Choosing The Best Language Resources – Part 1: Self-Study

It's difficult to underestimate the importance of choosing the right language resources.

Getting it right means choosing materials that match how you learn. This motivates you and speeds up your progress.

Getting it wrong means a long slog through material that's not right for you. This is demotivating, makes it harder to learn, and may leave you thinking that the language is just too hard…and quit. 

Choosing the right language resources really is that important.

So let's get into it.

Your language resources should fall into three different categories:

  1. Self-study (e.g. Teach Yourself books, subscription websites, audio programmes)
  2. Learning tools (e.g. flashcard apps, Chinese writing paper)
  3. Immersion (e.g. movies, books)

This article will focus on the first kind: instruction materials.

The importance of level

Imagine you start learning a martial art.

You come to your first lesson, full of enthusiasm, and your instructor says to you: “Right, today we're going to practise overhead throws.”

“What are we going to be throwing?” you ask.

“Each other.”

You're in the wrong level.

But you've turned up, spent the money, so you may as well carry on.

Needless to say, you get a bruising.

You're not strong enough to lift anyone, your footwork's all wrong. You fall over, land wrong, hurt yourself.

The instructor’s style is ‘demonstration'. He doesn’t like to explain. But, as a beginner, without someone to explain what you’re doing wrong, you’re lost.

“I guess I'm just not cut out for this,” you say.

You never go back. 

“I'll try tennis instead.”

Getting it the wrong way round

That may sound like an obvious example, and yet I see aspiring language learners making this very mistake all the time.

What does that mistake look like?

Buying a load of books, dictionaries or CDs, and then studying based on the materials you’ve got, rather than choosing the right materials to fit you – your current level and how you learn best.

Having bought all these new resources, which have been chosen arbitrarily and without principle, studying with them becomes a ridiculous task.

You persist with something that’s either at the wrong level (e.g. overhead throws for beginners), or that doesn’t match how you like to learn (e.g. lack of explanation).

And what do you do then?

You blame yourself for not improving, and say that you’re no good at language learning!

Can you see how silly this is?

We need to get this the right way round, and choose resources that work for you and support you, rather than having you led by the resources.

Language resources for beginners

When you’re starting to learn a new language, I recommend buying three different self-study resources. Typically, I go for two textbooks and one audio programme.

Here’s why.

Firstly, you need a variety of materials. Most people will tire of using one resource for a long period. It’s best to recognise this in advance and prepare for it, rather than forcing yourself to slog through one book “just because you paid for it”.

Secondly, you need study options for different situations. Most people will have more time on the go (commuting, at the gym, lunch breaks) than sitting down at home. Having an audio course, for example, helps you to make the most out of your dead time, whilst also adding variety.

How to choose the right self-study resource

This will focus specifically on self-study books and websites. There are limited choices for audio courses and I'll review some of those separately.

Please remember that this is focused on self-study materials. That is, instructional material.

Traditional study is only one element in the learning equation. In addition to that you also need a lot of extra exposure to your target language – immersion – but I’m treating that separately. Click here for how to create an immersion environment.

There are two things to consider when choosing a self-study book: hard factors and soft factors.

Hard factors are objective criteria – things you can measure, like the level of the language or whether the book comes with a CD. Soft factors are subjective criteria – things you can’t measure, like whether you like the style of the writing.

The following are questions that you should ask yourself when choosing a language learning book or website. These factors apply equally to both.

You may not be able to answer some of these straightaway, but it’s good to start considering them and making informed choices. You'll get better at it with more practice.

Hard factors

1. What level is it? Sounds obvious, but don’t use books/websites which are clearly not aimed at your level. Read the promotional material to check the target level, then sit down and spend some time with it to see if it feels right for you.

2. Is it instructional or immersion material? There’s a big difference between a resource which is a collection of short stories for reading practice, and a resource which uses short stories to teach you the language. Most beginner material will be instructional, but be sure to check.

3. Is it audio-based, text-based, or both? How are the lessons delivered? Is it an audio course or are you expected to read through the lessons?  

4. What kind of texts are used?

5. Does the book/website come with audio so you can listen along to the texts? If yes, fine. If no, reject. Being able to hear what you’re reading is one of the most important parts of the learning process.

6. What’s the basic methodology behind the teaching? (translation, guided discovery, or other?). When you start a new chapter, are you given new vocabulary first, or a dialogue first? Is there an English translation of the dialogue straight away? Does it come later in the chapter? Or is there no translation at all, forcing you to work out the meaning yourself? When it comes to self-study, I don’t believe in a right or wrong methodology. The right methodology is the one which works for you. Spend some time with the book and figure out their teaching approach.

7. Are the topics in the book/website relevant to your situation? Many books will have entire chapters devoted to “at the bank” or “meeting your host family”. If you’re learning from home and don’t plan to travel any time soon, you don’t need this.

8. Is a dictionary included? Good books and websites include a short dictionary in the back containing all the vocabulary from the dialogues. This is a small thing, and I wouldn’t reject a resource just because it doesn’t have one, but it can save you huge amounts of time and help you maintain focus.

9. What’s the balance of content? When you flick through the book or browse the website, is there one thing that you see rather a lot of? Perhaps lengthy explanations? Grammar exercises? Vocabulary lists? Texts? Cultural insights? Again, there’s no right or wrong, but notice what you’re about to buy and consider whether you would enjoy it. I would personally avoid anything that seems too heavy on grammar exercises.

10. What’s the balance of skills? Is there a particular focus on reading, writing, speaking or listening? Some resources give you a lot of speaking or writing exercises, but the main purpose of a self-study resource is for input, meaning that you want a lot of reading and listening. There are better ways to get speaking and writing practice.

Soft factors

1. Look and feel. How do the pages look? Are they easy on the eye? Will you enjoy reading/using it? How’s the quality of the binding? Does it feel nice in your hands? Do you like the interface of the website? Sure, you could argue that this doesn’t matter, but I’d argue strongly that it does. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with this resource – it’s better that you like it!

2. Topics of interest. Scan the table of contents. Do the topics of the units make you groan, or do they make you want to dive in and see what it’s all about?

3. Tone of instruction. Some resources, especially certain series of books, can be incredibly patronising to the reader, while others can be playful and encouraging. The thing is, you might not realise it until you’ve got home and started to work through it. Check it out thoroughly in advance.  

4. Will you want to pick it up everyday? This is what it all comes down to. Spend 15 minutes with the book before you buy it and you will instinctively know the answer. In the case of websites, ask for a 1-day/week trial.

How to use your language resources

There are plenty of other posts on the site about how to study, so I’m just going reiterate the most important thing to remember as you get started.

Martial arts and language learning (and any other skill for that matter) essentially come down to one thing:

Focusing on a small number of fundamentals and getting very, very good at them.

Having chosen some quality language resources appropriate to your level, including a nice variety to keep you interested, your success now comes down to your ability to keep at it over a long period of time.

And this essentially means staying motivated.

According to temporal motivation theory (TMT), two main factors work against you in the battle to stay motivated:

So what does this mean for you?

That’s everything you need to know about choosing self-study resources! If you're going book shopping, I've made a 1-page quick reference PDF that you can print out and take with you. Right click below and choose “save as” to download:

Quick-reference guide to choosing language resources – PDF

So, what are you waiting for?

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