“Textbooks are too academic!”
“If you want to learn how to swim, you need to be in the water—not sitting in the shade, reading some book about swimming.”
“Textbooks lack real-world, real-life flavor, which makes them less useful for language learners.”
“Why use textbooks when you’ve got the whole internet at your disposal?”
These are just some of the good arguments put forth by fellow language learners and experts.
Should they spell the end of textbooks?
Are you ready to swear off them and toss those thick tomes into the dumpster?
Not so fast.
For all the flack that they get, language textbooks are still some of the purest and most robust language learning material you can get your hands on.
What Can Language Textbooks Do for You?
Think about this: How many equivalent hours of podcasts, videos or in-field training will you need to cover as much material as just one thick textbook?
The whole thing is right there. I mean, it’s literally in your hands! While we’re also going to cover the usefulness and money-saving power of electronic textbooks in this post, one advantage to textbooks is that you don’t necessarily need to boot up a gadget or drain precious phone battery to access all that information. Even if you do, you can often do it offline.
But beyond logistics and ease of use, language textbooks quickly zero in on those things about the language that are the most useful—the building blocks, the rules of the road, the pitfalls you need to avoid so you quickly graduate from being a language “toddler” making linguistic booboos and join the ranks of decent speakers.
Textbooks as a broad category can be as general or specific as intended. They can be general like Schaum’s “German Grammar,” which talks about everything grammar-related from verbs to tenses. They can be specific and zero in on a certain subject, like Practice Makes Perfect’s “Italian Pronouns and Prepositions” (some would consider this a workbook, but we’re not here to split hairs). General titles are often fatter, for obvious reasons, and the more specific ones are more bite-sized.
But all the same, textbooks are written in such a direct way that they take away any guesswork about the topic, giving you the exact things you need. In fact, they spoon-feed you the target language so you don’t need to figure anything out on your own. You just need to believe that this is indeed how one conjugates a particular Spanish verb, or that this is how one forms the past tense of that English word. Boom! You’ve learned a valuable lesson good for a lifetime. Literally.
Deducing grammar rules yourself takes a whole lot of trial and error and is prone to incompleteness. (Many native speakers don’t even know the rules to their own language—because they’re too close to the subject to notice. They simply know how they’ve always talked.)
Language textbooks strip and slow everything down so you can actually notice the unmentioned laws and assumptions that animate everyday communication. They superficially slow things down and break the language into constituent elements so that in the normal speed of actual conversation, you at least now have the requisite tools and insights you need.
Owing to the technological advances of our time, textbooks now come in various formats. You have the classic paper-printed thing, which your grandfather will swear by, and you also now have paperless digital versions. Publishers have also been brilliant enough to bundle some textbooks with audio CD or online material so learners can follow along on their headphones and hear how the target language is actually spoken. In addition to audio, your purchase sometimes comes with additional online information, like this one from “Living Language Korean,” which comes with online access to flashcards, games and interactive quizzes corresponding to lessons in the books.
All language textbooks are not created equal. So in this post, we’ll be looking to recommend some very good ones that you can check out. But before that, we turn to the next section and look into the most important things to remember when working with textbooks.
Oftentimes, we’re overly critical of textbooks, when we need to manage our expectations so that we can truly appreciate the awesome role they play in our language goals.
5 Important Things to Remember When Working with Textbooks
1) Don’t overwhelm yourself with material.
Did you know that you can easily intimidate yourself into language failure?
Yup, it can happen. You can overwhelm yourself with so much material that you’ll begin to think learning the language is actually impossible. In this day and age, when access to an infinite number of textbooks has become so easy, a diligent language learner can easily amass piles of textbooks without the hope of ever getting through every last one of them.
The thinking behind this is, “The more, the better. I need to cover all my bases.”
Before long, you’ve started to intimidate yourself into thinking, “This is harder than I thought.”
Testimonies of failed language ventures almost always come along with something like, “I’ve tried them all…” Well, maybe part of the reason they failed is that they jumped from one textbook to another.
Don’t overwhelm yourself with a preponderance of material. Start with a general textbook. After that, make sure you don’t use more than one book for the same thing. For example, you really need just one grammar title. Only when you think it’s absolutely necessary should you get a different one for a more specific topic, like verb conjugation, for example. And that only after you finish the general textbook.
So, how do you deal with the one that you have in your hands? You overlearn it ‘til kingdom come. You go at it day and night. Take it with you on dates, read it while standing in line at the ATM. Master the material like the back of your hand, and you’ll have learned more in that one book than a whole stack that you never got to read because merely looking at it extinguished your motivation.
2) Choose the appropriate level of content.
So if you’re to start with just one textbook, then which one?
How do you choose from the buffet that’s before you? Let the list presented in the next section be your guide, but here are a few specifics to consider.
Price you should definitely take into account, but at the end of the day, a textbook that efficiently teaches you the target language will pay for itself many times over—no matter how expensive at the outset.
You should be asking instead, “What language skill or topic am I after?”
Not all textbooks are created equal. And not all of them are talking about the same things. So don’t expect a single textbook to be equally strong on all fronts. Textbooks have different specialties and personalities, much like the authors behind them. Even a more general grammar textbook may be skewed towards a particular topic. One could specialize in conjugation, another in sentence construction, etc.
Know what you hope to learn. Because when you know what you’re after, you’re in a better position to evaluate if a certain title can deliver what you need.
Another thing you should consider is the difficulty level. This is very important because many learners have actually challenged themselves out of the running. There is such a thing as too difficult. And you definitely don’t want that.
If you’re a beginner, then get the book for beginners. Don’t go for advanced courses and assume you’ll pick up the fundamentals along the way. Things will just go over your head.
The fastest way to lose your motivation is looking at the pile of textbooks you’ve amassed. Then opening one just blows you out of the water.
3) Textbooks can be entertaining, but their true purpose lies deeper.
Language textbooks that have a breezy style of writing, some catchy fonts and pictures are awesome. They can make study sessions quite effective.
But don’t be too quick to discount those titles that people often describe as “too dry” or “too academic.” These no-frills materials, stripped of the fluff, are packed to the rafters with language gems. They teach you more per page because they get straight to the point and tell you what you need to know.
Entertainment is good, and heaven knows we need more of that in education. But don’t knock textbooks just because they don’t jump at you with vivid graphics, colors and sound. Don’t wave them off just because they come in a form and format that reminds you of the libraries of yore.
The main job of textbooks is not to sing and dance, it’s to make plain the hidden, elucidate on concepts that even native speakers are not aware of. If you think the book in your hand is able to do that, then keep it within arm’s reach. That’s a good textbook.
4) Get a healthy mix of language material.
Even Michael Jordan needed teammates. No language textbook, no matter how good at sinking jump shots, will ever be sufficient on its own.
Your language textbook plays a vital role in your language goals, but so do many other things. It’s this concoction of different and synergetic content that turns a non-speaker into a fluent one. Besides your textbook, immerse yourself in the videos, apps, blogs and websites that are available for every language learner.
Get your hands on different tools. They have a specific part to play in your learning. They stimulate a variety of senses, and the more experience you have with the language, the more immersive your experience and the more memorable the target language becomes.
But again, don’t overdo this by overwhelming your attention with three or five of each material. Just as you really only need the one general textbook to get the ball rolling, you really only need one flashcard app, or one online course. I don’t mean that you should close the door to other apps or courses, of course not! I just mean that you should prioritize one and take it as far as it can go, and then, only then, should you see how other sources in the same category can fill in the gaps or take you farther.
Just pick one material in each category, and accept that every material will have its limitations, but put all your energy into it, anyway.
If you’re looking for the closest you can get to a one stop shop, FluentU gives you a flexible online course with videos and multimedia flashcards that are tied together for a varied and optimized learning experience. FluentU takes online videos—like movie trailers, music videos, vlogs, cartoons, news and more—and makes them into personalized language lessons. Throw it together with a decent textbook, and you’ll have a feast of learning material to work with that isn’t overwhelming.
5) Read, but don’t forget to practice.
Reading is one thing. But practicing, that is, actually getting your mouth, lips and tongue moving in specific ways is an altogether different proposition. Getting in front of native speakers and conversing with them is also quite another.
Textbooks are just a means to an end. They impart knowledge. Then it’s up to you to put that knowledge to work.
Think of it this way: Textbooks get you off to a great start, but they’ll never take you to the finish line because they were never designed for that. They were made for a specific purpose and that is to tell you flat out what the rules of the language are. They are instructions for action. Textbooks presuppose action. Reading and rereading? That’s not action.
Some language learners use textbooks as a means to escape the actual work of speaking the target language. They put in the hours, cooped up inside their rooms, reasoning that when they’re ready, when they get all the vocabulary and the grammar rules down, then they’ll open their mouths. I can really relate to this feeling, having been once very much like this—procrastination and all.
Well, I’ve since learned better.
You don’t need to finish a textbook cover to cover before you actually get dirty. You can read a little, then get to work on that specific material immediately. Work on it by chapter, for example. If the chapter is about prepositions, then practice them as soon as you finish the chapter. For instance, describe the location of objects in your room in the target language. Don’t just write this, say it! And repeat it a dozen times during the rest of your day, when you go out, when you see a vase on top of a table, when you see a boy inside a car, when you get your shoes from behind the door. Begin to think (and talk) in the target language.
That’s how you put your textbook to work. That’s how you take it as far as it can go.
That said, and now with a little appreciation for textbooks, where do we go looking for them? Here’s your top six sources for these babies.
Language Textbook Central: 6 Textbook Sources You’ll Love
Head on over to Amazon and you’ll see that the Living Language materials are consistent bestsellers, perennially topping their particular language categories.
Living Language is an imprint of Random House, one of the biggest paperback publishers in the world. The self-study language outfit currently offers material for more than 20 languages, including American Sign Language and Dothraki, the artificial dialect created for the hit series “Game of Thrones.”
Living Language, developed by language experts from the U.S. State Department for America’s diplomats and overseas-bound personnel, has been around for over 65 years. The Living Language Method rests on four philosophies that are reflected in every Living Language textbook:
- Build a Foundation. Your native language will be used as a bridge to your target language. Through direct translation and a bit of memorization to start the ball rolling, learners will be given some basic and essential words (vocabulary) that are to be used and practiced from Day One.
- Progress with Confidence. The building block approach is used and each lesson will build on the previous one. So you go from words to phrases to sentences (grammar) and then to full conversations.
- Retain What You’ve Learned. Exercises, games and reviews are used to transfer the learning from short-term memory to long-term memory.
- Achieve Your Goals. With those three bases covered, you’re now ready to build the specific language skills that you want.
Living Language courses now include audio components, interactive online games and smart flashcards, keeping pace with the times. But at the heart of every language course are still their textbooks. You can choose from the Essential Edition ($22.99), Complete Edition ($49.99) and Platinum Edition ($179).
McGraw-Hill is one of the “big three”—that is, three of the largest textbook publishers in the world (the other two being Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
McGraw-Hill houses some of the most trusted foreign language textbook series. They’ve touched the lives of literally millions. Here are some of their best.
- Practice Makes Perfect. This language series offers learners bite-sized lessons on the many different language skills and topics that they want to focus on. For example, there’s “French Conversation,” “French Reading and Comprehension,” “French Sentence Builder,” “French Vocabulary Games,” “French Verb Tenses” and even “French Pronouns and Prepositions.” So whatever language skill needs work, or whatever level you’re at, this series has got you covered.
- Easy Step-by-Step. Learning languages has never been easier! The books in this series take absolute beginners by the hand and show them the structures and rules that give a language life. The lessons progress slowly, so they don’t end up confusing or overwhelming you. When they say “step by step,” they do really mean it.
Don’t be troubled if your book suddenly approaches 400 pages. That’s just so you get a solid grounding of the basics, whether it be in Italian, German, French or Spanish. Every page is paced so that you’re prepared for the next one. There are even a handful of exercises that develop your confidence as you move forward. This “building block” approach is the fastest way to master grammar and comprehension.
- Schaum’s Outlines. Traditionally known for its excellent series on hard science topics like physics, biology and chemistry, Schaum’s have tackled languages like French, German and Spanish. There are several focuses for each language. For example, if you want to study French grammar, there’s Schaum’s “French Grammar.” For vocab needs, there’s “French Vocabulary.” Then there’s just “French.” There’s also “French: Crash Course” and “Communicating in French.” And I have to say, true to form, the language exercises in these titles are quite extensive. Case in point, the grammar book alone has 578 exercises to hone your language chops.
Barron’s is the leading name in test prep and has a formidable catalogue of language textbooks that covers the major languages.
For example, the Spanish language alone has over 40 different titles ranging from “Mastering Spanish Grammar” to “1001 Pitfalls in Spanish.” The books, which sometimes come with an audio CD, cater to all types of learners from beginners to advanced—even to specific categories of learners like attorneys, paralegals, healthcare practitioners and law enforcement personnel. The prices in their title range from $6.99 to $24.99.
Barron’s has come a long way from just being a test prep outfit. But you’ll still get the Barron’s flavor—signs of their origins like clear-cut examples, rigorous review exercises and on-point, no-nonsense explanations.
Once you’re at the main page of the Barron’s website, go down through the categories, past “Children’s Books” and “Crafts and Hobbies.” Locate “Foreign Languages.” Click on it and you’ll be brought to a page that contains all of Barron’s language titles. There are 13 sub-categories on this page. For example, “Arabic” is one, and clicking on it will land you on a page that displays all books related to learning Arabic.
Other languages covered are English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Russian and Spanish. Clicking on these subcategories will get you a list of all titles concerned. Most of the books here are ideal for beginners, such as “Modern Mandarin Chinese for Beginners” and “Italian Now! Level 1.”
There’s a section called “Other Languages” that you might be interested in. It’s actually a catch-all for the other languages available: Swedish, Hebrew, Dutch, Portuguese, Polish, Latin, Korean and even American Sign Language. Most of the textbooks here are concerned with “verbs.” (Except, of course, the American Sign Language books.)
Berlitz has a rich history of language instruction, from 1878 in Providence, Rhode Island to its present-day global headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey. The company, which was once a subsidiary of Macmillan, has a post in over 70 countries around the world and boasts of training for every living language on the face of the earth.
“The Berlitz Method,” named after its founder Maximilian Berlitz, utilizes the “direct” method of teaching languages—meaning the target language is used as the medium of instruction. So a German class is taught in German, a Chinese class is taught in Chinese—not English.
Language is not merely a set of grammar rules, but a means of communication. So instead of drilling on grammar, students observe how a language is used to convey a message and are encouraged to figure out the meaning and the grammar rules for themselves. In a class where the “direct” method is used, a lot gesturing and repetition is employed to help students figure out what the teacher is talking about.
But weren’t we talking earlier about how textbooks are especially vital for grammar? Well, yes. And as a proponent of the direct method of learning languages, you’d think that Berlitz would shy away from releasing grammar textbooks of their own. Not so. They actually have grammar handbooks for English, German, Italian and French.
When even a company with a school of thought that seems antithetical to the grammar-translation method releases a grammar textbook of their own, it speaks volumes to the special role or function that such a text plays.
The best place to access Berlitz textbooks is through Amazon rather than their website, which is really a platform to promote their training programs around the world. So head to Amazon and search for “Berlitz” and the language you’re learning.
It’s also worth mentioning that their forte is really in the production of phrasebooks. Berlitz has phrasebooks in practically any language you can think of, and this can be great for learners who might be grateful to find any kind of learning material in a more obscure language. If the language you’re interested in is not as popular as Spanish or French, your best bet would be Berlitz. They have books for Vietnamese, Finnish, Hindi or Croatian, for example.
It might seem counterproductive to denigrate your readers right off the bat. But there’s actually something so comforting about a title that says, “We’ve really dumbed this down for you.” It relieves people of any pressure to learn because, hey, they’re “dummies.” It places them in a position to just sit back and relax—knowing that what they have in their hands is the most simplified, most undemanding and foolproof language text on the market.
The “Dummies” franchise, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., has over 2,700 titles to its name. Granted, many of these titles will never interest you (“The Royal Wedding for Dummies,” anyone?), but language learners would do well to check out their foreign language series, which covers the major world languages—from Arabic to Russian, Spanish, Italian, etc.
Once on the “Dummies” site, look for the “Shop for Books” link and click on it. That will open another page which will take you to the “Dummies” store. The search box will be easy to spot. Just type your terms in the box. For example, “Spanish.” Hit Enter and you’ll get all the relevant titles, from “Spanish Grammar for Dummies” ($19.99) to “Intermediate Spanish for Dummies” ($19.99).
Decent descriptions are written about the books, and you’re given the chance to see the “Table of Contents” and “Author Information” so you have an idea of what you’re getting into. For most books, you’ll also be alerted to the e-book option (which is cheaper).
Most of their language books are in the $9.99 to the $19.99 range. Although their “all-in-one” titles naturally cost more—$34.99 for Spanish, for example.
The “Dummies” series specifically caters to beginner and intermediate language learners. They pretty much deconstruct the basics of the language. There are also helpful sidebars that emphasize a certain point or bring up interesting trivia, making the lessons really come alive.
What if the reason you’ve been balking at textbooks is that you have a bad back? Besides, you can’t possibly be caught looking all nerdy lounging around with piles of textbooks.
Well, you remember that there are often digital versions of these babies, right?
And VitalSource is your most trusted, well, source of e-textbooks offered at reasonable prices. Your chosen book can immediately be downloaded onto your smartphone, tablet or computer. So not only is the weight issue obliterated, the wait issue becomes a non-issue. No more wondering when your package will come knocking.
Now, you have the freedom and flexibility to chip away at those language goals anywhere and anytime you want. As of this writing, there are almost 2,600 textbooks available for languages like German, Spanish, French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Latin, Russian, Portuguese and Greek. (They have textbooks available on other subjects, too, so if you’re a student or lifelong learner, you may find shopping with them especially convenient.)
Download “Bookshelf,” VitalSource’s free app, for an intuitive and intelligent reading experience. The app allows you to make highlights and create notes so you can personalize the pages of your textbook. You can also locate a specific text faster with its smart search capabilities. So whether online or offline, you get an enhanced studying experience, which inevitably results in an enhanced learning power.
Oh, and did I mention you can rent e-books instead of buying them? Yep, so the price gets even lower.
So that ends our explanation of why you still need textbooks today, and why you should get your hands on one right now. You really just need to manage your expectations and see textbooks for what they are—tools that are limited like any other, but eminently useful for the language learner.
I wish you all the best on your language journey!
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