One of the great things about technology, the Internet, self-publishing, and the rise in entrepreneurship is that we now have a plethora of language learning materials to choose from. At the same time, however, one of the most troubling things about the above is that we now have a huge selection of language learning materials to choose from and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work can be quite the enterprise.
A question that I’m often asked is “how did you learn Italian [Mandarin, Croatian, etc.]?” I typically say that I’m self-taught, but that’s not entirely true. I use a number of resources to pick-up and develop vocabulary, sentence structures, communication skills and the cultural aspects that go hand-in-hand with a language. But the truth is, I’m not really self-taught, I’m just self-motivated. It’s the native speakers I converse with and resources that I use that steer me in the right direction and help me along my way.
The question often comes from curious, soon-to-be language learners and so I try to impart the importance of selecting materials that work for them personally. Everyone learns differently and everyone finds enjoyment in learning in their own ways. It goes to show you that choosing the right tools for your language learning journey can go a long way in helping you to remain motivated while you steadily progress.
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 test only to be dumped immediately after. It wasn’t a very useful or beneficial way to study language.
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. 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 ever allowed me and that was all the motivation I needed to keep going and even take on new languages.
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, 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 go along with the conversation.
That’s where things like online learning programs, podcasts, grammar and vocabulary books, audiobooks and flashcards come in handy. You have to take the level you are at into consideration when selecting resources. Someone who is completely new to a language will have to implement an entirely different approach than someone who is more advanced. Just like you shouldn’t try to have a conversation with a native speaker right off the bat, you also shouldn’t stick to the same methods you started out with once your abilities become more advanced. Your speaking/reading skills may grow stagnate and that can be frustrating. The best thing to do is seek out resources that will help you reach the next level.
As I mentioned before, the various methods and tools available are going to work differently for each person who reads this, so I cannot emphasize the importance of trying things out to find out what works best for you enough. I’ve spent several years playing around with different resources and discovering what works for me and what doesn’t. I suggest you do the same.
Your goals also play an important role when you’re selecting resources. If you want to begin speaking as soon as possible, going with audio based resources can be one of the most efficient routes to take. For this I would suggest something like Pimsleur/a> or Assimil. I listen to Pimsleur lessons whenever I’m in my car for an extended period of time and they’re a great way to establish basic speaking and comprehension skills. Assimil is a bit different, and while it has audio, it also has text to go along with it and you really need to use the two together. Since I can’t (and won’t) read while driving, I only listen to Assimil in the car if I want to “immerse” myself in the language or review what I’ve already worked on. And, of course, you can always listen to music and watch movies in your target language as well.
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 for you. As far as resources I recommend, I like Assimil (again), the Routledge Grammar Books, and some of the books in the Practice Makes Perfect series.
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 in to foreign language books, translating words you don’t know as you come across them (or after you finish each passage). Starting out with easier texts (like Dr. Seuss) and then transitioning into more complex texts (Harry Potter then even texts by native speakers on more complex topics).
If gamification methods work best for you (or you just enjoy earning points for your efforts or playing games), some of the online tools available may work for you. I personally like DuoLingo, Memrise, and once upon a time I used LiveMocha and Busuu.
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, I plan to start posting several in the near future. I’ve started to create resource pages for each language I am studying. You can check out the pages here – French, Italian, German, Mandarin and Croatian. In the meantime, I recommend checking out the sites of Lingholic (who also wrote a great post on language learning material selection) and Ellen Jovin. They both write thorough and helpful reviews on various language learning materials.
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!