A pile of second-hand language books, mostly 1980s Teach Yourself titles.

Second-hand Language Books : Practical Treasures For A Pittance

Brand-new learning resources can cost a fortune these days. But there’s another, cheaper and more nostalgia-piquing way: second-hand language books from the 80s. After all, aren’t the 80s cool again now?

My most recent time trip started a couple of weeks ago, reminiscing with my parents. The conversation wandered to G.W.Hurley’s, a little local bookshop and newsagent in Burnham-on-Sea, nestled in the High Street and still going after 100 years in business. As a youngster, I spent a lot of time in Burnham on family seaside holidays, and I credit my first fascination with languages to that very shop.

Budding Linguist’s Aladdin’s Cave

In G.W.Hurley’s, my nan and uncle would unleash young Rich, not yet in secondary school, for many happy hours. It was like an Aladdin’s cave for a curious mind. There, in the tiny language section – maybe two shelves at most – were these pocket-sized, blue-covered Teach Yourself books that offered windows into other worlds. Other 80s kids will know what I’m talking about – those uniform covers that bound those contemporary TY editions series together. French, German, Spanish, and more… All the subjects I’d heard the big kids studied when they went to secondary school.

Well, sifting through those happy browsing memories got me digging through some old storage boxes in the present day. I knew I still had at least a couple of those cerulean gems lying around. Sure enough, after some rummaging, Teach Yourself Finnish and Teach Yourself Maltese saw the light of day again, pristine and proudly cared for, but forgotten for some years. I’d had others formerly, too, since either passed on to friends or family, or donated to charity shops. But I had a thought:

How cool would it be to recreate a bit of those 80s language bookshelf feels?

Second-hand Language Books, 3, 2… 1!

First, I set to looking in the most obvious place: the second-hand bookshops of Edinburgh. The city is a goldmine for used books, and it seemed rude not to take advantage. Sure enough, the search threw up plenty of the bonnie blue paperbacks, some more elusive than others. You’ll not struggle to source the cyan volumes of Teach Yourself French, German, Italian or Spanish at all. It’s quirkier titles like Teach Yourself Serbo-Croat (which isn’t even really a thing any more…) and Teach Yourself Swahili that are trickier (and more expensive) to hunt down.

So, onto wider territory, and Amazon Marketplace, eBay and AbeBooks. I couldn’t believe my luck: the sites are replete with second-hand language books from multiple bulk sellers, many with free postage. And, even better:

Many are available, in great condition, for less than a couple of pounds each!

Needless to say, I started racking them up. I began with some of the familiar titles, including those I’d given away years ago. Teach Yourself Everyday Spanish, Teach Yourself Italian, Teach Yourself Modern Greek. But then, as I searched, I started coming across other lovely, nostalgic gems that I used to have and love: the Hugo In Three Months books, the old Routledge Colloquial books with the white covers, the Cassell’s Colloquial handbooks. I started adding in languages that I never studied, or want to study in the future, or have just a passing interest in. In other words, I found myself recreating the whole bookshop! And friends, it is becoming addictive. Somewhere in the process I seem to have become a book collector.

Four 1980s editions of Teach Yourself language books.

Into the blue…

Practically Speaking

In any case, as they arrived, and I excitedly leafed through them, I realised what gems they all are, especially considering the minuscule price. It turns out that the timeframe that I chose for purely nostalgic reasons – the Eighties – is a lucky pick. Older than that, and courses can be a bit too chalk ‘n’ talk for many. In other words, the style is that classical, old-fashioned, rigid presentation-plus-reproduction model. Now, I don’t mind this at all myself – in fact, I learnt a whole load of Polish that way – but it doesn’t always foster the most practical, real-world skills!

On the other hand, in the 80s, we see the focus in language learning beginning to shift to a more communicative approach. In response, TY had already started to rewrite whole sections of their language catalogue. We begin to see printed dialogues, for a start, with a focus on colloquial language. And that is generally much better suited to today’s polyglot goals. The second-hand language books of my childhood era started to treat language as a living, dynamic thing, rather that very meta way of the past of knowing about a language.

A page from the 1980s edition of Teach Yourself Italian.

No longer all chalk ‘n’ talk – the 1980s swing towards communicative language learning is reflected in more colloquial dialogues like this one in Teach Yourself Italian (1985).

It’s also interesting what was included in earlier volumes but dropped in rewrites. Hugo’s Greek in Three Months from the early 80s, for example, has an incredibly useful section on Greek idioms and common turns of phrase. I’ve never seen anything like it in later manuals, and it’s already proving handy in my iTalki conversation lessons.

A page from the 1980s edition of "Hugo's Greek in Three Months", entitled "Idiomatic Expressions".

The brilliantly useful ‘Idiomatic Expressions’ section of the early 80s “Hugo’s Greek in Three Months”.

Lastly (and leastly…) some of those little blue beauties are gorgeously pocket-sized paperbacks. While they won’t quite fit into the average pocket, they do seem to be generally more compact and portable than modern tomes. They’re ideal for stashing in a bag for trips and reading on the move.

All that, and for less than two quid a pop. Language learning on a budget!

All Paths Lead to Rome (and Madrid, and Berlin, and…)

In short, a nostalgia trip led me to rediscover some truly useful resources hiding in the past. First and foremost, these titles were personally meaningful, even beautiful, for the thoughts and feelings they stir up. But for pedagogically sound materials at an amazingly low price, you could do a lot worse than go hunting in the 80s. Those windows onto target languages and cultures may have dated a little, but the learning is sound.

I have more on the way… and browsing for them has become my latest linguistic compulsion!

Second hand language books.

New book, new language - a pile of Assimil "ohne Mühe" editions.

New Book, New Language

What comes first? The language – or the language book?

It’s a real chicken-and-egg question if you love language book shopping. Some editions just look so irresistibly shiny, that you long to have them on your shelf – regardless of whether the language fits your polyglot plan or not.

So it is with the Assimil editions and me at the moment. The uniform white and blue cover format sparks off the collector in me, and I end up wanting them all. That’s even though I have them in most of my active languages already. It was the same old story with the Teach Yourself Tutor books. I liked those so much that I bagged myself a couple in languages I don’t even study (yet). Incorrigible!

So, it was a predictable but special treat to buy myself an Assimil in a new language recently. Welcome to the shelf, Croatian!

Assimil's Kroatisch ohne Mühe

New Kid on the Desk : Assimil’s Kroatisch ohne Mühe

Language book whys and wherefores

First off, why Assimil, besides the satisfaction of building up that delft-like blue-and-white book collection?

Well, I’m in good company. Language learning legend Luca Lampariello has given Assimil textbooks the thumbs up, for a start. For all sorts of approaches, including his bidirectional translation technique, Assimil courses contain ideal, self-contained, high-frequency vocab dialogues to work with. Several languages are only available in German or French as the base language, fulfilling my love of non-native language course guides. And more practically speaking, they’re also really compact to carry around in your bag or rucksack.

Secondly, another language? Really?

Before you chide me for taking on too much, I should explain that I’m not about to dive headfirst into Croatian as a full-on language project. Instead, it’s purely practical. I’m learning for a trip, albeit a trip that was meant to take place this September, and has now been postponed to 2022 (thanks, Covid). I’m off to the Croatian coast with friends, and it’s a huge part of my personal ethos to learn at least a bit of the language everywhere I go. My goal? Maybe five or ten minutes a day until the trip.

A Eurovision head start

I’m not starting ab initio, of course. A lifetime of fawning over Eurovisions of old makes sure of that. Yes, my Croatian is already a 50-ish word pot pourri of song titles and lyrics from the early 60s onwards. Want me to talk about ljubav? I’m your man. Want to dance, Croatian-style? Ja sam za ples, too! Want to learn yet another language with me? Hajde da ludujemo! (You just knew I’d work Eurovision into this somehow, eh?)

Of course, I’ve said all this “it’s nothing serious” before, many, many times over. Maybe what I intend as a happy friendship could well blossom into ljubav in the end. Well, my heart and mind are open. Croatian, I am ready!