The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #14 March / April 2015
Book Look
by Erik Zidowecki
March / April 2015 | 

Berlitz Phrasebooks
by Berlitz Publishing Company, Inc.
Item Rating:

The Berlitz Phrasebooks have been around for decades, and are often described as the "world's best phrasebooks." I have a few dozen myself. These small books are normally around 10 x 14.5cm (4" x 5.75") in size, making them ideal for tucking into a small bag or pocket. They are also relatively cheap, costing around £3.50 ($7 USD) each, though they can often be found at book sales or used bookstores for far less.

In the modern form, the books are divided into various sections, which are also colour coded. The sections include "basic expressions," "hotel," arrival," "eating out," "shopping," "sightseeing," "travelling around," "making friends," and "doctor." Each section contains various phrases, translations, and basic pronunciation guides. Besides phrases, word lists are also included in most sections. For example, in the "doctor" section, a person can find a list of body parts.

In most of these phrasebooks, a small dictionary is also included. Each also includes a reference section for counting, time telling, and (in the US versions) a chart for converting between imperial and metric systems. Many also contain a few pages of basic grammar.

I love these books because they are small, colourful, and packed with information. However, they are not perfect. One of the biggest problems is the pronunciation guides. Since we all have learned different ways to represent sounds (and in many cases, a sound in one language may not even properly exist in another), trying to represent sounds by spelling is tricky at best. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was created to help this, but even for people studying languages, it can be quite difficult to understand. The Berlitz books do their best to represent the pronunciations as closely as they can to the native spelling (in my case, English).

However, since the books also give a basic pronunciation guide for the letters and diphthongs at the start, I have often come across discrepancies between the way the two sections describe the pronunciations. Sometimes, the descriptions are also just completely wrong. When I have discussed this with others, their normal reaction is something like, "those horrible pronunciation guides."

Another problem is the "dictionary" many of them promise. If you are looking for a dictionary, pick up another book entirely (Berlitz also has a line of pocket dictionaries). The dictionaries in these phrasebooks are normally simply a compilation of the word lists found elsewhere in the book. They are also only in the native language, which is fine if you want to figure out the word for something you know, but useless if you read or hear something you don't understand. Sometimes, there is a very small dictionary included (if something of just over 100 words can be called a dictionary), but it is so limited, it seems the publishers just stuck it in to add a few pages.

The last problem is inherent in most phrasebooks: the lack of responses. One of the common visual jokes is for some lost traveller holding up his phrasebook and painstakingly attempting to pronounce his simple question to a native. After happily getting it out and seeing his recipient nodding happily in understanding, his face quickly drops to total confusion as the native proceeds to answer him in a long, rapid-fire speech, using several gestures and facial expressions. A phrasebook can only give a very limited idea of what might be given in response. Just because you can ask where the local restroom is doesn't mean you will be able to understand the directions.

It's this last point that makes many people entirely reject the idea of a phrasebook, arguing that they give you a false sense of knowledge. Since their pronunciations might be off and their scope of responses is so limited, it would be better to take a crash course in a language before embarking on a trip into foreign territory.

However, since people don't always have the time or opportunity to take a course, the Berlitz line of phrasebooks are still among my favourites. They are especially good when you can't pick up an extensive book on a language, and need to pick up just the basics of a language to get by.

Book Look
Writer: Erik Zidowecki

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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