FSI (Foreign Service Institute) Spanish Language Programs

The United States Government financed and created language-learning programs for training of government employees, diplomats and various branches of the military. These programs, in many different languages, are in the public domain and they have been made available to the taxpayers and descendants of taxpayers who financed their creation. There is one obscure website that exists for the sole purpose of collecting and cataloging these programs and the different languages they come in. Here they are available for free as downloads.

Apparently quite a few companies have used this material, spiffed it up, and repackaged it for sale. Some of these companies may have an added value to the original program that is worth the price. But for the most part, the free versions are going to get you the same results.

There are a few different varieties of FSI Spanish programs to know about. Each program consists of a textbook that has been digitally converted to a PDF file, and audios to accompany the textbook that are in mp3 format. Some have a workbook, also as a PDF file. The earliest version is called “Basics Spanish”. The Basic Spanish program consists of 4 levels and was created way back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The textbooks for levels 1, 2 and 3 are around 700 pages (for each level) and there are 15 audios (divided in two) that amount to around 15 hours (also for each level). The level 4 textbook is 464 pages and there are 10 hour-long audios.

In 1967, FSI rolled out a new program and it is known as “Programmatic Spanish”. The Level 1 textbook has 478 pages and audios for 25 units (about 50 hours). The Level 2 program, from 1970, has a textbook that is 625 pages and 25 more units of audios. Unlike the Basic Program, each of these Levels comes with a 200+ page workbook. Of course you have to print it out. Remember these are all PDF files. To my knowledge hard copies are not available.

Let’s fast-forward to 1983 and the release of the Spanish Fast program, known more officially as the Spanish Familiarization and Short-Term Training program. This comes with one textbook that is 588 pages long and 38 audios.

FSI also has a program called Head start to Latin America, and Head start to Puerto Rico, which are shorter and geared toward military service people being stationed there who want to learn some basics to get by.

So the three main programs, Basic, Programmatic, and Fast, are similar but with some differences. Obviously, these were created long before personal computers were in every American home. The best they could do as far as achieving interactivity with the student was to have cassette tapes with audio that corresponded to the textbook. These programs, except for the Fast, also expect that the student will be concurrently taking a class and learning from a professor.

As mentioned above, the textbooks for these programs have been transferred to PDF files, and the audios to mp3 files. Unfortunately, the process of using the audios with the textbook is rather clumsy by today’s standards of userability. In the Programmatic series, there are lots of lessons in the textbooks that aren’t on the audio, so you have to stop and start the audio as you go. Since the textbooks are in a PDF file, it is difficult to edit them, or condense them into a smaller file, which would be nice in case you wanted to print them out. Other downsides to the programs are that the subject matter, especially for the Basic and Programmatic program, revolves around things that a government employee may need to know. Like embassy or military stuff, and golf. And the English speaker’s accent can best be described as “50’s retro square.” The other odd thing about the Basics program is the textbooks are split into 3 columns. You get the Spanish on the left and the English translation on the right, but for some reason they have a middle column that is a phonetic representation of the Spanish sounds that looks like another language altogether. It just clutters up the whole document and makes it quite user unfriendly.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the way of speaking is probably pretty square by Spanish standards. You will not sound hip if you speak just like this, and you won’t know any slang or current phrases that have been in use since 1970.

Yes, it’s a clumsy out-dated presentation, but the methodology is probably the most thorough and useful of anything out there. With these programs you get solid training in many of the aspects of Spanish learning (grammar, listening comprehension, pronunciation, etc.). The Fast program is geared towards more practical concerns that the learner is going to have in a new country, and it spends less time on the nuances of the language. The Basic and Programmatic programs are in-depth and more geared towards people wanting to be experts in all facets of the language, even though they were designed for people who didn’t need such fluency, except for the undercover CIA operatives of course.

The upsides to the Basic and Programmatic FSI programs, besides being available for free, is that they are, without question, over-the-top in their thoroughness. Despite the dorky tone of the English speakers, and the regimented nature of the methodology, it is so exhaustive and goes into some of the finer nuances of the language, with detailed explanations and plenty of practice exercises. I would say the Basics is mostly audio-based, with more emphasis on repeating what you hear, while the Programmatic program goes more into dissecting the language. However, for the early beginner Spanish student, I wouldn’t recommend either of these. They are a bit too overwhelming and will most likely turn people off or bore them away. The beginner would best be served using the Fast program. It’s more up-to-date, fun (it has pictures!) and more relevant. The Basics program I recommend to Intermediate level to build syntax and fluid macro-pronunciation. The Programmatic program is for the hard-core serious Spanish learner who really wants to get into some of the lesser-known nuances of the language. Levels 3 and 4 of the Basics program will be of use for intermediate and advanced students.

I should mention that the audios include native Spanish speakers from Latin America, as opposed to Spain, and the vosotros form is not used in the programs. Also, the Basic Level 1 is available as a CD set (also downloadable) called Camino de Éxito, which is much easier to use than the free FSI downloads. The Basic Level 2 is available for streaming for paid members of the website StudySpanish.com. Apparently the Langocity company also repackages Basics 1 and 2. And a company called Platiquemos repacked the whole enchilada and cleaned up the text and updated the audio (I just recently learned of Platiquemos) If you aren’t on a tight budget, I would recommend getting the Platiquemos version because the text is just so much more user friendly than the original.

Basics 3 complete with audios is available for free here. The audios are in good shape. Basics 4 text only is available for free on this site. The only place to get the audios, that I know of, for Basics Level 4 or the Fast program are as part of a group of bonuses if you purchase a program called Learning Like Crazy 1. (The bonuses include the Programmatic Levels 1 and 2, and the Basics level 3 and 4 as well as some other great stuff.)

(I actually bought Learning Like Crazy 1 just for the bonuses as I had already done Learning Like Crazy 2)

If you are willing to put up with the peculiarities of the FSI Spanish programs, they are incredibly useful for learning Spanish and reinforcing what you already know.


The best way to use the program is to print out the textbooks. It’s a lot of paper and ink, so that may not be practical for most people. I use the PDF files and then open up the audios with a QuickTime player. As you read the text, you have to stop and start the audio when necessary. (More for the Programmatic course than the Basics course). This can be a little challenging to go back and forth between programs, and frustrating if you lose your place in the text. But you get used to it, or you put up with it because it’s a good Spanish workout.

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