts.

Tuttle Pocket Chinese Dictionary, with Apple for Scale

Tuttle Pocket Chinese Dictionary, with Apple for Scale

How about some Asian languages? Tuttle Publishing has some seriously cute little dictionaries that can fit with ease into purses or pockets.

I have the adorable tiny vinyl Tuttle Pocket Chinese Dictionary ($12.95) shown here. I confess I haven’t used it yet, but it is highly portable and I like the looks of it.

Even more adorable are the dictionaries in the Periplus pocket series from Tuttle (pictured below), of which I have the Korean edition. Most of them are just $6.95. 

For parents of college students majoring in some category of Asian studies, I would just like to note that a gift that would send me out of my mind with joy would be 10 Periplus dictionaries. A view into worlds, the dictionaries are super slim and lightweight and easy to carry anywhere. 

From the Barnes & Noble Site, Periplus Dictionaries As Far As the Eye Can See

From the Barnes & Noble Site, Periplus Dictionaries As Far As the Eye Can See

We’re talking about $70 for the whole pack. Look at how sweet they look en masse—like candy, but without the sugar headaches!

Okay, that’s it for the more cerebral options. Time for the dirty stuff.

I personally own two books from the Dirty series published by Ulysses Press: Dirty Yiddish and Dirty Portugese. Each is 10 bucks.

Ulysses appears to have made a full commitment to filth, with similar books for Chinese, Czech, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and even Sign Language!

College kids tend to love dirty things. Someone taking Portuguese in an academic setting is likely to delight in a book that teaches “I fucked up,” “ass,” “barf,” and “douchebag” (though I see they spelled it “douchbag”). 

There is non-profane stuff in there, too—don’t worry.

Dirty Yiddish

Dirty Yiddish

Hide This Italian Book

Hide This Italian Book

For a sexier-looking publication containing similar types of content, try Hide This Italian Book or one of its compatriots from APA Publications. Offered for Spanish and French as well, books in this series are $9.99 each—a full penny less than the Dirty books!

With all the money you save, you could buy…absolutely nothing.

From the Hide guides, the gift recipient can learn critical phrases such as “Who farted?” and “fabulous boobs.” 

So, that’s it for now, folks! I could go on for ages in this vein, but these are a few inexpensive highlights that I hope will help with your holiday shopping.

If you don’t see quite what you want on this page, or you wish to spend way, way more money on friends and family, I invite you to search the language-learning directory on this site, or just head off to your search engine of choice. Somewhere on the Wide Wide Web, you can probably find exactly the right gift for the language lover you love.

Comments (4)

Tom Tisch • Posted on Fri, November 29, 2013 - 12:26 am EST

I’m sold..2001 words sounds like my refresher ticket for dealing with my daughter’s nanny and my granddaughter, the latter who understand Spanish better than I and the former who also speaks English beautifully and fluently when she gets sufficiently exasperated with me…

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, November 29, 2013 - 12:42 am EST

Ha - fabulous! I just posted a more detailed review of that one yesterday.

I especially liked the example for audífonos: “Quítate los audífonos para poder oír lo que te estoy diciendo.” (Take off your earphones so you can hear what I’m telling you.) That could come in handy in this world.

Donna • Posted on Sat, December 14, 2013 - 2:08 pm EST

How about the Portuguese translation for
“Take off your earphones so you can hear what I’m telling you.” So I don’t have to shout at my postdoc when he is working in the lab.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, December 17, 2013 - 12:45 am EST

A native speaker has offered the following translation: “Tire seus fones de ouvido para que possa ouvir o que estou lhe dizendo.” Personally I think you should just pull the headset off his head.

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