It’s a common problem. You want to learn a new language (or get better at an existing one) but…you don’t know what to grab to teach yourself.
With so many courses, textbooks, and apps out there, it can get pretty overwhelming, pretty quick.
In this post, you’ll learn how to select your learning study materials so you can have a solid foundation for your language-learning.
What should I focus on?
When you’re just starting out, there’s too much to learn. Do you focus on grammar? Vocabulary? Should you start reading right away? Do you wait to practice speaking until you’re at a better level, or should you start right away?
Is it better to learn from a textbook, or should I get on Duolingo? Are university classes worth investing in, especially at such a high price point? What about this person online who says they can teach me—are they legit?
If that’s you, first: calm down. Second—let’s get clear on your goals, your resources, and your learning style.
The 4 Basic Skills
You probably know these: Speaking, Listening, Reading, and Writing. You want to develop all four of these.
When you’re just starting out, I wouldn’t worry about maintaining a balance in all of these. Just pick the pair that’s most useful or least scary for you (speaking/listening or reading/writing) and focus on those skills. You can always repair the imbalance later.
People who learn languages with apps tend to struggle with speaking, in my experience. People who learn in a classroom might be bad at listening. If you’re learning from an immersion environment, writing or reading might be your struggle.
A good litmus test is to gauge your own comfort: which of these activities is the least comfortable for me?
Go into this guide with that in mind.
Table of Contents
Quick Note: Are you good at self-study?
Then you already know that grabbing a textbook and working through it is a good choice for you.
Me? I’m terrible at self-study. I learn much better in group settings. I’ll take group classes instead of working with a personal trainer. I’m not very good at creating a structure for myself and honoring it—I need someone else, and preferably multiple someones else, involved in that process.
With that in mind, let’s review the pros and cons of a couple of different materials.
You could go digital, but there’s so much value in having a physical book ready to reference.
And there are so many different types of books. Do you get a grammar book? A phrasebook? What about a dictionary?
I recommend you get one of each, if possible.
(Full disclosure: I am very much in favor of books.)
Make no mistake: I love a good grammar book. And I love a good textbook even more. Why?
Because somebody else has taken the trouble of figuring out the roadmap. All you have to do is follow the chapters in the book and bam, you’re learning!
But a lot of the time, this is overwhelming. And grammar books are rarely the only resource you need. (How will you learn pronunciation, after all?) And textbooks can be prohibitively expensive.
I love having a grammar book on hand to reference something that I don’t know or haven’t yet learned. For example, if I’m practicing speaking and I need to review the past conditional tense (I would have done…) or when to use the subjunctive (it’s important that you be on time), the grammar book is great to consult.
For that reason, I recommend owning a grammar book for reference.
It’s too easy to fall into the trap of feeling like our grammar has to be perfect. That’s a common barrier to conversational fluency. Don’t let your grammar book guide to into that mindset!
I’ve always considered phrasebooks a secret to success when learning a language for practical use. I was never required to own one in school and I think that I missed out, because a phrasebook gives you a lot of quick wins.
- It gets you speaking the language
- It introduces you to a lot of common, idiomatic language
- It gives you plenty of examples to understand the language in context
More than that, a phrasebook also gives you a bit of structure to your language study. A good phrasebook is organized into sections, so the travel phrases, the dining phrases, the greetings phrases, and etc. are all separate from each other.
This means it’s easy for you to delve into one specific area without getting bogged down by the overwhelming amount of content.
It also makes phrasebooks a good supplemental material and a good reference for actual conversation. You might find, in conversation, that you don’t know how to say something specific, or you’ve cobbled together a way of saying it that native speakers don’t say. Sometimes, phrases are just unintuitive.
For example, in French, I always learned « ça va ? » as the typical “how are you?” greeting. But the French also say « quoi de neuf ? », literally “what’s new?” in the same way we’d say “what’s up?”. Since “what’s up” and “how are you” are mostly interchangeable in English (in the context of greetings/making small talk), it never occurred to me that the French might have different expressions and that one might be more colloquial than the other. Quoi deneuf, the more colloquial, “French-sounding” expression, would have been in a phrasebook, but it was not in my grammar books.
So I do recommend getting a phrasebook.
Do you need a physical dictionary? There are so many good online dictionaries, aren’t there?
It depends. If you’re learning any major European language or one of the big Asian languages (Arabic, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, or Korean), I can’t recommend Wordreference enough.
But it’s also worth looking into a dedicated language dictionary. For example, I live and breathe by the Pleco dictionary for Chinese.
If you enjoy having a physical dictionary—or if you’re kinda sick of staring at a screen all the time—then getting a bilingual dictionary is a good idea. If you’re easily distracted (🙋♂️), it’s better to not even open the phone and I would recommend getting a physical dictionary just to keep your own impulsiveness in check.
(No judgment. I own many physical dictionaries.)
Language-learning apps like Duolingo, Memrise, or Busuu are wonderful additions to your language-learning toolset.
- They have plenty of psychological hooks to keep you engaged.
- They live on your phone (and you live on your phone too, no?).
- You can access and use them anywhere.
- The content is already laid out for you.
- They know when it’s time to review content and prompt you to do so.
The list goes on and on. I’ve used Duolingo to get a basic reading proficiency in German and to review a lot of French and Spanish vocabulary that I didn’t get in school. They definitely have their uses.
But they have some limitations:
- Most apps are solitary affairs. You practice alone. You engage with them alone.
- The content is often only really basic or early-intermediate.
- There’s no way to practice conversation on most apps
- Some apps have premium pricing that feels like it’s not worth the return on investment
- Knowing when to use specific grammar is challenging. (For example, I never mastered German’s case system, no matter how much I practiced with my app.)
- Generally, forced inductive learning (“bottom-up”) can feel frustratingly slow if you’d rather learn the grammatical structure (“top-down”) first.
- They live on your phone (where you also live)
And that list goes on and on as well.
If you’re looking to review, practice reading, learn general vocabulary that you might have missed, or get the basics of a new language, I think apps are a fantastic place to start.
But the lack of conversation practice and overt grammar reference (although this varies by the app) means that these nifty interactive tools are hard to recommend as an all-in-one instructional tool. You need to supplement them to build those other skills.
Personally, I love taking classes. I liked school, I like the classroom environment, and I like the clearly defined goals and benchmarks that come from quizzes, tests, and assignments. I learned French and Mandarin pretty exclusively from taking classes. I know they work for me.
But classes, especially through a university, are expensive. If you’re lucky, you can find a reputable online program (and if COVID continues the way it’s been going, that might be your only option for a while). In-person classes, often, can be expensive.
But they come with a few caveats, and those aren’t just for cost:
- It can be hard to get individual instruction. This is especially true if you’re studying at a big university, where you have 30 people in a class that only meets three hours a week. (I went to a small college where professors and TAs were very accessible during their office hours, so this wasn’t a struggle for me. But if I had studied at a big school? It may have been different.)
- Getting a professor who matches your learning style can be a gamble. A good teacher will vary their methods, but some teachers just stick with grammar or memorization or listening comprehension recordings (my nemesis).
- You may have “failed” a class in high school. I don’t mean you failed the letter grade. But you took 4 years of Spanish and…you can’t speak any of it. So you might have some limiting beliefs about your language-learning abilities because of that. Maybe you just think that classes don’t work for you.
- A bad cohort can sour the experience. As adults, hopefully, everyone who is in your class is there because they want to be there. They have the right attitude. But sometimes people are there before they have to be, not because they get to be. Do you perceive the difference? One student’s attitude can affect the entire class’s mood.
- The scheduling just doesn’t work out. For example, I live in Pittsburgh (at the time of this writing). There are Italian-language classes not too far from where I live. But they’re at the exact same time as my Crossfit classes (and Crossfit is my sanity’s keeper during COVID-19, truly). I’m not willing to give that up right now.
- Sometimes your goals aren’t aligned. If you’re trying to learn Arabic so you can get a work transfer to Dubai, you have different goals from someone who wants to learn Spanish so they can speak with their grandmother. (Grandmothers, in my experience, don’t care that you’ve mastered the subjunctive. But formal business people who write lots of emails do.) Classes often strive for more correct language use than not, so if your goal is just to speak or feel comfortable traveling, an intermediate or advanced class could be overkill.
In addition, you usually need to supplement your class time with more practice, and sometimes instructors don’t know how to point you in the right direction. (That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?)
For example, it wasn’t until I discovered spaced repetition that I really started to remember and master foreign language vocabulary. But I never learned about spaced repetition in the classroom. My teachers didn’t always teach me how to learn a language. We operated under the assumption that however I studied for history or math would work here too.
Classes that don’t break the bank?
There are tons of reputable courses out there for you if you benefit from the structured manner classes present material but can’t shell out thousands of dollars.
A simple Google search will unearth tons of free options to get you basic proficiency if you’re good at self-study.
tl;dr: What should I pick?
Here are my recommendations:
- Grab a grammar book for reference or to use as your primary method of study
- Grab a small phrasebook for reference
- You can probably get away with an online dictionary…unless you’re ADHD (like me) and you know that using your phone for a dictionary would invite a lot of distraction
- Use an app like Duolingo or Busuu to supplement your grammar book or your actual class
- Enroll in a class or online course if you like the structured approach to learn a language
Best of luck! If you have any questions about what to pick or where to find these resources, let’s talk about it in the comments
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