Differences between Basic, FAST, HeadStart, and Programmed FSI courses?

Article by Darren Kenny

4 Course types, Basic, FAST, HeadStart, and Programmed Introduction

There are four types of courses offered by the foreign service institute/defense language institute.

  • Basic
  • FAST
  • HeadStart
  • Programmed

Which one is more suitable for you to use? Read on to find out.

These institutes have released all their language courses into the public domain, making them free to use, modify, redistribute, and profit from.

Where relevant, examples will be based on the German courses because there exists German Basic, German FAST, German HeadStart, and German Programmed Introduction

FSI Basic Courses

The FSI Basic courses are the most thorough of all the course types. They contain the most audio instruction of any of the other course types. The Spanish Basic course, for example, contains 60 units, over 4 volumes.

The Basic courses are also the most numerous, there are courses for:

  • Spanish
  • German
  • French
  • Amharic
  • Bulgarian
  • Cantonese
  • Chinyanja
  • Fula
  • Greek
  • Hausa
  • Hebrew
  • Igbo
  • Kirundi
  • Kituba
  • Korean
  • Lao
  • Lingala
  • More
  • Serbo-Croatian
  • Shona
  • Sinhala
  • Swahili
  • Swedish
  • Thai
  • Turkish
  • Twi
  • Vietnamese
  • Yoruba

The courses were designed to be taken in the FSI's classroom setting. They are courses for their diplomats, so they would be paid to learn the language in order to be posted to a country. These are full-time courses that normally take the student on average 6 months to complete.

In addition to classroom learning, the student is expected to complete out of class homework. The course is intense and is intended to bring the student up to a high level of proficiency in the language, around B2 to C1.

The courses are systematic in their presentation. At the start of the unit the student listens to new words and dialogues that introduce new material and repeat old material, for spaced repetition, a memorization technique.

Pronunciation exercises are presented to cover the differences between sounds that a native English speaker is likely to make, in contrast to the target language's true sounds. Grammar is touched upon briefly in another section.

The basic courses rely heavily on drills. Substitution drills, variation drills, vocabulary drills, translation drills, and response drills.

These drills promote automaticity in the student to everyday questions and responses. While they are often seen as boring and tiresome in the language learning community, they are none the less an essential part of the course.

The final part of a unit will see the students engage in suggested conversations, between their peers, and with their instructor. This helps vocalization of the language, which is an essential part of fluency, understanding the spoken language, and responding with adequate pronunciation and grammatical accuracy.

FSI FAST Courses

FAST courses, short for Familiarisation And Short Term, are designed as 8 week intense courses in a classroom setting. They are not intended for self-learning. The FAST courses are challenging, intensive and practical in nature.

The course material is based on practical conversations that the student is likely to encounter on an everyday basis in their target country. There are one or more audio dialogues per unit that are used as the basis of the lesson.

In the exercises that follow the audio dialogues, the student will be expected to respond to questions that are based from the previous dialogue. The courses are for diplomats, so bear in mind that the language is oriented around meetings, offices and embassies.

DLI HeadStart

HeadStart courses are developed by the Defence Language Institute, unlike the other courses mentioned; so the language is more military in nature.

There are only a handful of HeadStart courses that have been developed. This makes sense as it is only to serve American military personnel serving abroad.

The course languages tend to reflect the location of American bases. Tagalog (Philippines), German (Germany), Spanish (Puerto Rico), Korean (Korea), Italian (Italy) etc.

Unlike diplomats, military personnel (and their dependents) do not need the same level of language proficiency. They merely need a basic working proficiency to get by in their host country.

Therefore the HeadStart courses are not as large or thorough as the Basic courses. These courses are designed to be suitable for self-learning and do not require an instructor.

They are designed to get the student speaking with clear pronunciation. There is a lot of emphasis on good, accurate pronunciation to be understood well.

They provide a lot of cultural insight as well, and audio recordings reflect how to handle situations with cultural sensitivity.

HeadStart courses use a lot more imagery as well. As seen in the German head start course, it makes prolific use of images along with audio.

For a study guide on how to use the DLI courses, read the article headstart courses an introduction and study guide.

FSI Programmed Courses

The Programmed courses provide introductory learning material for the target language.

These courses are not as intense as the other FSI courses, they are also suitable courses for self-study, not requiring the presence of an instructor.

The Programmed courses make for good introductory learning before moving onto the more intense, fast-moving Basic courses.

The courses rely more on the student performing exercises on paper and with the audio provided.

The material learned is a lot more shallow and is designed to provide only a basic proficiency in the language.

The courses (at least for the German course) are structured with 7 stages per unit:

  1. Phonology - learn new sounds
  2. Comprehension - show dialogue with English equivalents
  3. Identification - reinforcement of prior material
  4. Pronunciation - application of stage 1
  5. Fluency - practice dialogues until verbal fluency is reached
  6. Application - manipulate grammatical features being learned
  7. Participation - time with an instructor to consolidate the module's material

So for FSI German, the course state that the student will spend 80 hours over 25 units, which accounts for the main structural features of the first 6 units of German Basic.

The student will have learned 252 words (86 nouns, 47 verbs and 119 others).

Summary of the FSI course types

So out of the 4 course types, 2 (HeadStart and Programmed Introduction) are suitable for self-learning, according to the FSI/DLI. They don't cover a great deal of material, but they are thorough in pronunciation, which is a massive part of communicating in a foreign language.

The Basic courses are designed to be done in a classroom environment. But they are so thorough and contain so much audio, that you can forego the need for an instructor and use a native teacher to make up for the real-life interaction.

The FAST courses appear to be the most unsuitable, especially for the beginner language learners. They are fast-paced, complicated, and are designed to be undertaken with an instructor during 8 intense weeks.