Good course, bad course

I recently made a surprising discovery. A very good course for independent language learners and a very bad one were both written by the same person.

A very good course

In the mid 80s, my wife gave me Colloquial Hungarian, by Arthur H Whitney. This was a 1982 reprint of a course book first published in 1944 and revised in 1950. Despite its great age and unfashionable approach, it’s actually a very good book and I still dip into it occasionally. Here’s why I like using it:

  • it contains 40 short chapters, each introducing a small number of grammatical topics and presenting a vocabulary of manageable size.
  • the explanations are clear and succinct, and work well for me. But I have had a lot of practice at reading grammatical descriptions of a traditional kind. The explanations might not be as clear for someone who is new to learning languages or who has little experience of receiving explanations of grammar.
  • each chapter contains a short reading passage, followed by a vocabulary presenting the new words in the same order as they crop up in text.
  • There are a few pictures to break up the text a little, though they are nothing fancy and certainly not to anything like the standard we would expect in course materials today.

I wouldn’t use this course as my only means of learning Hungarian, because better ones are available now. But I do still find it useful to dip into now and again. The chapters are short and the material is well put together, so it is easy to take 5, 10 or 15 minutes to through a chapter for a quick refresher.

A very bad course

When I first starting teaching myself languages outside school in the mid 70s, I bought Finnish in the Teach Yourself series. This book was first published in 1956 and my copy was printed in 1973. Although the rear jacket describes it as ‘a lively and practical course’, this is one of the worst language course books I have ever seen. The material is extremely boring and put together in a way that does not help the reader form any of the connections that are essential in learning any new material. And the book presents the material in indigestible chunks that are almost impossible to use and learn from. For example, lesson one consists solely of:

  • a set of eleven ‘grammatical notes’ dealing briefly with a random set of unconnected topics, selected with no discernible logic
  • a vocabulary of 120 words, listed alphabetically and also selected apparently at random.
  • 20 short Finnish sentences to translate into English
  • a short reading passage.
    Because the vocabulary list is so long and is presented alphabetically, it takes ages to look up each word as you come across it. So you can only use the vocabulary list as a reference tool, not as a sensible aid in learning to read the sentences for translation and the reading passage.

My recent surprise was discovering that the author of Teach Yourself Finnish was Arthur H Whitney, the same man who wrote Colloquial Hungarian.

More recent courses: Hungarian

Whitney’s Colloquial Hungarian has been superseded by two subsequent courses in the same series.

  • Colloquial Hungarian, by Jerry Payne (1987). This is a step forward from the Whitney book (and 1,000 steps forward from Whitney’s Teach Yourself Finnish). I worked all through this one (and accompanying cassettes) around 20 years and got to a reasonable level of understanding.
  • Colloquial Hungarian, by Carol Rounds and Erika Solyom (2015). This is also a very good course. I still marginally prefer the Payne version, though people new to language learning might prefer the Rounds and Solyom course.

So I still have all 3 versions of Colloquial Hungarian. I still dip into all 3 from time to time.

I also use two courses produced in Hungary:

  • Halló, itt Magyarország! by Erdős József and Prileszky Csilla, published by Akadémiai Kiadó. This excellent course is in two volumes only in Hungarian, plus a further single additional volume (Kiegészítő kötet) with supplementary material (for both volumes together). An independent learner starting from scratch would be lost without the supplementary material. The supplementary material includes for each chapter translations (into English and German) of the vocabulary lists and of the example sentences used to illustrate the grammar points made in the chapter. It also includes a key to the exercises and a consolidated vocabulary list with translations into English, French, German and Italian. One thing I like a lot about this course is the clear and concise diagrams and pictures used to introduce grammatical points.
  • Hungaro Lingua. The publisher is Debreceni Nyári Egyetem (Debrecen Summer University ). I have used only volumes 2 and 3. These contain short reading passages, grammatical illustrations (but without full explanations) and exercises (with no key). They are useful for reading practice.
grammar diagrams and pictures from Halló, itt Magyarország!

More recent course: Finnish

A much better Finnish course is Finnish for Foreigners by Maija Helliki Aaltio. This was first published in 1963, though my copy of part 1 is the 13th edition (1984) and my copy of part 2 is the 9th edition (1974). This is everything that Teach Yourself Finnish isn’t.

Finnish for Foreigners


  1. “Teach Yourself Finnish” was notoriously bad, as was the old Linguaphone course. When I was at Nokia, we used a different book, but I can’t remember which one it was. I was recently in correspondence with a Finnish reviewer as part of my work as a reviews editor for the Historical Novel Society, and I took the chance to compose a few basic Finnish phrases.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *