Monthly Archives: February 2014

Talk Like a Diplomat From 1961: How I Use FSI Spanish

So, you’re learning Spanish. If you’re like me, you’re drawn to music, conversation, books, movies – real world stuff. Language is a creative, living, messy thing, and it should be fun.

Why kill the joy with repetitive drills and grammar practice, right?

Well, despite the fact that I have both feet firmly planted in the if-it’s-not-fun-I-won’t-do-it camp, I’ve found myself doing exactly that – repetitive drills and grammar practice – almost every day for the past few months. And what’s more, those drills are helping me have more fun with all of the other stuff that I really like to do in Spanish.

Enter FSI Basic Spanish. (edited to correct broken link – March 2016)

FSI Basic Spanish is a public domain (i.e. free and legal) resource created by the US Foreign Service Institute in the early 60s. At the time it was aimed at future diplomats and foreign service workers; now, it’s available to any language learner with an internet connection. It includes hours of audio and an entire textbook.

First the good…

  • Absolutely, completely, no-holds-barred free. Hours and hours of free audio. Don’t let anyone try to sell you this material. It’s public domain. It belongs to everyone – which means that anyone can package it up and slap a hefty price tag on it.
  • Has a huge impact on automaticity. It can help you attain instant recall of super-exciting things like verb tenses, sentence structure, and pronouns.
  • Comprehensive. Think 55 units, each with at least 45 minutes of audio and dozens of pages of text.
  • Don’t want to learn Spanish? Well, you could always try Swahili, Greek or Cambodian! There are resources available for dozens of languages.
  • Have I mentioned that it’s free?


And you don’t even have to worry about this happening!
Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut /

…and then the bad.

  • I can see how some people might find it mind-numbingly, teeth-gnashingly, stick-a-pen-in-my-eye boring. I wouldn’t be able to sit at a desk and do it. But it works perfectly for long walks around the neighbourhood. For some reason, the boredom factor diminishes to zero during a brisk walk.
  • It’s dated. You have to remind yourself that the resource was created in the early 60s for the class of people most likely to become diplomats. Then you have to laugh at the absurdity of some of the situations.
  • It’s sexist. No, really. See above. Most conversations between women seem to revolve around shopping or moaning about how difficult it is to find a good maid. In one unit in particular, John White – who I think we’re supposed to relate to – is out with his “gordita de las gafas” (translation: “little chubby girl with glasses”), but is plotting to sneak away from her to meet the hot secretary dancing at the party. It’s like Mad Men – except that they actually mean it. Luckily the story moves on quickly to other, more likeable characters.
  • The audio quality isn’t great. It’s good enough to use with my earbuds, but sometimes I can hear buzzing or background noise behind the recording.

Still, despite the cons, I do think that the program is a very valuable addition to a language learning program.


Pick up the pace to keep the boredom at bay.
Image courtesy of foto76 /

Anatomy of an FSI lesson

a. Dialogue

Each lesson is based around a dialogue. The dialogues follow a group of people through day-to-day conversations (keeping in mind, of course, that it’s a very particular kind of “day-to-day” life): going to a party, visiting a military base, hiring a maid. The dialogue is broken into manageable chunks so that the learner can listen and repeat.

The first dozen lessons are actually the best, as far as I’m concerned, since each unit begins with a full dialogue spoken without pause. This makes it much easier to understand the context, since you’ve heard the entire dialogue before they break it down into chunks to repeat. Later units jump right into the “listen and repeat” phase, so that you’re repeating bits of phrases without first having heard the entire conversation.

b. Pattern Presentations

While the text digs a bit deeper into grammatical structures, the audio uses a very inductive approach. Each unit focuses on one or more grammar points – subjunctive, clitic pronouns, irregular verbs – and presents it using a wide variety of example sentences. The examples help the learner understand how the concept is used in everyday speech. Each example sentence is followed by a pause, so that the learner can repeat.

c. Drills

Yes, drills. I know, I know, drills are very last century. But – and I’m speaking here as an impulsive and impatient learner – they really do help improve automaticity. And improved automaticity leads to more fun with the language.

There are several different kinds of drills in the FSI courses: pattern drills, response drills, substitution drills and translation drills.

Unfortunately, units 31-45 are missing some audio for some of the later drills. It’s not really a big deal, but you’ll find yourself repeating some of the answers without hearing the questions. It doesn’t really hurt the integrity of the program. If you’re intent on having the whole audio, then you might consider buying Platiquemos, a Spanish program based entirely on digitally remastered FSI basic audio. (But honestly? I really wouldn’t bother.)

How I use FSI

I listen and I respond.

That’s it.

I don’t bother at all with the text book. I’m using FSI as a purely audio course during my long walks with Chase the Wonderdog. I walk, and I listen, and I respond out loud. I’m pretty sure that my neighbours think that I’m a crazy person.

More specifically, here’s how I use FSI Spanish:

  • walk briskly. I know it sounds silly, but this part is really important for me. It keeps me alert and engaged.
  • listen to the dialogue, repeating every line out loud
  • if it’s a tricky dialogue, do it again
  • go through the drills in the order that they’re presented
  • if I find that I struggle a lot, I’ll repeat a unit (this doesn’t happen very often)

My goal is overall understanding and general correctness, not absolute mastery.

Really, it’s not that complicated!

one brief* note: I think that FSI Basic might be a bit frustrating if you’re an absolute beginner. While it was originally aimed at beginners, it was only a small self-directed part of a full-time teacher-led course. I’d probably recommend waiting until after you have a bit of a grounding in the language before jumping in.

* brief?!? Bahahahaha! I don’t do brief. Obviously.

So, do I recommend FSI Spanish Basic?


You, too, can rock out to FSI.
imagery majestic /

Yes, absolutely.

I feel that it’s helping me to speak more automatically, correctly and confidently.

By all rights, it should be painfully boring, but it isn’t.

Running through the drills while walking lets me easily add a good chunk of “free” Spanish into my day. I’m currently on lesson 42 – that’s a lot of free Spanish!

And – let’s be honest here – if it weren’t for FSI, there’s no way that I’d be spending so much time on mastering the subjunctive.


Interested in learning more about the FSI approach to language teaching – including the effect of drills on improving confidence? I really enjoyed this article written by FSI teachers.

Month One of my 2014 Spanish Challenge

howtolearnalanguageI’m basing my language learning in 2014 on a very complex equation:

Massive input + massive output = fluency

Basically, my goal this year is to listen to stuff and write stuff and read stuff and talk to people.

(See? I told you it was complicated.)

So how’s it going so far? Let’s take a look at the numbers for January…

Read something every day


My (admittedly ambitious) goal this year is to read 14 Spanish novels: the Harry Potter series, the Percy Jackson series and the Hunger Games trilogy. So far this year, I’ve finished the second Harry Potter novel and made it 2/3 of the way through the first Percy Jackson book.

While I love reading in Spanish, I have to balance it with reading in French and in English. I’m afraid that 14 Spanish novels might leave me with little time for any other reading. Still, I fully expect to meet my reading goal this year!

Talk to someone every day


OK, so I’m not talking on Skype every day. But I do speak in Spanish every single day, even if it’s only to narrate my oh-so-exciting actions or to ask the dog how things are going.

When I first started learning Spanish last summer, I had a conversation with a real, live, breathing human being nearly every day. Now, with a crazy work schedule, I seem to be settling into two per week. I would like to increase that to three times a week, if possible. I definitely see a negative impact on my fluency and overall comfort level when I go too long in between conversations with native speakers.

Write something every day


Oh, did you say writing? Ummm…well… Writing. Yes.

This is by far my biggest challenge. Not-so-secret confession: writing in Spanish is hard. And because it’s hard, I don’t really like doing it. That said, the feedback that I get from native speakers is really valuable, and I definitely see the value in writing regularly.

But it’s so haaaaaaard….

Mini-challenge: write at least three short texts in Spanish this week. (Or maybe two. Definitely at least one.)

Listen to something every day


If writing is the hardest part of the challenge, then listening is the easiest! The past few weeks I haven’t had much time for Spanish, due to some major upheaval at work. But I’m hoping that next week I’ll be able to increase my watching time a bit. If I can finish this section of the challenge by June, I might even try for a double challenge in listening/watching!

I’ve mainly been watching/listening to:

  • Isabel seasons 1 and 2 on DramaFever. I can’t believe we have to wait until next fall for season 3!
  • Los Simpsons. While I’ve caught some Simpsons episodes in English over the years, I’ve never watched them in any kind of order. I’m really enjoying them in Spanish! I’m currently halfway through season 2. Each episode is about 23 minutes, which is very easy to fit into a busy schedule. For tracking purposes, I count two episodes of Los Simpsons as one episode for the challenge.
  • Buffy la Cazavampiros. I love this show. Oh, how I love this show. I only watch it once or twice a week while walking on the treadmill on an incline (that’s pretty much the extent of my Camino training; I really hope I don’t pass out on my first day). It’s as funny and engaging and witty in Spanish as it was in English the first five times I watched it.
  • Notes in Spanish Gold. These aren’t technically “TV shows”, but they require concentrated listening, so I’ve decided to count them to a maximum of one episode per week. I listen every day during my commute, so I probably spend somewhere between 80 and 100 minutes listening every week, even though I only count it as one episode for tracking purposes.

Practice vocabulary every day

This isn’t officially part of the challenge. But it’s important for any language learner to continuously reinforce and improve upon vocabulary. I run through my anki decks at least five times a week, and do a few lessons on Duolingo when I find myself with ten minutes to fill. I’m also continuing with FSI Spanish nearly every day while walking the dog. I even cracked open my Practice Makes Perfect workbook a few times in the past month!

So there you have it. Month one of my 2014 Spanish Challenge. Wish me luck in month two!