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FSI Course Review: A Free Langauge Course from the US Government

By Jesse / July 30, 2015
Check out this free and effective Spanish course made by the US government.

Review of: FSI Spanish Programmatic Course

Use: A Spanish Course for Self-study

Effectives

The courses are effective but they're pretty boring

Price

All Courses from the FSI are free

Time Commitment

A single lesson can take hours

Ease of Use

The course is laid out well and very easy to follow 

Structure

Lessons are highly structured and cover writing, speaking, listening, and reading

I Like

  • The course is free
  • It covers all aspects of a language
  • Lessons & units are easy to follow

I Don't Like

  • Lessons can be very boring
  • The course is dated
  • Sometimes it's hard to double check your work

Summary: The FSI language courses are free courses made by the US government. Their lessons are dense and cover all aspects of a foreign language. If you stick to their curriculum you will learn some Spanish.

The unfortunate thing about the courses are that they are pretty and old and boring. They are completely free to download so it won't cost you anything to check them out.

All FSI courses are free and legal to download and use.

What is the Foreign Service Institute's Spanish Course?

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is a division within the US Department of State. The FSI's job is to train federal employees who work in the foreign relations field for the government of the United States. Over the years the FSI has released courses for over 40 languages into the public domain, meaning they are free for anyone to copy or download.

There are several Spanish courses made by the FSI including introduction courses specifically for Latin America, Puerto Rico, and Spain. This review is about the Programmatic Spanish course which is the most comprehensive.  

Course Overview

The curriculum consists of 2 volumes with total of 45 units or lessons (I prefer to use the word lessons and will refer to the "units" as lessons in this review). There 25 lessons in the first volume and 20 in the second volume. The materials included in the course are a text book (pdf) consisting of various exercises and tests, an instructor's manual with answers for each lesson, and the corresponding audio tracks recorded by native Spanish speakers.

Each lesson is a combination of speaking, writing, listening, and reading. The material gets very dense and you can tell as you go through their material they are aiming to make you comfortable with all aspects of the language.

How Each Lesson is Laid Out

The lessons usually start off with pronunciation practice where the recording plays a word or sentence and you are required to either determine if it was said correctly or say it yourself. The FSI curriculum usually pairs writing with pronunciation as well. In the writing sections you will write either common syllables such as “que” and “qui” or words with similar sounds.

After the pronunciation and writing sections each lesson has a conversation to study.  You are required to listen to the recorded of the audio dialogue piece by piece and then if needed follow along with the text transcription.  

The conversation is repeated several times in the audio,  focusing on either pronunciation, comprehension, and lastly fluency (being able to say it up to speed and sound natural).

Following the dialogue there is usually a grammar point or two covered, such as the conjugation of a particular kind of verb or use of "lo" and "la", etc. At the end of each lesson are a series of test exercises that review the material you covered in the previous lessons.

Foreign Service Institute Spanish Course

A look at one of the lesson conversations

The testing exercises are pretty thorough. Often times they give you a written sentence in English and you have to say it in Spanish, or they give you a series of questions and you have to answer back with correct verb conjugations . They’ll also make you write out words. The good thing about this is that you spend a fair amount of time producing words and thoughts in Spanish.

My Experience 

I went through the first couple lessons in about an hour or so. After that things got hard fast and each lesson took 3-6 hours each.  The lessons got progressively larger and more difficult. The more you cover the more review material is added to each lesson which can make them pretty big.

I should also note that I took extra time to make sure I was completely comfortable with each part before I moved on, in which case I guess you don’t necessarily have to be as thorough as I was. The text would recommend that I listen or read something 5 times I would do 10, mainly because I couldn’t remember it otherwise and I wanted to feel comfortable with each exercise.

The thorough approach paid off because I can still remember a good amount of what I learned. I remember I would literally hear the recordings of the dialogue in my head when I went to sleep.

Some Drawbacks

Foreign Service Institute Course

The course is almost 50 years old

The course works as far as I can tell, and it is free, so I guess can't complain. Even so there where a few drawbacks in the material. The courses the FSI provides are from 1967. So it could have some words or phrases that aren't as commonly used in present day Spanish. I don't remember any, but there could some minor issues in the later lessons.

Also the instructor's manual didn't have all of the answers for the tests and exercises. Thanks to the internet this isn't a huge deal, but it is an inconvenience.

Finally my biggest qualm about the FSI's Spanish course is that is very dry and very boring. Learning a foreign language by only doing exercises and completing tests gets old really fast. I wouldn't recommend that you use this course alone to learn Spanish.  If you were to use it you would definitely want to pair it with some real life practice with native speakers. 

Conclusion

If you’re serious about learning Spanish you may want to at least check out FSI’s curriculum. Given the fact that it’s completely free it won’t hurt to try it out. I’m not sure I would ever use it as the center point of my Spanish learning, but that’s mainly because it’s boring not because I don’t think it will work.

I guess if you’re a no nonsense/straight to the point person this curriculum might be good for you. Below is the link to the FSI's Spanish courses.

About the author

Jesse

Spanish learning aficionado and cofounder of Spanish Hackers.

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