If you’re studying a popular foreign language you’ll be faced with a wide choice of potential self-study textbooks (or their electronic equivalent). This post is for you if you’ve found yourself wondering what’s the best language course for you. It’s also for you if you haven’t! The thing is, there are wide differences in approach out there that you need to be aware of before you make your choice. After all, if your language course isn’t a good fit, you’re less likely to keep at it.
We’ll explore the pros and cons of common approaches as a first step to helping you choose the best fit. In an upcoming post, we’ll go on to look at other things you’ll be glad you knew before you jump. If you’re still not sure whether you should use a language course at all, check out the first instalment in this mini-series: Language textbooks: good or bad?
Grammar translation language courses
Most older course-books use the “grammar-translation” approach. The term comes from the way Latin and Greek were taught in the nineteenth century, with the whole emphasis on learning generalised grammar rules (plus exceptions) and translating into your native modern language.
No living language textbook will follow this approach in the extreme, but some of the older, more “traditional” course books do tend towards it. They give pride of place to grammatical explanations with lots of written exercises (mainly translation).
Many of the old-style Teach Yourself books from the seventies, sixties or before, fall into this category.
Here’s my copy of J.T.Bowen and T.J Rhys Jones’s Welsh (1975 imprint, first published 1960).
In the main, the organisation of the lessons/chapters follows the grammatical “parts of speech” with lesson titles such as “Nouns and Gender” or “Imperfect Tense of BOD, Negative, Interrogative”.
Each lesson begins with a clear explanation of the new structures.
Then there are exercise tasks such as “Put the above nouns in the plural”, “Write in Welsh: 1. He is sitting, he has sat, he sat.” “Read aloud and translate into English” (there follow twenty short sentences). The Welsh talk is more literary in form.
There are no dialogues or even pieces to read (except the exercises). Neither is there a new vocab list for each unit (though there is a good glossary of all the vocab at the back).
Another older book taking a similar approach is Maria Emilia de Alvelos Naar’s Colloquial Portuguese (first edition 1968, my copy is a 1989 reprint of the second edition (1972)).
Again, we have lesson titled by “parts of speech” such as Lesson 8 “Imperfect and Future Subjunctive” (my voice may sound critical, but for language geeks like me, that unique future subjunctive is one of the main selling points of Portuguese 😉 ).
Each unit of the old Colloquial Portuguese opens with an explanation of the new grammar. You get one form of exercise only in each lesson: twenty short sentences in English which you have to translate into English.
Unlike my old Welsh book, you’ll also find a vocab list in each unit plus a “Conversational matter” section. This is two short exchanges in a “dialogue” format, followed by an English translation. Each dialogue does have a particular topic theme.
It’s not just old books that work from the grammar outwards. The five books in the Bakarka self-study course that I use for Basque is very much in this tradition. Each Lesson in Bakarka 1 (2013) begins with a grammar explanation. There are lots of varied exercise, including translation into Basque. There are also long reading passages (mainly dialogues).
Often concise: The older courses in the “grammar-translation tradition are often pack a great deal of learning into a small space. You can cover “the whole language” (in the sense of a skeleton of the grammar) and core vocab in one volume. This can help keep you focussed on essentials. Plus, some of the older Teach Yourself or Colloquial books will literally fit into your pocket.
Systematic, explicit instruction: With a course book organised to follow the grammatical “parts of speech”, it’s clear how you’re moving through the structures of the language and you get extensive explicit instruction in why and how the nuts and bolts of the language work.
There’s an argument that you’ll remember that better if you “discover it” for yourself, but I’m not so sure. That’s a different debate but, for now, if you want explanations you’ll get them in spades in this type of course.
Practise difficulties head on: Lots of practice exercises and translation will get you focussing on the patterns head on. This puts a premium on early accuracy and gives you a chance to be interactive with the material.
Confusing grammatical terms: More traditional books, especially the older ones, tend to use more grammatical terms in their explanations. Each specialist field has its jargon and, to be honest, if you can’t master the difference between a noun, verb, adjective and so on, you’re unlikely to have the strength of character to get fluent in a language. That doesn’t mean, though, that you have to do this to learn a language. It doesn’t mean, either, that the author should be trying to blind us with science. When the jargon becomes a block or a distraction, it’s gone too far. When that point is, you need to decide.
Stilted language: the language presented is often quite artificial and far-removed from actual speech. This is a good point, though it’s true to an extent of most courses, as they all tend to simplify the specimens of language they present in the early stages. It may be that how long ago the course was written rather than the approach taken is a bigger variable.
Not dialogue based: Because there isn’t always a dialogue or conversational approach, you may also think that these books will be worse at teaching you to speak. Fact is, though, no course can teach you to speak on its own. That’s not the role of the book.
Sequential not “spiral” coverage of grammar: If the book sticks too rigidly to a “parts of speech” layout so that first you learn about adjectives, then verbs, then numerals or whatever, you won’t be able to use much of the language in full phrases at all until you’ve completed the whole thing. Most modern course books introduce the simpler or more frequent structures in a useable context early on, then reinforce them (and build out from them) later on in the course as you work “upwards and outwards” as your linguistic horizons expand. That’s better for motivation, gives you something to work with and ensures that elements of recall are built in.
Dry and boring: This is the clincher point. For you, it may flow from my first three “cons”.
It’s true, many of the older courses don’t look like “fun”. They consist of pages and pages of relatively dense print. Things aren’t broken up with illustrations. There are no bright colours to cheer up the mood.
I’d argue that you can actually take pretty dull material and make it fascinating. You use your imagination in how you interact with it (doing your own illustrations, making your own exercises and questions or trying to use the material with a tutor or exchange partner….). The excitement comes from the creativity and the feeling of learning.
But that’s Dr P for you! If you find a course unappealing and dense, you aren’t going to get very far with it. It’s not going to be the best language course for you. That’s true whatever methodological approach the author has taken.
Communicative approach (1) “situational”
It’s much more common now to find courses stressing “communicative” needs and goals, with “grammar-translation” downplayed. Often a “realistic” dialogue is central (though the language will be simplified, standardised and possible atypical in that certain new grammar points may be foregrounded).
One common organising principle is “situational”. Each lesson puts you, the learner, in a specific common situation that you’re likely to have to deal with.
Here, we’re talking Lesson headings like these from my Teach Yourself Complete Portuguese (Manuela Cook, 1987 (2010 reprint)): “Ida e volta, por favor. A return ticket please” (centred around brief dialogues in the train and bus stations) or “Ao voltarmos, abrirei conta bancária. On our return, I shall open a bank account” (opens with a dialogue between a customer and bank clerk).
Daisy L. Neijmann’s Colloquial Icelandic is also structured around specific common situations, with units such as “Föt. Clothing” (conversation between two friends preparing for a hiking trip) or “Gisting. Accommodation” (starts with a phone conversation between a tourist and a guesthouse owner).
Great if you need the language for specific situations: In a sense, this is true of all of us, at least in the beginner and intermediate levels. We all need to be able to talk about ourselves, ask for directions, buy groceries, take a taxi).
As upper intermediate and advanced learners our needs are much more varied. We’ve already covered all the structures and common general vocab and expressions. We tend to have very specific needs relating either to those aspects of the language that are sticking points for us or to what we need the language for.
At this level could make a book (or electronic course) that takes a specialist situational approach the bast language course for you.
If you need the language for your job, you may also find specialist course books on sale with a focus in sector-relevant situations (German for Medicine, Japanese for the Travel Industry etc). For some languages there are even specialist books like this aimed at beginners (the general stuff + specialism-specific situations and vocab).
Great for a themed approach to vocab: The situational approach is a great way to introduce blocks of vocab by theme, if you like that approach.
Contrived situations: On the flip side, the concrete situation presented may feel contrived and unrealistic. Take, for example, the typical “checking into a hotel”-type dialogue, a beloved early lesson in many beginners’ course books. This is one situation where, as a tourist, you’re pretty likely to find a receptionist speaks English (though not always, as I found out in Japan! 🙂 ).
Irrelevant situations: The situations maybe realistic but just not relevant to you. For example, if a course is aimed a young adults and you’re past the first flush of youth, you may be irritated by constant references to boyfriends and girlfriends, parties and fast food outlets (I’m thinking of you here, dear Japanese From Zero course book!).
Even if “the situation fits” in a generic sense, what’s in the book is unlikely to be exactly exchange you’ll find yourself in. A course focussing exclusively on specific scenarios might end up feeling like a glorified phrase book which doesn’t make you more confident in the general patterns of the language that you can than adapt to real-life. Wouldn’t it be better either to have the grammar confidence to cobble together your own sentences or a great stock of more generic “functional” language that you can bring to bear in a wide a variety of situations?
Communicative approach (2) “functional”
A different communicative approach is to organise the course around things you might need to do in the language, regardless of the specific situation.
The BBC “Talk” books are big on this “functional” approach, for example.
They are concise and packed with realistic language. I have Talking the Talk German from this series and it has Lessons with titles like “Agreeing and disagreeing” “Sharing and experience”, “Showing empathy”. It has whole sections on expressing likes and dislikes and on making plans. There are some full dialogues but the emphasis is on lists of phrases, chunks of language with additional vocab that you can switch in and out as required.
This approach recognises that we use language to get things done (transactions, satisfying need, expressing ideas and emotions…) and that the actual context is infinitely variable. You’re learning something very flexible…All you then need to do is to have the specific vocabulary to slot in to your given situation.
Focussing just on specific communicative goals can feel a bit abstract. You’ll want to be sure that what you’re learning is tailored to relevant situations in which you are going to need to understand and speak the language.
Courses that blend the approaches
Today it’s very rare to a course that’s just pure grammar-translation. In the same way, you’re unlikely to find a course that doesn’t have any explicit grammatical explanation. The three approaches we’ve just explored are usually blended together.
My old “grammar-translation” Colloquial Portuguese has, after all, a couple of mini dialogue-based “situations” in each Lesson.
Above, I used BBC Talking the talk German to illustrate the “functional” approach. This course, though, also for focussed in on a number of particular situations such as “Health matters” or “Talking about food”. The course also has a section on German beer culture (!). There’s even a brief “traditional” grammar overview at the back.
I used Colloquial Icelandic and Complete Portuguese as examples of the situational approach, but both also have lessons (or sections within lessons) focussed on particular overarching language “functions” such as expressing wants or talking about the future. They both also have lots of explicit instruction with exercises. Complete Portuguese does not have any translation element but Colloquial Icelandic does include some “translate into Icelandic” exercises.
Assimil‘s well-known “made simple” (“sans peine”/”ohne Mühe”) course books are really quite difficult to categorise. They are focussed on mini-dialogues in a large range of situations with explicit footnoted grammatical explanations and a limited number of traditional “fill in the gaps” and translation exercises. I love them as a supplemental resource, but I like more explicit, comprehensive instruction and more exercises, as well.
My own downloadable/on-line courses take a blended approach, too.
Each lesson in my flagship course, the Weekly German Workouts starts with a situational dialogue but there are lots of functional phrases, taught mainly as easily-deployable “chunks” of language. There are also full explicit explanations and lots of exercises.
As the name suggests, my Focus in Five A2 (upper beginner) Russian Grammar takes a much more traditional explicit grammar approach but taught in the context of lots of useful examples, with practice exercises.
If you want to know when enrolment opens again on either course, make sure you’ve joined the free “Howtogetfluent Email Club” (sign up under this post – you’ll be my free language learner pro training at once).
The best language course is the one with the balance that works for you
When you’re thinking of buying a book or online course, try to work out how the approach it takes to presenting the language. Most likely it’ll be a blend of these major approaches…on paper, in an electronic format or even an “audio only” course (such as Michel Thomas or Pimsleur).
As we’ve seen, each approach has its strengths. Keep and open mind as you leaf or scroll through a potential course.
Don’t rule out “traditional” grammar-translation just because you’ve heard that this approach went out of fashion or because a book looks, on the surface, to be dull and dry. Using your own imagination is a way to turbo-charge your learning and there’s actually a lot to be said for translation and it’s enjoying something of a come-back.
Don’t rule out the situational approach just because the situations in your book don’t all seem relevant. Aspects of them surely will be and some of the language will be transferable, too.
Remember that there’s lots to be gained from the functional approach, though you’ll need to be sure to ground it in your situations and expand your vocab.
If you’re eying up a course, weigh up how balance falls in it, in the light of your own personality and needs.
Look at other important factors (such as price, availability of audio, a key to exercises etc) and make your choice.
Once you have your book or electronic course, try to stick it as your self-study mainstay. Don’t keep flitting from one course to the next in search of the “perfect course” or a magic “silver bullet”.
Instead, be aware of the strengths of the course that you’ve got and make the most of it.
You should now be better place to recognise the limitations of the course too. One way to deal with these is to find out a full secondary course (or more specific materials covering particular topics) that compensates for them.
For example, if your main course is very informal and dialogue-based, you might like to have a more descriptive, grammar-based course with lots of exercises that you can work with in parallel or to dip into now and again (I’m doing this at the moment with my lower intermediate Basque and beginner Japanese).
Whatever the balance in your course, however much you love it and wrestle with it, remember even the best language course is never enough on its own.
A subsidiary course or two won’t get you over the line to fluency either.
Even the best language course is just an (important) part of a much wider picture which has to include a whole lot of vocab building, listening, reading, writing and speaking practice.
Whatever your course’s approach, however it’s designed it’s what you do with it that counts. Even more, it’s what else you do in addition.