September 11, 2013 | Review Period

Not a Fan of Supposedly Practical Language Guides

An emphasis on travel and tourism language is dull and doesn't usually yield great results anyway.

I have returned to a book I got only at the very end of last year’s Portuguese unit and therefore didn’t experience much of before now: Sue Tyson-Ward’s Practice Makes Perfect: Beginning Portuguese with Two Audio CDs. I am not a huge fan of this one, partly because it focuses pretty heavily on practical travel-related vocabulary. The cover, in fact, tells me it is “ideal for travel to Portugal or Brazil.”

Some Good Stuff in Here, But Pretty Dull for My Purposes

Some Good Stuff in Here, But Pretty Dull for My Purposes

On page 7, I learned that um quarto de casal is a double room and um quarto individual is a single room. I really don’t care at this stage.

Now, I love travel. I am totally pro-travel.

However, I have a working theory that many people are put off from language study precisely because they buy these supposedly practical guides to help them with their business or recreational travel and then find themselves very bored learning terminology for different kinds of hotels and train platforms and overseas banking transactions. It is about the least inspiring type of vocabulary you can learn, in my opinion. (Sorry, travel and hospitality industries.)

I am wondering whether any of my readers happen to share this point of view. 

This theme has come up on my website before. I am not, as I have mentioned, drawn to phrasebooks. For one thing, they help you ask questions whose answers you have not typically acquired the facility to comprehend, because all you are working with is a phrasebook rather than more meaningful language background.

Have you ever asked a question in a foreign language and been understood (yay!), only to be confronted with a tongue-rattling onslaught of information that leaves you no better informed than before, but possibly embarrassed at your total incomprehension? (Okay, I will concede the point that some benefit can accrue from such attempts, but I maintain nonetheless that phrasebook-abetted communications yield unreliable outcomes.)

Another point I have made previously: it is precisely in tourist-friendly places such as hotels and restaurants and train stations that you are likely to find people who can communicate with you in English anyway.

Therefore, I am more interested in, well, life vocabulary—the stuff I want to talk about normally. Like at a party. Human things. Family, friends, professional interests, recreational activities, books, movies, and so on. 

That’s what makes me attached to a language. Learning the word for “sister” is so much more exciting than learning the term for “credit card”!

Comments (5)

Elizabeth • Posted on Thu, September 12, 2013 - 4:44 pm EST

I stay away from the tourist-oriented books when I can, although I do usually end up with the “Teach Yourself” version of whatever my current language obsession is. The dialogues are definitely geared for tourist, especially in the beginning chapters, but grammar is also usually given it’s fair part.

A few months ago, I stumbled on a small French primer from 1920 at a local bookstore. The focus of the opening dialogue was about a walk outside, and finding a small bird’s nest -  how different from our books now! Sadly, I had no money with me, and by the time I made it back, the book had been sold.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, September 12, 2013 - 5:30 pm EST

A bird’s nest?! How charming! And what a sad ending that tale has! ;)

jose luiz serafini • Posted on Sun, September 15, 2013 - 7:23 pm EST

1.  And I have a 1930 copy of “Le Petit Parisien”, by a R. Kron, with a varied array of vocabulary for all situations, displayed with nonchalant abundance (Herr Kron kindly suggests you read the book over every month). He also teaches good manners:

Les visites de cérémonie (en redingote ou en jaquette noire et en gants clairs) se font l’après-midi, entre 3 et 7 heures. On ne reste guère qu’un quart d’heure.


Lorsqu’un marriage est décidé, il est, parfois, tenu secret jusqu’au dîner de fiançailles…. La durée des fiançailles est généralement três courte.

And it does have a few pages of dialogue, but the answers are oddly noncommital:

Q.  Que veut dire cela en allemand?
A.  C’est une question difficile à résoudre.

Q. Comment appelle-t-on…?
A.  Je ne sais pas trop; mais…

Q.  Qu’entendez- vous par…?
A.  Vous exigez trop de moi.

2. Who remembers those primers edited by I.A.Richards,, the linguist and literary critic, entitled   “....through Pictures”? They consisted of schematic drawings, with stick figures fooling around while teaching a core vocabulary of some 700 words. The grammar sprang out from the context.. No one went to hotels.

3. The same Richards, together with C.K. Ogden, “invented” Basic English, an international language, with just 850 words. They even translated to Basic large portions of the Bible, Plato and Shakespeare (in each case, with a supplementary vocabulary of some 100 words).

4. Now imagine flying to Stockholm, with one of those booklets which propose to teach you a hundred or so USEFUL words and expressions in Swedish during your flight. Wouldn’t that be OK? Why should one ask for more?  But probably the kind of people who would give themselves the trouble of learning that little wouldn’t be the kind of people who would satisfy themselves with SO little.

5. And Dr Seuss, who managed to pack “The Cat in the Hat” with such wild action with no more than 223 words… All REAL and USEFUL words, like “fish”, “fun” and “trick”...

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, September 16, 2013 - 11:57 am EST

“Fish,” “fun,” and “trick” are EXCELLENT words.

How romantic these all sound. I have just ordered one of the I.A. Richards books for Italian. Thank you for this trip into a less hotel-reservation/train-schedule-obsessed past.

Shannon • Posted on Tue, October 08, 2013 - 11:35 am EST

I agree with you. I bore easily with tourism-related vocabulary. It’s dull and pretty useless. I prefer to learn words and phrases I can use in actual conversations.

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