Headstart Courses – An Introduction and Study Guide

Article by Darren Kenny

Headstart courses

While the Basic courses can be seen as FSI’s core materials, the shorter Headstart courses are another invaluable learning resource for anybody who wants to learn one of the languages covered. But what exactly are Headstart courses? How do they differ from Basic? Who should study them? And why?

In this post, I will give you an overview of the Headstart courses, answering these questions and more – as well as giving you guidelines and all the study tips you need for making the most of these excellent free online language courses.

Courses for soldiers, not diplomats

Headstart courses are different from FSI Basic in many ways. However, an important distinction is that, unlike the Basic courses, which were created by the Foreign Service Institute, Headstart courses were produced by the DLI, the Defense Language Institute.

This means that while the Basic courses were designed for US diplomatic staff, the Headstart courses were intended for service personnel. They were created for members of the US military who were serving abroad and who needed to learn the basics of the language in the countries where they were stationed.

fsi vs dli courses

For this reason, you will find that Headstart courses focus on languages that are spoken in parts of the world where the US has a strong military presence.

It also means that the language taught in the courses can have a distinctly military flavor – but more on this later.

Shorter courses than Basic – and suited to self-study

Another difference is the length of the courses.

The FSI Basic materials were originally designed for six months of intensive study – and importantly, they were supposed to be guided by a teacher.

After completing a Basic course, a diplomat wouldn’t have full mastery of the language, but they would have a good level of proficiency, allowing them to function in the broad range of situations required in their posts.

Headstart courses, on the other hand, are much shorter and are designed to teach you the basics, giving you the language skills you require to cope in specific day-to-day situations in a foreign country. This means these courses focus on common interactions like shopping, asking for directions, eating out and so on.

After completing a Headstart course, you will be able to deal with the situations covered confidently – although unfamiliar situations are likely to pose more of a challenge, at least at the beginning.

Finally – and crucially – Headstart courses are designed to be studied either with a teacher or autonomously, which makes them much easier to use for somebody studying alone.

Which languages are available?

Since the Headstart courses were originally created for US service personnel, they are available for the languages spoken in places where the US military is present. Here is the list of the courses currently available:

  • French Headstart for Belgium
  • German Headstart
  • Italian Headstart
  • Japanese Headstart
  • Korean Headstart
  • Norwegian Headstart
  • Spanish Headstart for Latin America
  • Spanish Headstart for Puerto Rico
  • Spanish Headstart for Spain
  • Tagalog Headstart (Headstart for the Philippines)

What is the structure of the courses?

Although there is some variation between courses, they all follow the same basic format.

Each course consists of several modules, usually around eight, and each of these is divided into between two and four units. Sometimes the terminology is different – for example, “units” can be called “lessons” – but the structure remains the same.

Every module focuses on a specific communicative situation, so it could be something like “asking for directions” or “taking a taxi”, and at the beginning of each module, you are given the language objectives for that module.

At the beginning of a unit, you are presented with the new language for the unit. In most cases, this is done in the form of a dialog accompanied by an English translation, which is followed by a few notes on what you have seen. However, in some of the courses, the new words and expressions are presented in the form of a list.

Following the presentation of the new language, you will find a selection of exercises and drills that are designed to allow you to practice and internalize everything you have learned.

In all cases, the courses are accompanied by audio recordings, and detailed instructions are contained in these recordings. This means that, regardless of how the language is presented, all you need to do is listen to the recording and follow the instructions.

One major difference between courses is that some must be studied in order while others can be studied in any order you choose. This means you need to check the written instructions to see how you should approach the course you are planning to study!

Most courses also include self-evaluation quizzes that allow you to evaluate your progress before moving on to the next section.

Who should study Headstart courses?

There are several reasons why you might choose to study a Headstart course. Here are some situations when Headstart would be a particularly good choice.

  • To prepare for a trip

Becoming proficient in a language can take many years, but being able to speak a bit of the language before traveling to a country can greatly enhance the time you spend there.

Since Headstart courses teach you what you need to function effectively in specific common situations, studying one of these courses in the months leading up to a trip would be ideal preparation.

For example, English is not widely spoken in Korea, and a basic grasp of the language would greatly facilitate your travel there, allowing you to order food, check into a hotel, take a taxi or deal with other situations you are likely to face.

You would also be able to have simple conversations and exchange information with people you meet, allowing you to gain a deeper understanding of the country while having more contact with the locals.

As a result, your time in the country would be far more rewarding and memorable.

  • As an introduction to a language you want to study

If you are planning to take up a language and have higher ambitions than simply being able to “get by” in the country, Headstart courses also provide the perfect introduction to a language.

They allow you to master the pronunciation while acquiring a stock of phrases, providing a firm foundation on which to build your knowledge of the language with further study and practice.

  • Before starting an FSI Basic course

For complete beginners, FSI Basic courses can be a challenge. This is because they were not designed for autonomous study, and you may find yourself overwhelmed by the mass of material they contain.

However, if you plan to study French, German, Korean or Spanish, working through the Headstart course first would help you prepare for tackling the FSI Basic course when you have finished.

After completing the Headstart course, you would have a basic knowledge of the language that you could expand using the more comprehensive materials found in the Basic courses.

  • To supplement another coursebook

Finally, if you are starting a new language with another coursebook, the Headstart materials can be an excellent supplement to your learning.

For example, if you study Norwegian with Teach Yourself, you will be introduced to the pronunciation, vocabulary, expressions and grammar of the language – but your opportunities for practice will be limited.

However, by supplementing Teach Yourself with the Headstart materials, you will be exposed to the new language in far more situations and contexts, giving you many more chances to practice, drill and internalize what you learn.

This, in turn, will help you master the language more fully and gain a much higher level of proficiency than just using one study method alone.

In many ways, supplementing another coursebook with Headstart like this can be the best way to make the most of these materials.

What are the problems associated with Headstart?

While there are so many good reasons for studying Headstart, these materials are by no means perfect. Here are a couple of the drawbacks – as well as how to minimize them.

  • Military related vocabulary

First, since these materials were designed for serving members of the military, you will find that much of the language taught is relevant to military matters.

For example, in many of the courses, in the unit dealing with introductions, you will learn the words for lieutenant, captain, major and so on.

However, for most beginners, these are not the most useful words to learn at this stage, so the best advice is simply to ignore them. You will need to use these words to complete some of the drills, but beyond this, you don’t need to remember them.

When studying a language, always focus on what is useful to you and just let the rest go. This means that, unless you are a serving soldier, the words for army ranks are a perfect example of the kind of words you don’t need to worry about.

  • Dated materials

The second problem with these materials is that they are now a little dated since most of them were published in the early 1980s. This is not quite as bad as the Basic courses, most of which date back to the early 1960s, but you need to realize that language evolves rapidly, and some of the material may now no longer be relevant.

The best advice is simply to be aware of this and to understand that some of the language might be out of date. In some cases, it will be obvious, but in others, not so much.

This is another reason why it is a good idea to use these materials in conjunction with another more modern coursebook. In this way, you can benefit from the wealth of materials available in Headstart, but at the same time, you can refer to your coursebook to guide you on more recent usage.

  • Old-fashioned teaching methods

Another more minor problem is that the teaching style employed is now also a little old-fashioned, particularly in the courses where the language is first presented in the form of lists rather than dialogs.

However, this is not such a big problem since you are free to adapt the materials to suit your study style – and I’ll come to this in just a moment.

How can you study Headstart courses?

Unlike FSI Basic, since the Headstart courses were designed to be suitable for autonomous study, you can use the materials largely in the way they were intended.

The best way to study a Headstart course is to begin by reading the introduction at the beginning for information specific to your course. This will tell you which order to study the modules in as well as giving you any information specific to the language you are studying (for example, the Korean writing system).

Following this, you can just start listening to the recordings and working through the units.

Here are a few extra tips that will help you make the most of these materials.

  • Adapt the materials to your learning style and needs

Headstart courses are designed to be flexible, which means if you find that doing things differently seems to work better for you, then that is the way you should study. Don’t follow the rules blindly if it doesn’t suit your learning style.

A good example of this is courses where new vocabulary is presented in a list at the start of each unit for you to memorize. Nowadays, this kind of memorization is no longer considered effective, so it might be better just to go through the list for pronunciation and then focus on assimilating the language later when you reach the dialog section.

  • Listen before reading

A strong suggestion is that you listen to the new language and try to pronounce the new words before you look at them on the page.

This is because if you see the words in writing first, you will automatically try to pronounce them as if they were written in English – which will invariably be wrong.

Instead, listen to the sounds and repeat what you hear first – and then read after.

As the introduction to many of the Headstart courses quite pertinently points out, you should always trust your ears and not your eyes when it comes to pronunciation.

  • Don’t repeat something you don’t understand

You should also avoid repeating something if you don’t understand it. Our brains are very adept at taking shortcuts, and sometimes, rather than processing the information fully, you will find that you can repeat the correct words without understanding what you are saying.

This means that, as you work through a Headstart course, you should be aware of this and stop yourself if you catch yourself doing it – otherwise, you won’t be learning or internalizing the language properly.

  • Focus on mastery – not completion

Always focus on the mastery of the language rather than the completion of the exercises because when talking in a foreign language, your speech needs to be fluent and automatic – you don’t have time to think.

Just struggling through an exercise once is not enough. If you can only produce a sentence slowly and haltingly in the controlled environment of a drill, imagine how you will perform if you need to produce a variation of the sentence in a real situation.

Instead, keep repeating the drills and exercises until you can produce the correct responses automatically and without thinking every time.

This also means you should work at your own pace.

Finishing all the exercises and reaching the end of the course doesn’t mean you can speak the language, and there are no prizes for finishing quickly. Much better is to work through at your own pace and keep repeating until you can produce the responses instantly and without searching for your words.

Most people will take around 30-40 hours to finish a whole Headstart course – but this is only a guideline, so go as fast or as slowly as you need.

  • Speak out loud

Always remember that you must do everything out loud. These courses focus on spoken communication, and you need to speak to get the most out of them.

This doesn’t mean thinking the answers in your head and it doesn’t mean whispering them under your breath – it means speaking out loud at least at the volume of your normal speech if not louder.

I can’t stress this point enough. If you try to learn a language by thinking the words in your head and not speaking them out loud, it’s just like trying to learn the piano by studying the notes on the page and imagining the music but never touching the keys.

So once more, do everything out loud.

  • Don’t focus on grammar

This course is not heavy on grammar, and nor is it supposed to be. You will find some grammar explanations, but it is not important to understand or remember them. They are there to help you if you find them useful – but if you can produce the required language without the grammar, then you don’t need to get hung up on it.

  • Practice

Finally, you need to practice. Practice the language as much as you can, practice writing sentences, practice pronouncing words, talk to native speakers and even practice speaking to yourself.

Check out my post for further tips on how to improve your speaking skills in a foreign language.

Comprehensive introductions to new languages

The Headstart courses are among the most user-friendly and accessible of the FSI and related materials, and they are perfectly suited to self-study. For complete beginners in these languages or for anyone who needs to acquire the basics beyond just “please” and “thank you”, they are a wonderful free resource that allows you to dive in and start speaking quickly. Perhaps the greatest pity when it comes to the Headstart courses is that sadly, only a handful of languages are covered.