I was down in London with work, and I had a spare half-an-hour on my way to the airport. I was just about to head down into King's Cross-St Pancras underground when I remembered a bookshop I'd been meaning to visit.
LCL International Booksellers is on Judd St, under five minutes' walk from Kings Cross. I walked in the door and was immediately asked if I needed help. I didn't, so I told the shopkeepeer that I'd heard about the place and just had to see it for myself.
It was incredible. Every nook and cranny was jammed with a bookcase and every bookcase was full. There was every language course you could think of (except Rosetta Stone, which I think says something!) plus many you would never have realised existed, and many that don't exist any more.
I could bankrupt myself in a place like that. What particularly intrigued me were all the CDROM courses on offer. Now I know they'll all be rubbish -- all computer-based self-teaching packages are, but I'm just so curious about different people's ideas on how to teach languages with computers. What ideas were lost when Transparent Language and Rosetta Stone absorbed the market? What ideas did newer entrants to the market build on?
But in the end, there's no guarantee that I could get any of these older packages to run on a current computer, so I headed back to the "proper" book section.
So yeah, I did spend a bit of cash, but I only baught two books! (This is the first time I've ever been glad of draconian hand-baggage limitations on aeroplanes.)
This first is something I've been meaning to get for a long time -- Cronómetro. It's a book for preparing for the Spanish DELE exams, and I picked up the advanced version. I don't really put all that much stock in exams, but unfortunately the Open University recently aligned their marking scheme to the CEFR, and their final Spanish course is graded as B2/C1. Now that I've got an official rating against the CEFR, I feel compelled to better it -- my ego doesn't like not reaching the highest point. Also, I've found that various among the finer points of Spanish grammar are starting to slip away from me, so I really need to focus myself on something to get a better command of all those bits and pieces.
(I'm actually not a fan of the CEFR and I've got a couple of posts in the pipeline about the whys and wherefores, so I'll not bore you with that now.)
The second book was something a little different. It was Hippocrene Books' Beginner's Basque by Win Jansen. I really shouldn't have bothered -- I knew that at the time -- but my judgement was impaired by a cracking occular migraine that was constantly threatening to turn the world into shards of coloured glass like you'd find in a kaleidoscope. Talking to a shopkeeper whose head is trying to turn into a fountain of rhomboids is more than a little disorientating. (Crossing the road later was very disturbing, and walking through the tube station with a bloke from a stained glass window pacing me in my peripheral vision was also extremely bizarre.) This book has kind of inspired me to another post on one of the big problems with dialogues in language books, but that'll come later.
Right now, I'm more interested in the place of bookshops in the modern world. There is no specialist language bookshop in Edinburgh as far as I know, and I'm sure enough people know I would be interested that someone would have told me by now. Many of the books in there just wouldn't get space in even the best-stocked Waterstones, so there is no way for most people to discover them.
But what about the internet, I here you cry? I'm not hopeful. Years ago, the big buzzword in internet economics was "the long tail". They said that the internet would be great for the little guy by making things always available and available everywhere. It does, but that doesn't mean that folk will buy it.
The results have been disheartening. The internet seems to be concentrating more and more consumer power into less and less products.
Part of the problem is the problem of too much choice, and lack of the expert shop assistant. How do you decide what to buy? You get what everyone else is getting.
And it gets worse, because in a bookshop, you don't open up a book and see an advert for a rival book, but when I went to Amazon the other day and had a look at a course from the Michel Thomas range, I saw the following blurb in an advert for a rival product: " Tried Michel Thomas? New Spanish & French Audio Courses from Collins ". Almost everywhere I look for information on language learning, I see adverts for Rosetta Stone (a package which is almost universally derided by serious language learners). Hell, they even had their own display in the airport departure lounge I was in that same day.
So what is the future for language learning materials? Will we see increased consolidation on the market leaders, or will there be greater diversification? And in the end, does it really matter?