How to make the most out of language resources

Language podcasts and textbooks always aim to teach you something specific. “Of course!” you cry. “Isn't that what you want?” I would argue not. But I've learnt this the hard way after spending years devouring hundreds of fancy books, podcasts and websites. I want to share with you some valuable lessons I've learnt about how to approach the resources available to you, and how not to let them govern you.

This article is about avoiding some of the pitfalls associated with language learning products and how to get the most out of them – much more than even they intend you too!

The problem with language learning products

The reason that I advise against basing your learning around books, CDs, podcasts, etc. is for the same reason that I don't recommend going to language schools if you're serious about learning.

Before you dismiss me as a complete nutter, let me explain my rationale. As I argue in Getting Started, our aim as effective language learners is to be goal-driven and self-directed. Now, although it is perfectly possible to use commercial products and language schools to good effect, a lot of painful experience has shown me that the vast majority of learners place too much trust in them, handing over responsibility for learning to the course or the teacher.

It's understandable – and would be great if it worked! “The teacher knows what they're doing!” “This product is popular – it must work!”

But the problem with such statements is that the “I” is missing.

Let's go back to basics (remember?) Where do you and your goals fit in? In assuming that the method or the teacher knows what's best for you at this particular month, week or day in your personal language journey, you've surrendered the most important right you have: to determine the path for your own learning.

Pre-selected content

One of the features of the new generation of podcasts, audio courses and textbooks is that they very often use a dialogue or other kind of text as a vehicle for presenting their daily nugget of grammar or vocabulary.

Because these guys have to make their products in advance, they have to pre-select the vocabulary or grammar point that features in their material. But that doesn't mean we have to just sit back and take it – lessons 1-20 in order etc etc etc. No, remember in our goal-orientated approach, we go after specific language point only when we want it.

But don't dump it all on the bonfire just yet! The fact that products use dialogues presents a valuable opportunity! If the grammar isn't of interest, let's look at the dialogue instead.

Exploiting the dialogues

In your typical podcast (I'll stick with podcasts for now), although it may be teaching a specific grammar point, any probably spends the whole podcast on it, the grammar point itself will most likely constitute no more than 10% of the dialogue itself. That leaves you 90% of material left to get stuck into. And because it's a dialogue, it's likely to be fairly realistic, and therefore constitutes great study material – especially if your goal is conversational fluency.

This is why self-direction is the key. It's about making your own decisions and squeezing the extra 90% out of those resources.

Sticking with it

I've often been guilty of working through an interesting set of exercises in a book, and then, when I've finished, immediately starting to look for the next interesting resource, that next killer website or reading text that will double my vocab in half an hour. (Right!) In my eagerness, I may well have been wasting material that was right under my nose.

Let's look at an example.


You might be checking out a podcast which has a conversation of a couple of people talking in the street. The podcast tells you that there are some really useful phrases for opening a conversation, and that's what you're going to learn.

The podcast was great – you figured out what they were saying, learnt those useful phrases, and even feel more confident now about opening a conversation in the language. Time for the next episode?

Before you move on, reflect on what you've achieved. You have worked through a whole conversation, understood the context and the language used. You have focused (quite rightly) on those phrases that they taught you, but what about the rest of the words and phrases in the conversation? You may know some of them, especially if you've looked them up, but others will be unfamiliar. You know, deep down, that if you turn off the podcast, all that extra language will be forgotten.

The extra language in this video has high value to you for a number of reasons:

  1. the context, or target situation (opening a conversation), is probably highly relevant to you, so most of the other language is also likely to be relevant
  2. the extra words are in context (as opposed to learning them from a list), which serves as an anchor for the memory and you'll be much more likely to remember it
  3. you already understand the dialogue because you spent time with while learning the phrases in the first place, meaning that you don't need to go through the whole process again, which you'd have to do if you found another video.

Dealing with the new language

What I would do at this stage is to aim to commit these extra words/phrases to memory:

  1. Sit down and transcribe the podcast onto paper (it may be given to you in the show notes)
  2. Make a note of the new words/phrases, writing them out in whole sentences
  3. Transfer it all to flash cards with translations on the back
  4. Study and commit to memory using your usual system
  5. Write out a new imaginary conversation using the new language. Have someone correct it.
  6. Start consciously using the new language in speaking sessions

Remember, we are seeking to be as efficient as possible with our time. I've wasted countless hours over the years by neglecting learning opportunities right under my nose.  Learn things which are easily available to you, and learn them comprehensively by revisiting them over and over.

Accountability time! What's the last CD, podcast, video, text that you worked with? What else was in there that you could have milked? Leave a comment below and let me know!

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