Average cost of the method: $35 to $45
Type of method: For intermediate learners who want a good overview of the language they are learning. This method pinpoints areas of difficulty for learners of the foreign language in question, and on the whole serves as an excellent review as well as a launch pad to reach a high-intermediate level in the language. This series is primarily focused on the application of the language, as opposed to a grammar reference.
People often complain, and rightly so, about the lack of useful foreign language works for self-instruction or student reference at intermediate/advanced levels. There’s no shortage of books, websites and software programs claiming to get people started on the language, and there are some, though far fewer, advanced readers. As a language learner who has studied over five languages, I was hard pressed, in the past, to find anything suitable to guide me beyond the elementary stages. That was until the “Guide to Contemporary Usage” series made its appearance on the shelves of bookstores.
The “Guide to Contemporary Usage” Series is published by Cambridge University Press, and the first books under that series made their first appearance during the early 1990s. It has only been since the 2000s, however, that the series has been expanded, and it now includes 10 languages. The most recent addition to the series is Mandarin Chinese (first published in 2009).
How Does It Work?
First, it is important to understand that the “Guide to Contemporary Usage” Series is aimed at intermediate to advanced learners of the foreign language the book is published in. If you are a beginner, this book will simply not be suitable to you.
This series, then, is essentially a guide for students who have acquired the basics of the language and wish to extend their fluency and confidence. It’s a resource that aims to take your command of the foreign language you are studying from intermediate/advanced to proficient. Reviewing all key points, the books usually give special attention to those areas of vocabulary and grammar which cause most difficulty to English-speakers. Careful consideration is given throughout the books to questions of style and register, essential for effective communication.
Additionally, unlike conventional grammars, the series addresses many aspects of language usage such as letter writing, idioms, proverbs, and riddles. It also provides new and recent words, including internet vocabulary, which enables students to understand and properly use the most up-to-date expressions alongside everyday language.
One thing I have found especially useful about this series is the fact that while it does explain the grammar at some points, it is primarily focused, as the book title suggests, on the application of the language, and different circumstances that require different registers. This is extremely important, since most language learning textbooks seem to somewhat ignore the difference in registers and only teach you the most formal language (as is especially the case with Korean). “A Guide to Contemporary Usage,” however, gives the varying dialects and different words used across different styles (from colloquial to elevated) in order for the learner to add more flexibility to his command of the language. This is true of languages such as Chinese, Korean, Russian, and many more.
Here is a screenshot of Units 6 and 13 from the “Using Spanish: A Guide to Contemporary Usage” textbook. Since these textbooks are so broad in scope, it might be hard to assess what the textbook actually contains just from looking at a few pages. For additional screenshots, scroll to the bottom of the article.
- Clear, readable and easy to consult, “A Guide to Contemporary Usage” is an essential reference for learners seeking access to the finer nuances of the language they are learning. One of the greatest strengths of this series is without any doubt its focus on the application of the language, and different circumstances that require different registers.
- The series teaches everything – some grammar, etiquette, useful expressions, and more, and overall makes the language really alive. Although most of the books in this series contain abundant individual explanations of specific points, their great strength is that nothing is ever presented either in the abstract or in isolation. Every single item is illustrated, and indeed often actually explained, through plausible examples. Learners seeking clarification about a particular aspect are likely to emerge not just with the specific information they were looking for, but also with a generic grasp of the broader context of that information.
- Takes your command from intermediate/advanced to proficient. The series even covers swear words and commonly used slang words that other textbooks are often inclined to ignore.
- To be honest, I must say that I personally have very little to say in terms of negative points about this series, other than the fact that this series is unfortunately available in only 10 languages (Arabic, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish). If you are studying any other language besides those, you will therefore have to look somewhere else.
- The series does not contain any pictures, diagrams, or any such thing. The books are essentially black ink on white paper. I personally have no problem with that, but some learners might find it a bit dry.
- There is no audio CD that comes with the book. Since the series is aimed at intermediate to advanced learners, you are expected to know how to read and pronounce every word in the book without any problem.
For additional screenshots of A Guide to Contemporary Usage, click on any of the links below to see a picture: