Book Smarts: 5 Tips for Selecting the Best Foreign Language Textbooks
If not, it’s time to load up! Textbooks are a staple of any balanced language learning diet.
Sure, there are lots of great ways to study a language.
You can listen to music, watch movies or do translation exercises. You can even meet with a conversation partner for a firsthand dose of the language as it’s spoken.
Textbooks might not seem as flashy or fun as these other resources, but don’t let that steer you away from them.
Textbooks are the workhorses of all academic instruction—from elementary school through college—and for good reason.
What’s more, anybody can use them.
But what exactly makes textbooks so great?
Reasons to Study with Textbooks
Why study with textbooks? Well, because foreign language textbooks are designed just for learners like you! They have several cool features you’ll find extremely useful:
- Textbooks are well-designed. Textbooks are usually written by language teachers and edited by publishers experienced in the language learning process. Nowhere else can you find a source so thoroughly reviewed or carefully designed for the needs of language learners!
- Textbooks are packed with useful content. Textbooks are treasure troves of vocabulary lists and grammar rules, along with dialogues, texts and thorough explanations.
- Textbooks are made to do it all. They usually present not only new words but also practice exercises and even cultural knowledge. In some cases, they may also offer access to audio files and online exercises.
- Textbooks provide a roadmap for learning. If you’ve ever tried to study a language on your own, you know it can be difficult to figure out what to focus on first and what to save for later. When you use a textbook, you don’t need to worry about this. The information has been organized into lessons for you, so all you need to do is turn the page and start studying!
If you’re taking a language class, you probably don’t have the opportunity to choose your textbook. But if you’re learning on your own, you get the chance to determine your own path.
One of the great things about learning with a textbook is that you can reap a lot of the same benefits as going to school, even if you don’t have the time or money. Can’t afford to take a class? No problem! Buy a textbook and work through at your own pace.
Now, let’s find the perfect textbook for your language learning needs.
Where to Find the Best Textbooks
Time to go shopping!
There are lots of different options for purchasing textbooks. You can go to your favorite local bookstore, check out a nearby university bookstore or shop online. Online options include:
- Large booksellers like Amazon, which sell a wide range of textbooks for many different languages and typically offer the option of purchasing new, used or e-book versions.
- Large publishers like Berlitz, Pearson, Wiley and Barrons, which offer quality standardized textbooks for a variety of languages straight from the source.
- VitalSource lets you buy and rent textbooks in e-format. You can use VitalSource Bookshelf, a reading app, to access your purchases at your convenience. To find foreign language textbooks, try searching by your target language. You can also filter by “World Languages.”
- Foreign language publishers, which tend to focus on full-immersion textbooks and are located in a country where your target language is spoken.
- Auction or secondhand sites like eBay or Craigslist, where you can purchase inexpensive textbooks if you’re willing to settle for a less recent edition or a copy that has notes in it from a previous user
If hauling around heavy textbooks is part of your life you’d rather leave behind, consider looking for an e-book instead of a hard copy. E-books are usually cheaper and also more convenient, since you can bring them with you everywhere on your smartphone, tablet or PC.
Unfortunately, the availability of language textbooks as e-books is variable. There’s a decent selection available in some languages, like Spanish, but there may be a very small or even nonexistent selection in other languages. Fortunately, this will likely change in the future as the popularity of e-books continues to grow.
So now that you know where to look, let’s talk about how to look.
Book Smarts: 5 Tips for Selecting the Best Foreign Language Textbooks
1. Pinpoint your level
A beginning textbook will bore an intermediate student, and an advanced textbook will overwhelm a beginning student, so it’s important to know your level and select accordingly.
The first step is to assess your level. If you’ve never studied the language before, this part’s easy: You’re a true beginner and should choose a textbook meant for people with no prior knowledge of the language.
Textbooks for beginners usually start with a pronunciation guide and an introduction to the system of writing (an alphabet or characters, depending on the language). “Easy Spanish Step-by-Step,” for example, starts with the Spanish alphabet and guides learners through fundamental grammar concepts like masculine and feminine nouns. It also contains lists of vocabulary words you can put to use right away.
If you’ve studied the language before, determining your level can be trickier. Maybe you studied years ago and don’t remember much of it anymore. Or maybe you lived abroad and learned some phrases in shops and cafés but never studied formally.
Take some time to browse through the textbooks at a local bookstore or an online site. Look at the content and decide which books seem too easy or too difficult. A general rule of thumb is that there should be enough new information to make you feel challenged but not so much that you’re completely lost.
Students who have studied a language but aren’t comfortable jumping into an intermediate-level textbook should select a book that starts with a review of the basics but moves forward quickly. “Entre amis,” for instance, is a good pick for French learners in this situation. With a book like this, you can spend as much time as you need relearning the fundamentals but can also jump in and learn new information when you’re ready.
If you’re solidly at the intermediate level, select a book that will present increasingly complex vocabulary and grammar. At this level, a book with a strong grammar focus can be helpful. German learners may enjoy the no-nonsense grammar approach of “German Second and Third Years.”
At the advanced level, you should look for a textbook written entirely in your target language. “Russian: From Intermediate to Advanced” presents vocabulary lists and grammar information entirely in Russian but uses a straightforward style that enables you to feel confident jumping into full-immersion learning.
2. Look for textbooks that give you lots of practice
Most textbooks excel at vocabulary lists and grammar explanations. But some are better than others at providing opportunities for good practice.
Ideally, a textbook should offer not only lists of new words but plentiful examples of how those words are used in different contexts, as well as exercises to help you practice using them. The more practice you get, the better you retain information, so it’s important that your book offers a lot of it.
Consider what type of exercises you like best as well as which ones will benefit you the most. Some textbooks—like “Lehr- und Übungsbuch der deutschen Grammatik” for intermediate and advanced German learners—include grammar exercises involving sentence diagramming and practice selecting the correct noun cases. Others—like “Teach Yourself Turkish”—offer a more laid-back approach, with fill-in-the-blank and matching exercises related to practice dialogues and even fun “games” like word-find puzzles.
If a textbook doesn’t offer a lot of practice exercises, investigate whether you can purchase a supplementary workbook to accompany it.
Some workbooks, like the “Beginning Japanese Workbook: Your Pathway to Dynamic Language Acquisition,” draw on the vocabulary words and grammar rules learned in your primary textbook to provide additional fill-in-the-blank, short-answer, matching and translation exercises.
Keep in mind that some exercises are easy to do on your own, while others require help from a teacher or conversation partner. Fill-in-the-blank and short-answer questions help you memorize new information and enable you to check yourself with an answer key. On the other hand, paragraph and essay writing can be very useful for overall language practice but usually require help from someone who can correct your mistakes.
3. Seek out textbooks that offer an audio component
More and more textbooks are starting to offer audio to supplement the written text. This is important because listening is a crucial skill often overlooked by language learners.
Some textbooks—like “Colloquial Icelandic” or the “New Practical Chinese Reader”—come with CDs you can use with the textbook. Others, including the French “Contacts: Langue et culture françaises,” do not come with audio exercises but offer the option to purchase a supplementary CD.
There are also textbooks that provide access to online audio files. The Spanish “Conexiones: Comunicación y cultura” offers free online audio exercises, and the French “Deux mondes” has online audio as well as fill-in-the-blank exercises. Many other textbooks offer similar options.
If you can find a textbook that offers an audio component, you should take advantage of it! Listening to the supplementary audio will give you an opportunity to get comfortable listening to native speakers and help reinforce the vocabulary words and grammar structures you’re studying.
But if you fall in love with a textbook that doesn’t offer an audio component, don’t fret! There are many ways to supplement textbook learning, including free access to audio files from other textbooks or talking with a conversation partner.
4. Align textbooks with your goals
Every textbook is going to have a slightly different focus.
Some—like “Colloquial Chinese”—focus on everyday speech and teach through dialogues. Others—like “En Activo: Practical Business Spanish”—teach words used in business exchanges and provide opportunities to practice reading and filling out common business forms.
Still others—like “Learn French with Stories: 7 Short Stories for Beginner and Intermediate Students”—take a fun literary approach and teach through passages from short stories or novels.
There’s no “right” or “wrong” approach. But you’ll grow frustrated if your textbook’s focus doesn’t match your personal goals.
Assess your reasons for learning a foreign language and determine what goals you want to focus on first. Then make sure to select a textbook that will help you achieve those goals.
5. Ask teachers and fellow language learners for suggestions
Who knows textbooks best? The people who use them!
This includes teachers and language learners like yourself. Reach out to your language learning network and ask which textbooks people find useful and which they don’t recommend. Teachers will know which books worked best for their students and which had errors or poor design. Fellow students will be able to tell you if a particular textbook was hard to follow or outdated.
You can also do an online search for information. If you know of a university or language center well regarded for its language courses, see if you can find electronic versions of course syllabi to find out which textbooks are used.
For example, the intermediate Spanish course at Tulane University uses the textbook “Enlaces: Nivel Intermedio,” while the same class at the University of Washington uses “Gente: Nivel básico.”
Some course syllabi provide more than than just the names of textbooks. The website for first-year Russian courses at Middlebury College not only gives information about the textbook used—“Beginner’s Russian”—but also includes links to practice exercises and other resources. A Turkish course syllabus from the University of Georgia includes links to the instructor’s blog and an online Turkish-English dictionary. A little online detective work can score you some sweet bonus material!
You can also search for online forums where people discuss language learning. Read through other people’s comments and post questions to get advice. Use their experience and expertise to get more info on what books are out there.
Take some time, shop around and find the best textbook for you.
Most textbooks will provide you with lots of beneficial opportunities to learn and practice your skills—so get started soon!