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How to choose a good book to learn a language

by Annie Horowitz

The question on How to choose a good book to learn a language is probably one of the most popular questions I have heard from other students. To be honest, I have asked same questions zillion of times, until I figured out the way myself. Here I share some advice on that. (I’m studying the Japanese language, that’s why I chose it as an example. However, I think these tips would work for any other language too.)

Here we go!

1. A study book should not be like a “Japanese for Dummies” or “Japanese from zero to perfection in 2 days”. It is a blatant nonsense, besides, all these “dummies” and “idiots” sound at least disrespectfully to the learner. What else can you learn in one hour but a couple of common phrases? Given that you want to speak a language fluently (and be able to read/write), you will need more than just a month of irregular lessons.

Personally, I think that learning a foreign language with a phrasebook or dictionary is a time wasted. Just imagine, you ask someone at Tokyo how to get to the hotel, and instead of a standard phrase the reply would be: “まっすぐに行けば’いいです。” Would that help a lot? A phrasebook is good only as an optional help. Of course, you can master the theory of any language in a 3-5 month and further only practice with new words. But in this case, you must study with a quality self-instruction book.

2. A study book should be consistent, contain a large amount of comprehensive material and (ideally) have several volumes. Also, it must have full translations to the language you know (at least, at the beginner level). For example, word order in the Japanese language differs from European languages and a sentence should be translated from the end. Consider: a literal translation of “テーブルの上に一枚の紙があります” will be “On the table a piece of paper is”, not “There is a piece of paper on the table”. Long sentences usually have more sophisticated structure and you probably will be not able to translate them yourself.

3. Open the book and check if it has transcripts of the audio course (of course, a good self-study book should have an audio course. It gives you an opportunity to learn and perceive a language by hearing). With the transcripts, you will be able to learn dialogues correctly and check your progress.

4. Textbooks of Oriental languages must have their scripts. I know, these scripts are tough to learn, and if in Japanese you can omit learning the script at the beginner level, in Chinese languages, the script is essential for reading at any level.

5. The book should contain not only training exercises and tests, but also keys to them. Otherwise, how would you check that your answers are correct?

6. Texts, dialogues, and exercises should not be very long at least in first chapters. Long texts are tiresome for learners. Vocabulary also should not be too long, yet contain all the new words from the lesson. If the book meets these requirements, look through the contents. The lessons should be informative and coherent. Read the first lesson. How did you like the explanation? Have you memorized something? Do you think it is interesting to read further? For example, Minna is quite a good book because contains large volumes of useful material, yet lessons are not always logically connected and it may cause an impression of the mess.

7. Use several self-study books. Some authors pay more attention to grammar while others focus on speaking and listening exercises. Also, few books cover a topic in more detail than a single one. In my case (intermediate), I use “Marugoto” and “日本語のチャレンジ”, plus ”Kanzen Master” for Kanji practice. As a beginner, I used “A Guide to Japanese Grammar” from Tae Kim and some materials from “みんなの日本語” (Minna no Nihongo). However, “Minna” is in helping you learn fast and is completely in Japanese, so it could be difficult in some cases.

And a little bonus tip. When studying a language, I always use 2 or 3 dictionaries. For the Japanese language, I have a kanji dictionary ( “Essential Kanji” by P. G. O'Neill), “Kodansha’s Furigana Japanese-English dictionary” and "The Dictionary of Japanese Grammar" (series of basic, intermediate and advanced grammar reference books, published by The Japan Times).

About the writer

Annie Horowitz is a MA student majoring in social studies. She is passionate language learner, a freelance writer at Papersowl.com and a healthy lifestyle enthusiast.

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