DIY language courses promise students the world but will any of them score top marks with our panel?
Click to follow
For some reason - be it the prospect of long winter evenings at home, or perhaps the recent memory of communication blunders on summer holidays abroad - language learning is a seasonal activity. Many aspiring linguists will be signing up for local evening classes this month, while others scour the bookshops in search of DIY courses which promise quick and convenient proficiency to anyone with a tape recorder and the ability to parrot simple greetings.


Our testers brought varied levels of ability to the courses. Jeffrey Benhall had attempted to teach himself from a similar course before ("It was situation based; but I never got beyond chapter five, when I was stuck in a French hotel looking for a mysterious parcel ... ") Annabel Kennedy- Scott remembered "almost nothing" from school lessons; Michael Bellingham had done a refresher course, but disappointingly: "I just had to listen and comprehend, never speak!" As a graduate of modern languages, I played referee.


For our test we chose French courses, one of the most popular modern European languages, promoted as suitable for adult beginners. Nearly all consisted of a coursebook and audio cassettes, but having prised these components from their impressive presentation packs, our panel found the contents varied from superbly thought out to simply hilarious. We used obvious criteria - visual and aural style, ease of comprehension, levels of achievement and motivating factors. We deducted points for tapes which insist you should press the pause button in order to repeat phrases - how can you peel the vegetables or weed the garden and run the tape backwards and forwards at the same time? Overwhelmingly, the most important factor for learners proved to be realistic scenarios and interesting subject matter.


book pounds 10.99, four cassettes pounds 29.99

This course met with unanimous approval for the way its book and tapes are constructively combined, each unit offering clear objectives and techniques. As Jeffrey Benhall says, "It quickly gets down to basics. `C'est quelle viande?' Already I know what not to order if the waiter replies, `Du boeuf.' But why do I always have to talk about myself before I can get anything to eat?" Breakthrough French was his overall favourite and came second only to the BBC course for Michael and me. It is conversation based, so there are no long texts in French, but there are informative interludes titled "Did You Know?" in which French customs, linguistic idiosyncrasies, and other matters (such as the way Parisians despise their compatriots from "la province") are discussed. Michael Bellingham found it "friendly rather than patronising" and Annabel Kennedy Scott liked the "definite sense of progress and the most useful pronunciation guide of all the courses." The only off-putting thing was thought to be "the conspiratorial whispering as you were encouraged to speak French".


book and two cassettes pounds 15.50

This course, described as "straightforward, no nonsense and practical" by Jeffrey Benhall, also "failed to hook" Michael Bellingham, who criticised its dull storylines. "The one about Francois, the computer consultant, arriving at a training course had me in the land of nod in no time," he reported, amidst a general complaint about the lack of "useful facts on France or French culture." And yet Annabel Kennedy Scott acclaimed Colloquial French as "superb", explaining, "It's the only course to teach you as an adult, with the use of sensible and realistic scenarios, and a clear and compact book with a good dictionary and grammar index." She did add one small caveat, "I wouldn't suggest you take the tutor up on his idea of listening to the tape in the car - while trying to re-listen to a scene I nearly crashed into the back of the car in front of me." I found the course compulsive for other reasons - mostly the surreal inauthenticity of the taped dialogues. The "American tourists" and "Scottish businesswoman", for example, are all native French speakers, who offer irrelevant information about themselves to hotel receptionists. The deadpan delivery is clearly what put off some of our panellists. Course units cover mature interests, such as house hunting, gardening and discovering Paris, and a level of sophistication is attempted in coverage of the subjunctive towards the end of the book.


book and cassette pounds 14.99

The stated aim of this course is to enable you to "speak most of the French you will need on holiday," to which Jeffrey Benhall replied, "Some holiday! More like a school trip with your least favourite teacher." The scholastic didacticism was also resented by Michael Bellingham, who thought the tone of the tapes "bossy". He raised the general point that "having a character pretending to be English with a perfect French accent is guaranteed to discourage students at their own feeble efforts. Why don't they record grammatically correct French with an English accent?" No matter how it could be improved, the Teach Yourself course feels like a real plod; despite Annabel Kennedy-Scott's faint praise that she was "refreshed to see there was only one tape", I would be amazed if anybody got to the end of the book on their own. Typographically, it looks like a grammar book - although the grammar suffers from false simplifications, like teaching "je vais, plus the infinitive" as if it were the only future tense. Meanwhile the studio-bound characters on the tapes lead the dullest possible lives; witness the woman whose hobby is cooking for her husband, favourite dish - boeuf bourguignon.


book pounds 10.99, four cassettes at pounds 12.99 for two, activity book pounds 4.99

Expectations were high for the BBC course, and we were not disappointed, even if there was some scepticism about its claim to be for those who want to "start learning French from scratch" and who need to be "ready to cope with the unexpected". Michael Bellingham noticed that not all the important words, for example, celibataire, are explained ("crucial if holidaying in France"). Jeffrey Benhall made facetious comments about the BBC's sedate moral assumptions, pointing out that he had "learnt how to ask whether someone is married in Unit two long before, in Unit 14, I could say `Merci pour une merveilleuse nuit'." But this was nit-picking in the face of so much interesting and colourful material. The 288-pages course book was deemed the most stimulating of all those tested, and while Jeffrey Benhall thought selling the activity book separately was just "un marketing gimmique", Annabel Kennedy Scott said it had proved "a handy way of practising your written skills to and from work, without having to carry a cumbersome course book around all day." The French Experience has the most extensive grammar coverage of all and teaches you about French culture - well worth the cost.


book and three cassettes pounds 19.95

Despite its century-old reputation, Berlitz provided the most belly laughs. "Bizarre!" was Jeffrey Benhall's response to Basic French, dubbing it "the course to study if you want to learn French without having anything to say." The recorded phrases and dialogues - delivered with breathless excitement - are concerned mostly with where people are standing in the room, and nobody was impressed with the first lesson, which teaches you to talk about cars ("Une Chevrolet est une voiture americaine"), "especially since you're encouraged to elongate the pronunciation of voi-tuuuuure so that it takes longer to say than to accelerate the bloody thing from nought to 60mph." Michael Bellingham thought this might be the course for absolute beginners, but they too might be repelled by the condescendingly, outdated format, and what Annabel termed, "the nauseating American woman lecturing us on the natural miracle of children learning their native tongue" and the Loony Toons music which punctuates each course unit. Grammar and vocabulary are so limited, that by end of book you can order in restaurants and compose the simple past tense - hardly a miracle.


book pounds 7.50, two cassettes pounds 16.95

This course book reminded Michael Bellingham "of those ghastly and sadistic French lessons at school" since "everything about it is very Seventies, especially the illustrations of Frenchmen in old macs and titfers." All the panellists (except me) reacted badly to accompanying tapes which rely on listeners repeating without understanding and a "laughable pronunciation guide based on British regional accents, for example, Scottish `good' or `guid'." I thought it an amusing and helpful tip to develop a French accent by pronouncing English words in a French way, as in "Frenssshh for starr-teurs". The course aims to be "entertaining and witty" and the book's cartoons are very French, funny and not always PC, which may be a subtle comment on Gallic attitudes. The characters on the tapes are better actors than most; you can really believe in the tour guide who announces, with all the panache of a circus ringmaster, "et a gauche, la place du marche!" Jeffrey Benhall approved of a vocabulary section which divides into regular words and menu terms. I liked the dialogues' tongue-in-cheek realism. You learn, for example, how to get by in a garage - yet when asked for the required tyre pressure, are taught to say, "Je ne sais pas. C'est une voiture de location (I don't know. It's a hire car.)" !