One of the greatest outputs of technology, for language learners at least, is the plethora of resources available to us. At the same time, however, one of the most troubling things about technology and all of our recent advancements is that we now have a huge selection of language learning materials to choose from.
Figuring out which resources work for you and which don’t can be a considerable enterprise.
I’ve found myself on both ends of the spectrum. I went through phases where I owned more language learning resources than I could reasonably use and I’ve also found myself with too few to really be successful.
Today, I like to think I’ve found a balance with the number of resources, I use. But it isn’t just the quantity I use with which I’ve settled into a groove. It’s also with the quality. Now that I have a few years of independent language learning under my belt, I have the experience needed to better discern the quality of a resource and thus, make better choices when evaluating new resources.
If Your Goal Is Conversation, Stop Counting on Textbooks or Apps to Help You
Before I get into selecting physical resources, I want to point out one particularly important thing. If your goal is reaching a conversational level, you need to stop counting on course books or apps to help you.
Yes, they’re great for offering up new vocabulary and explaining grammar rules, but they will not help you get better at speaking the language. The only way you’ll get better at speaking is by speaking.
I began learning my second language in school, buried in grammar books and vocabulary exercises. I was focused on memorizing words and conjugations that would be stored on my mental hard drive until the next test, only for that information to be dumped immediately after. Not a very useful way to study language long-term.
It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to use the language outside of school that I really began to see any significant progress. Suddenly, I had a reason to really hang on to the vocabulary and grammar I was learning in school.
I went from learning the language in order to pass exams to learning it to communicate with friends and family.
It felt incredibly rewarding to carry on a conversation in another language and it drove me to continue my efforts. In just a few months, my abilities far surpassed what five years in school had offered me. And that was all the motivation I needed to keep going, and even take on new languages.
Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use coursebooks, flashcards, or apps. They’re a great supplement. But you shouldn’t use only those means. Personally, I use a number of resources to pick-up and develop vocabulary, figure out sentence structures, and gain insight into the cultural or historical features that influence the language. But the truth is, it’s the native speakers I converse with who steer me in the right direction. It’s with them that I really make the most progress.
That said, conversing isn’t for everyone. If your goal is to read or understand a television series, then exchange partners or tutors might not be for you. Which leads me to my next point…
Not All Resources May Be The Right Resource for You
Everyone learns differently and everyone finds enjoyment in the process of learning in their own way. But just because you enjoy learning a certain way, doesn’t mean you’re learning the right way.
There are a lot of theories about what the right resources are or what the right methods are for learning a language. In my experience, however, I’ve found that there are really two things that matter when it comes to choosing resources and methods:
- You enjoy them and thus spend time using them or doing them and;
- They help you move towards your goals in the language.
As long as a resource does these two things (or at the very least, the second thing), then it’s a good resource for you.
Just Like Coursebooks and Apps Aren’t Enough on Their Own, Speaking Isn’t Enough Alone Either
Just like coursebooks and apps aren’t enough on their own, speaking isn’t enough alone either. The vocabulary and grammar need to come from somewhere.
Using a language with other speakers is by far the BEST way to improve your accent, your grammar, your vocabulary and your overall skill in another language (there are other ways to do it), but only once you’ve set up a foundation on your own. You can’t expect to launch into a discussion of Russian literature or French politics without having learned the vocabulary to use in that conversation.
This is where online learning programs, podcasts, grammar and vocabulary books, audiobooks and flashcards come in handy.
Here is what you need to consider when you’re choosing a language resource:
- Exactly what are you trying to accomplish in the language? Are you aiming for a conversational level? To use the language at work? To read a certain book or books? To understand your favorite tv show? To travel? What you aim to do with the language plays a big part in selecting the kinds of resources you use.
- What level are you currently at? If you’re anything above the beginning level, most coursebooks won’t be the right choice. Instead, you’ll want to start focusing more on using the language, using audio resources, or finding a more advanced grammar. Someone who is completely new to a language will have to implement an entirely different approach than someone who is more advanced.
- Where are the gaps in your current abilities? Do you struggle most with reading, speaking, writing or listening comprehension? Find resources that help you fill those gaps.
- What will you actually use? When all is said and done, the best language learning resources are the ones that you’ll use. You can have the “best” books and the “best” podcasts, but if you don’t work through them, it doesn’t matter. If Duolingo is something you’ll use, then go for it. If learning the lyrics to songs is something you’ll do, then go for it.
As I mentioned before, there is no one-size fits all approach when it comes to choosing the right combination of resources. The various methods and tools available are going to work differently for you than they do for me, so I cannot emphasize enough the importance of trying things out to find out what works best for you. I’ve spent several years playing around with different resources and discovering what works for me and what doesn’t. I would be remiss to suggest that you do the same.
Let’s break things down with a couple of specific examples.
You’re Aiming for a Specific Language Learning Goal
If you have a specific goal you’d like to reach, then choose resources that will help you get there. If you want to converse, don’t choose resources that don’t give you opportunities to speak. Or listen, for that matter.
If you aim to one day be conversational in your language, then the two most important skills you can work on are your listening and speaking abilities. For this, I would suggest something like Pimsleur – it’s call-and-response. That way you get the chance to practice both speaking and listening. Personally, I listen to Pimsleur lessons whenever I’m in my car for an extended period of time. They’re a great way to establish basic speaking and comprehension skills. When you’re ready to take things further, a tutor is your best investment.
Your Goal is To Read or Write in the Language
If a grammar-focused method works better for you, or you’re more interested in reading and writing than speaking, a grammar or vocabulary book may work best for you. As far as resources I recommend, I like Assimil, the Routledge Grammar Books, and if you like exercises, Schaum’s.
There are also dual-language books that come with one language on one side and another on the other (or one language printed immediately under the other). If you’re at the intermediate or advanced level, you can try diving right into foreign language books, translating words you don’t know as you come across them (or after you finish each passage). For this, my absolute favourite application is LingQ. It’s fantastic if you love reading.
Playing in the Language is More Your Style
If gamification methods work best for you (or you just enjoy earning points for your efforts or just playing games), some of the online tools available may work for you. I personally like Memrise, Clozemaster and Drops. Duolingo is another big player in this field, and for Chinese, I’ve enjoyed Ninchanese.
You’re Not Sure Where to Start
If you’re unsure of where to start, or what your learning style is, there are a few resources that serve as a great introduction.
You can also go with a good phrasebook to help you build a foundation in any language. The Lonely Planet series is pretty good, but if you’re just getting started, almost any one will do.
If you’re looking for more recommendations and reviews, you can check out my favorite language learning resources here. I’ve also created resource pages for each language I am studying. You can check out the pages here – French, Italian, German, Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish, Russian, Breton, Korean, and Croatian.
What about you?
What materials do you use to study and practice the languages you’re learning? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!
For more language learning tips like this, check out my collection of articles on Pinterest!