The Pros and Cons of the FSI language courses

Article by Darren Kenny

Free language courses....what's not to love?

The FSI courses are thoroughly developed free language courses, created by the foreign service institute. Each course has a wealth of recorded audio instruction. Should you use these courses to learn a language? Let's take a look at the pros and cons of these course materials to learn a language.

What are the FSI courses?

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) was established post-WWII in 1947 as a means to train their diplomats in foreign languages in preparation to be stationed abroad. The majority of the courses that are hosted on this website were developed back in the 60s and 70s.

The FSI language courses are in the public domain. This means that they are free to use, edit, and profit from if you so wish. A lot of companies repackage these courses and sell them at a profit. If you have paid for one of these courses, you need not have. Ask for your money back.

FSI Courses - The Good

Firstly, let us cover what is good about these free government-produced courses.

  1. Quantity of audio
  2. Quantity of instruction
  3. Drills / Spaced Repetition
  4. Real-world dialogues
  5. Cost

Quantity of audio

Most of the FSI courses contain an immense quantity of audio. The FSI Basic Spanish course, which is often regarded as the most comprehensive Spanish course there is, contains no less than 59 hours of audio over 55 units and 2496 pages of instruction.

And that is only 1 of 6 Spanish courses!

As my time spent learning languages has taught me, time of exposure to a language is vital. Audio exposure that provides constant new material, which is not boring nor too advanced for you is hard to come.

Given the choice, time would be better spent speaking and interacting with native speakers, as nothing is more fun or effective. However, when that's not possible, having tons of audio that is designed for a student is pretty damn valuable.

Natural, clear real-world dialogues. This is something that I feel is really missing from Duolingo. Duolingo doesn't need people to speak the language well, they just need an army of translators to turn a profit. Therefore it isn't in the interests of Duolingo to train their user's hearing and verbal skills.

For most of us, however, advanced listening comprehension and speaking is paramount to regarding ourselves as being 'fluent'. Do not underestimate the value that FSI can provide here.

Quantity of instruction

FSI Spanish Basic has 4 volumes of instruction at 2496 pages. Considering that the books were typed up in the 60s and 70s, they are surprisingly well structured, graphical, and clear.

The start of the course gives a clear introduction to the course and what is to be expected of the student. New sections are introduced with clear, plain English.  Tables, phonetic guides, and exercises are all clearly presented.

Drills and spaced repetition

Some students may find these boring and repetitive. Me? Not so much. But I do see them as a necessary evil, but there is great value in having spaced repetition introduced into dialogue.

And guess what...most conversations are repetitive. It really doesn't take many words to become proficient in a foreign language. I've lost count as to how many conversations have I had in Colombia, Brazil or Germany that follow the same theme:

  • Where are you from?
  • Do you like it here in Belo Horizonte / Medellin / Leipzig?
  • What are you doing here, studying or working?

Learning a language is not easy. It takes time to adapt to new sounds and word order. You certainly will not accomplish much using Duolingo, unless you wish only to read or write.

Why are drills good? Well, drills can increase your vocabulary, increase your ability to construct meaningful/natural sentences, promote automaticity, and help greatly with your pronunciation. Do this on a daily basis and you will quickly reap the benefits of your hard work.

It's not easy, it's often seen as tedious...but that's language learning. Reap what you sow.

Real-world dialogues

Not to keep picking on Duolingo here, I think it's a fantastic application, and it's currently teaching me the Russian alphabet. But it really falls down with real-world dialogues.

It appears to jumble around nouns and verbs to create new, and often bizarre sentences. Only today on Twitter I saw someone complain of a strange German Duolingo dialogue:

'Dein Bär trinkt Bier' - Your bear drinks bear

FSI doesn't mess around with those simple noun + verb + subject sentence structures. FSI is about getting real-world results with real-world dialogues.

  • Where is the train station?
  • Can I speak to Miss Jones? No, sorry, she is currently busy.
  • Can you give a message to John

The benefit of real-world dialogues is important to good listening comprehension. It's important because you need to hear the flow of the syllables as a connected unit. Not some robotic voice like duo-lingo appears to have.

An example in English.

"Did you eat yet?"

Say that to yourself in a slow, calm

Now consider a native speaker, speaking fast and at ease amongst friends. You'll find it sounds more like:

"Jeet jet?"

Real-world dialogues are very necessary to convey the true sounds of grouped syllables.

Cost of FSI language courses

It's completely free. Unlike the likes of Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, or Assimil, there is no cost. It's pay nothing, nada, naught, Frei, get the point.

Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone are way overpriced for what they provide. Assimil is my passion, and I'd recommend it to anyone if you're looking for a paid language program.

FSI Courses - The Bad

The bad:

  1. Quality of audio
  2. Hard for beginners
  3. Sexist language
  4. Diplomat focused language
  5. Obsolete language
  6. Large PDFs, many audio files

Quality of audio

For the vast amount of audio that exists in the FSI courses, there is quite a bit that has substandard quality.

Some parts of the audio suffer from a lot of static noise. Other parts the volume is so low that you can't hear what the speaker is saying.

Hard for beginners

While there is a lot of page instruction, this is seldom enough for beginners.

A language learning beginner needs a lot of hand-holding. They need a lot of explanations as to why something is the way it is.

The courses often ramp up too quickly for a beginner.

For those of us who have learned a foreign language already will know that there was a lot of learning on how to learn a language.

That may sound strange. But think about it. You have to learn about things that you take for granted in your native language.

What is a verb? What is a noun? What is the subjunctive and how is it used in English - if I were to tell you, you'd probably not notice it....and why should you? It's your native language, you know it instinctively.

I remember trying to conjugate two verbs when learning Portuguese (my first foreign language). I never realized explicitly how we handle verbs in English, let alone in a foreign language.

This takes up a lot of time...learning to learn a language. A teacher is often required to walk a student through these learning hurdles.

Sexist language

The language is reflective of the time it was created. Women are expected to be pretty, cook well, and make the home, while the men go out to work and discuss 'man things' that are beyond the comprehension of a simple woman.

Diplomat focused language

The courses were developed by the FSI for their diplomats, so it stands to reason that the courses are very diplomat vocabulary focused.

There is a lot of talk of meetings, evening parties, formal events, and embassies.

Obsolete language

As the year's pass, language evolves. A lot of years have passed since the 1960s, so it's obvious that the FSI courses now contain a lot of outdated obsolete language.

Things like the German course calling women 'Fräulein'. Since the 1970s it was a decline in usage and was even banned in West Germany in 1972. The term, although making a slow comeback, is largely seen as offensive.

Large PDFs, many audio files

While this isn't a huge problem, the courses contain a lot of pages and a lot of audio. Marrying the two up together can often be tedious, finding the page you were last at and to what audio file this corresponds.

FSI Courses - The Ugly

...and the ugly:

  1. No social element
  2. Often cited as boring

No social element

The course material is developed to be used in class. There is a social element to sitting in class and conducting drills with an instructor for whom is his/her native language. You can talk with the instructor and talk with your peers.

However, the courses as they are being used now by a vast amount of independent language learners is that there is no social element to the course.

Sure, you shouldn't use the FSI as a single source to learn a language, and I hope that people are also utilizing (for language meetups) and skype where possible.

However, it would be nice to have a social aspect, as, without much verbal output, a student really can't utilize the language very well. It is very important to train the vocal cords in this respect and to gain feedback.

Often cited as boring

I've lost count of the number of times that I've come across someone on Reddit praising the FSI courses, only to then comment that they never got around to completing the course as it just got a bit boring.

Boredom runs high with these courses, and I have no doubt that is because of two factors:

  • Repetitive time-consuming drills (that I also listed as a pro :P)
  • Lack of social element

I enjoy the language courses. Sometimes I sit and read a grammar book with a coffee in a cafe. Sometimes I'll sit and work through Assiml audio and do their translations. Sometimes I'll kill time on Duolingo.

But I'd never do any of this without living in-country. Why? I need the social aspect. Without it, it's like learning to drive by reading a book...just all theory, no practice. Language is a skill, and skills are best learned by doing.


So I have given my overview of the good, bad, and the ugly of the FSI courses.

Would I recommend that people use them still? Absolutely. Take advantage of all that audio for free. Do the drills, suck it up, do them, you'll be better off for it.

Keep your learning materials varied and be sure to speak plenty. I can't emphasize this enough! Get a language partner or teacher on iTalki, or verbling or any platform that connects you to native speakers.

To see what I intend to do about these problems, read my post on improving the fsi language courses.