You’re on your way to learning a new language already. You have decided which language to learn, you have identified your motivations, and you have also found a teacher on italki to help you in the process. But what are you going to use to structure your studies? Which books, courses or other materials are you using now?
The questions are broad and the answers can be wide-ranging too. Put simply, there is no one-stop-shop for the definitive answer to this question that fits everyone. There is no language spandex that fits all sizes in the same way!
But we can look at elements of what’s effective and what will enable you to make informed choices. I use this method whenever I look at studying a new language. At the Polyglot Workshops, Polyglot Conference, and on my Speaking Fluently page, I often get asked about which materials are best for learning. These are my considerations:
Less can be more
If you have too much material available, it can be confusing. It can also lead to book-hopping and that can hamper your progress. I know of people who felt frustrated by too much choice and not being able to focus on learning from just one book. In order to continue to learn a language, we often need to feel that we’re progressing and improving our knowledge for the language. Commonly studied languages like English, French, Spanish, and German have a wealth of resources as well as materials available to the learner. The trick with these languages is finding what’s just right for you. There are some techniques you can employ to guide your decisions:
What’s your level?
For many languages, we can now see the proficiency level shown on the language books. This way, you know if your existing grasp of the language is capable of tackling the materials inside the book. The proficiency level also shows where the course will take you as you further progress on learning the language. If you are a beginner in the language, you would simply focus on books at the A1 level to start (A1 is the first level in any language according to the Common European Framework or Reference for Languages; or CEFR for short). If you already possess some knowledge of a language, then you can ask your italki teacher and online assessments to help you figure out your current language level. It’s always best to consolidate a level and work upwards from there rather than giving yourself too much of a learning gap to bridge and potentially demotivating yourself in the process.
I did this when I was learning Greek. Everyone thought I was at the A2 level, so I bought a book for the next level (B1). After a month, I was getting bored of my B1 book. It was only when I went back to my A2 book to fill in the gaps where I did not understand in the B1 book that I really picked up my pace with learning the language and started making real progress. There’s no shame in revision and consolidation in language learning. Consolidation of skills is an important key to building a strong and solid foundation in order to move up to the next level.
What do you like?
It’s good to work with materials that are appealing to you. I always ask myself the following questions when I am confronted with language books:
- Does the content get you excited about learning the language?
- Does the content satisfy your learning needs (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation or interesting themes and topics)?
- Are the dialogues and texts full of language examples you can picture yourself saying in real-life situations?
- Will the book’s vocabulary and grammar material improve your needs and proficiency?
Remember, why are you learning the language in the first place! Those reasons really will help you to focus on what you need when searching for learning materials.
Do the explanations speak to you?
Making sure you are satisfied with how the language is explained in any language book that you choose is important. You need to feel that the tone of voice is relevant when reading it. Consider the following questions:
- Do the activities, vocabulary and grammar explanations make sense to you?
- Is the book’s layout keeping you engaged?
- Are the explanations too technical or theoretical?
You need to be happy with the way the course teaches you how the language works. You can get help from other sources and your italki teacher if you notice that you need additional support for certain topics.
Sometimes we have chosen to learn a language with limited learning materials available to us. What do we do then?
Well, this has been the case for me in a number of languages that I have tackled. The long and the short of it is that you have to use whatever is available and be creative and inventive at times too. I will go into more details about this in a future post about getting through the intermediate stages of learning a language. Much of that content will apply to languages with limited choices for learning materials.
Key tips on buying learning materials
Look for local language learning materials for foreigners who have moved to that country. You can find out what materials a local from the country (your italki teacher, a friend in the country or someone with access to local bookshops) favors. Once you have identified the learning materials, then you can order them online and have it shipped to you. Or you can try to find it in your local bookstore.
Usually I will start learning a language by choosing a book that covers a broad range of topics for the language. For example, books such as Teach Yourself, Colloquial or Assimil. Then to further my studies, I will look for language materials that are more native which the locals might use. I find that local materials often have more of an emphasis on teaching to communicate in everyday situations, as such materials are aimed to help people who have moved to the country and need to use the language consistently. This usually is my goal for learning any language. I want to talk and communicate with the locals.
In the next three blog posts I will be looking at how to make the most of your materials to work on developing your pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar.
Richard works as the Languages Director at Emoderation. He also has a website and Facebook page about language learning. You can reach out to find out about his learning techniques, which he explores in workshops online and in person for anyone interested in learning how to succeed in their language studies.