Inspiration From The Distant Past

Inspiration From The Distant Past
Found note in an old book... warms the cockles of my bookish heart...

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Language Learning Resources

Are you trying to learn a language? Don’t know where to start or need that extra boost to your studies? I have some hints and advice for you. For many years I have taught adults languages, and they often want advice on which resources to buy, which internet sites to use, etc.

Don’t get too carried away at first. Most classes are self contained, and you’ll have all the essentials if you’ve signed up. If you do want to build a language-learning resource center, take it slowly. Here are suggestions of books and CD’s that anyone can use to help their language studies. I will try to give general advice, with specific examples, so you can adapt these ideas for any language you’ve chosen. But let’s pretend you are learning French.



When travelling you must carry a tiny notepad and a pen, and have it handy, in your pocket. I am afraid that sometimes students think they are saying words really well, but in fact their accent is unintelligible to native speakers. If you are having difficulty being understood, then whip out your little book and write down what you’re trying to say. Then, if you have found a friendly speaker, repeat after them to learn the correct pronunciation.

Also, there will be times when you don’t understand what someone is trying to tell you, and they can write it down for you to read. This is especially helpful with numbers.


The Idiot’s Guide series has ‘Learning the language on your own’ guides as well as phrase books available in pretty much any language you’d want to learn. They are the first book I recommend to my students. The ones I’ve used have explanations of grammar and vocabulary done in a snappy, easy-to-digest style. They also come with a CD rom, which in my experience is just a soft version of your book, so not exciting. The Dummies’ Guides would, I’m sure, offer a similar product, and none of my students have had anything bad to say about them.

Old grammar books are old. Teaching philosophy has changed remarkably over the years, and old books are out-dated. They are likely to be cheap, and your learning style might be compatible with them, though. I plowed through old exercise and drill books and felt I learned lots from them.


Firstly, I’ve never really come across a BAD dictionary. My main advice would be to buy, if possible, a dictionary published by a company in that language. For example, use Larousse to study French, Mondadori for Italian, and Langenscheidt for German. You’ll want to consider size: are you going to carry it as you travel or keep it on your desk? Obviously smaller dictionaries won’t give you as many words as bigger ones, so it might be worth having two; a big one at your desk for study and one for carrying to class and in your bag as you travel.


Essential if you travel, these pocket sized books are sorted by topic, so you just flip to your situation. For example, banking or restaurant will have all the basic vocabulary and phrases together for you. You can ask, ‘Do you have this in a smaller size?’


These picture books have an image with text in both languages, sometimes with a fair bit of culture, too. They are a fun way to study with your kids, if you have them. You might pick up a hundred words with one of these, while releasing your inner child.


These are for the pedantic, detail-minded learner, or the more advanced student. Verbs are the skeleton that language hangs on, and it’s worth having a book dedicated solely to them if you want to move beyond survival phrases (Don’t think I’m knocking survival language—it’s essential!). They contain a list of verbs with all their possible conjugations, and I find mine essential.


Audio resources are essential. You can listen to them over and over,
parroting until you’ve got it right. They range from the massive, expensive and highly respected Rosetta Stone to this perfectly adequate $10 cheapie I picked up at my post office. I recommend my students buy a cheap one to start, and master that before investing more money.


Once you’re ready to attack a ‘real’ text, you’ll just have to shop around. You have to find something challenging that’s not going to frustrate you. Here’s where there’s not that much available, in my experience. If you are in a university town, check out the second-hand book shops students frequent. I’ve found some treasures in my small town bookshop even though we have no higher learning institution here.

One under-utilized resource is romance novels. Don’t laugh! They have a predictable plot, few characters, limited vocabulary (some new words here!), and a reasonable length. See if you can find the site for a major romance publisher in your target language, and you might get free online reads.


Learning a second language can be an incredibly rewarding experience, just make sure you are kind to yourself and have fun as you go along.


  1. Coming in late...but totally agree. If you can't immerse yourself in a foregn country, these are the next best things!
    Love The Idiot's Guide for Spanish because it explains the rule in greater detail than "Well, that's how we say it."
    The romance novels are a really excellent idea, and in that same vein, so are watching the soaps in the target language or similar familiar shows.

  2. Thanks for the confirmation, Leslie. I love the soap opera idea. Montalbano teaches me Italian...


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