Editor's Note: Read Part I here.

Choosing a Language Program

Once you have decided on a language, the next step is choosing a language program. This alone can seem like a daunting task. If you choose a major world language, you will be confronted by a multitude of choices, many making dramatic claims about their effectiveness. If you choose a lesser-known language, you may be faced with the opposite problem—a limited number of choices. Sifting through the plethora of foreign language materials without knowing what to look for can be frustrating. The following points will help you find a program that is both effective and a good fit for you.

What Sort of Course Is It?

Although there is a large quantity of foreign language materials and programs available, you can begin to narrow the field of choices by eliminating programs that are not suited for your goals. For example, many programs you will find at bookstores or online cater to travelers who simply want to learn some words and phrases to assist them on vacation. A program like this will typically teach the learner how to say some useful things, but will not often address grammar or the language’s written form. While a program like this is useful for its intended purpose, it will not provide the learner with an understanding of the language that will facilitate further progress once the student has moved beyond the basics. Students who want to understand and speak a language should avoid courses such as these, because while they can be very useful for travelers, they are not designed for serious study.

Another class of programs that are widely available offer instruction that exceeds that of programs designed for travelers, but still fall short of being genuinely complete language courses. These programs often make impressive claims about their effectiveness, advertising that they will make you fluent and have you discussing physics with a country’s native residents in no time at all! As with many things that seem too good to be true, these programs often fall far short of their claims. You can often spot these courses by evaluating the materials they include against the claims they make. For example, if a course claims to make you fluent, but includes three CDs and a twenty page booklet, you will easily know that the claims are exaggerated. Also, compare the claims with the cost, because while you shouldn’t need to take out a loan to learn a language, many programs like these have low price tags that reflect the limited amount of material they include.

Full Language Programs

After eliminating language courses that are geared toward travelers or are insufficient in content, you will be left with full language courses. While you may find one or two examples of this kind at a local bookstore, you will not typically find many. Rather, they are more often found online, through a university’s distance learning center, or through a homeschool bookstore. This sort of course is designed for a student who is going to consistently spend time throughout the year studying a language. Quite often, courses like these will be grouped into years (Spanish One, Spanish Two, etc.), to indicate that they are equivalent to a certain amount of study in high school or college. These courses often include textbooks of substantial size and may also include audio and video components. If your student is seeking to speak and understand a language, and make the language a part of their daily curriculum, this is the sort of course that you should look for

What to Look for in a complete language course:

1. Good organization

Having a well-organized language program is helpful to any student, but for homeschoolers, it is vital. There is nothing quite so frustrating as having a lot of material in front of you, but no idea of how, or in what order, it is supposed to be used. A foreign language course designed for home use should have a syllabus or study guide that guides your learning step by step. Be wary of courses that were originally designed for classrooms but are being sold as home study courses. Often, this type of course can be hard to follow without a teacher in the room.

2. Quality instruction

Along with good organization, good instruction is the other element that makes a course easy to use. If the course has a textbook, look through it. Are the descriptions clear? When you look at the description of an exercise, is it easy to understand what the student will be doing? Is the course designed so that a student can work through it on his or her own? These are important considerations, and you should add your own requirements as well. There may be certain elements that you consider necessary for your family and your method of study.

3. A multimedia approach

A good language course should address all the aspects of a language, including verbal fluency, written fluency, and oral comprehension. To really grasp a language and make it their own, students should develop their skills in these three areas: speaking, writing, and understanding. Finding a course that satisfies these requirements is particularly important for homeschoolers, who, in the absence of a parent who speaks the language, will be studying the language without a teacher or other students to communicate with. An appropriate solution is to find a course that uses a multimedia approach, combining a textbook, audio components, and perhaps videos. A strong audio component in a course will ensure that your student never has to guess about pronunciation and can develop his comprehension skills by hearing the language spoken. A video component can add further instruction and greater variety to daily study, as well as allow the student to see how words are formed when the language is being spoken.

Although learning the written form of a language is always beneficial, an exception may be made in the case of languages with very difficult written forms, such as Mandarin Chinese or Arabic. If the goal of your student is to learn how to speak a language with a difficult written form, they may be better off simply focusing on the spoken language at first, which will give them a base to develop the written form later on if they care to do so.

4. Grammar

There are some programs on the market these days that teach grammar in unconventional ways or simply count on the students to pick it up themselves as they progress. Unfortunately, it seems that these methods leave the student without a solid grasp of grammar—or knowing just enough to be thoroughly confused. This is unfortunate, because grammar is the foundation on which knowledge of a language is built. Learning a language without a solid grasp of the grammar is like working at a library with no filing system. Imagine for a moment that you are working at such a library. Books keep coming in, but since there’s no filing system, you have to put them in random spots on random shelves. Each of these books represents a new piece of knowledge you have acquired about a foreign language. With no filing system, are you going to be able to organize this knowledge? Or find it again down the road? Probably not! I have studied foreign languages for many years, and I still don’t think there is a substitute for a clear, concise presentation of grammar. The word “grammar” sometimes brings to mind dusty, drab looking books and stuffy teachers frozen in endless repetition, but taught in the right way, grammar is interesting and even fun!

Adding a foreign language to your homeschooling curriculum can prove to be an exciting and thoroughly enriching experience. Foreign language study develops a child’s mind, broadens his horizons, and gives him invaluable insight into the world in which he lives. By keeping in mind the points that were mentioned in this article and creating a list of your own goals for language study, you can navigate through the abundance of materials available and find a language, and language program, that will be a welcome addition to your daily curriculum.


Peter Groth was homeschooled K-12 by his parents, and is the creator of Adventure Languages, which produces foreign language programs designed specifically for homeschoolers. You can check out Adventure Languages at www.adventurefrench.com, and read more of Peter's writings at www.homeschooledanddangerous.blogspot.com

This article was originally published in the Mar/Apr ’08 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. For more information, visit http://HomeSchoolEnrichment.com