If you’re thinking of beginning a new language, or an intermediate-advanced learner wanting to take it further, should you kit yourself out with one or more language textbooks (either a physical book or structured course available in electronic form)?
Here on the site, I often mention the books I’m using with my languages. Yet other successful language learners give such formal textbooks or online courses a wide berth. They might prefer “authentic” materials (aimed at natives) or just get a dictionary or translation app, dive straight in and start speaking. Indeed, there are powerful arguments against using learning coursebooks which you need to consider. Let’s weigh up them up one-by-one, together. Let’s answer the question: language textbooks: good or bad?
Language textbooks are boring and demotivating…
….they focus too much on dry grammar, impenetrable explanations, interminable exercises and dull texts. It’s no wonder that so many people fall victim to “chapter three syndrome”. They start a new language full of enthusiasm and yet by the time they get to chapter three of the book, they’ve lost motivation and give up. It’s far more stimulating to start “living the language” from day one.
Yes, but…. Sort out your motivation first!
….of course some textbooks can look dusty and boring, though remember the old phrase that you shouldn’t just a book by its cover. If you’re enthused by learning – and a bookish type – you may find that even older looking volumes have a lot to offer. When motivation flags at chapter three, is this really the fault of the textbook?
Before you start your new language, sort out your motivation. That’s about thinking carefully about whether you really want to learn, what you need the language for and whether your reasons are strong enough to take you to your ultimate goal (whether that’s to order a beer on holiday or to work as a conference interpreter).
Not losing motivation is also about having a real appreciation of what is involved in terms of the time put in and dealing with the ups and downs in reaching your goal.
Remember too that having overall, motivational goals is all well and good but it can, in turn, contribute to discouragement and a feeling of overwhelm.
Breaking down a large “vision” goal into interim “path” goals make it easier to keep going with big tasks.
Textbooks can hep with motivation because they set out the route ahead.
You can set yourself the aim of doing a chapter a week, completing the book in a year, or whatever. Then there’s the warm feeling of achievement and completion when you do just that. Then you get proudly to move onto book two (when you can also enjoy that deferred gratification and indulge your acquisitive consumer instincts) once again.
As for that “grammar” canard: different language textbooks take different approaches to teaching the language. Some are grammar-heavy. Older textbooks almost always took a grammar-translation approach. Then came audio-lingual or audio-visual courses and books that stressed practical communication. In general, the more modern the book, the more the focus will be on setting the grammar in the context of texts of various types.
Even among “modern books”, some will prefer to “teach” structures first before presenting a passage or dialogue. Others will present a dialogue first in each chapter and encourage you to work out a little out first, before jumping into the explanation (the “discovery method”).
The extent of the didactic explanations will vary. The Assimil books, for example, prefer to let the grammar emerge and only explain it in the lightest of ways.
Some courses deliberately focus on structures and teach a restricted vocabulary. Others throw a lot of vocabulary at you. Some books will have lots of exercises and others won’t.
Language textbooks teach you language you won’t need…
Language textbooks are just too far too divorced from reality. On the one hand, they are full of out-of-date or low frequency words or expressions that you’d never need in real life: “the pen of my aunt”….”my hovercraft is full of eels”….
Even if a book is new and trying to be relevant and hip, at the beginners level example texts are often simplified to the point of artificiality.
It’s not only simplification: samples of the language will often over use the grammar points that the chapter is introducing at the cost of authenticity. Far better to seek explanations of structures as you meet them in real life and look up words when you need them.
The very fact that texts are written can make for something more logical and complete than what you’d be exposed to in real life. Natural, spoken language, full, as it is, of false starts, incomplete phrases, repetition and “fillers” (such as “um…ah…”know what I mean?”).
Yes but….simplification can help at first
While it’s true that some of the language will be a bit artificial in the early stages, there’s something to be said for learning things one stage at a time and simplification can help with that…provided that you do progress on to “real” language when the time is right (and that could be sooner or later….it just depends).
Coursebooks take your time away from more authentic encounters with the language…
Yes, interacting seriously with a textbook does take a lot of time. That’s time you could be spending learning more phrases and vocab (for example with flashcards), getting lots more input (listening and reading) or actually trying to speak the language (for example by doing a language exchange or working one to one with a tutor (perhaps online, with Google translate open on screen)…
On the other hand….sometimes being taught things is quicker.
At the beginning of learning a language in particular, textbooks can help you get a bridgehead.
Once you have a basis, you can make better use of time interacting: watching videos, listening to podcasts, speaking with people.
As for vocab building, where are you going to get the phrases for flashcarding from? Could it actually be efficient better to “mine” texts you’re coming across as part of the well-through out, staged learning plan presented by a well-designed textbook?
When you’re learning a language, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel or rely on chance
Here’s something that many of us oh-so-unique individuals won’t want to hear: when it comes to you and me and you and language learning, we actually basically all need the same language.
At the beginning stage we need the most frequent structures and words and to apply them in the most common situations of life. Sure we need to supplement this with phrases particular to our own circumstances: talking about specific aspects of our reasons for learning, the specialist vocab and jargon of or our hobby or profession. Yet why just amass the essential core by chance exposure? Course creates know what’s needed and they put it in one place for us, with system.
This holds not just for beginners. At the intermediate level, there are still relatively high-frequency structures and words that can be taught systematically and that everyone needs.
As for the more advance levels things change a little.
Yes, there may be the outer-reaches of grammar to introduce and textbooks can provide a structure for some systematic revision of things that you may have forgotten.
Here’s another thing: by the advanced level, you need to be able to talk not just about the higher-frequency topics or your pet interests. There’s also a broad range of situations and subjects that an educated, adult speaker of the language needs to be linguistically equipped for.
A textbook presenting authentic texts (with audio) on a wide-range of topics, including ones you wouldn’t seek out or have even thought of can help develop your general fluency in this way. We’re talking here topics you’d be able to follow and discuss at a general level in your native tongue. You should be aiming to do the same in your target language, if you really want high-level mastery. So, no complaining from me when the topic is the history and production of chocolate in my Basque upper-intermediate textbook.
Textbooks: yes or no?
We’ve seen some pretty strong criticisms of language textbooks but also that there’s another side to the story. In my language learning, they always have an important part to play.
Partly, it’s a question of personality. I’m somebody who’s quite introverted, thorough and who enjoys reading and study. If you are too, you’ll probably need little persuasion to give a textbook an important role in your language learning.
Yet if, by nature, you’re less of a student and more of, say, a singer, sportsperson or socialiser, you’ll probably use your textbook less often. I think you could still find it useful, though, if in a more limited way; for some structure, for reference and for variety.
Whoever you are, whatever your aims and interests in language learning, I think that language textbooks COULD be for you too if you get these three things right:
First: the book. What a good book is will partly depend on the science of language teaching. Much more it will depend on the material appealing to you. Better sub-optimal resources that you want to use then ones that the experts say are great that stay on your shelf. In the next in this series, we’ll look at things to look for when choosing a good book.
Second: what you do with the book. The key here is to approach it in a brain-savvy way. Don’t just read it passively. Get interactive. Use the book imaginatively with your teacher or exchange partner. Use techniques like testing and spaced recall of the material. Look out for another upcoming post on just this topic.
Third: realistic expectations of the book. If you do buy-in to the idea of a course book, remember it’s not a silver bullet. When I hear questions like “Will I be fluent when I’ve finished the book”? I want to weep.
A coursebook cannot work magic. No one book (or even one multi-volume series) can cover everything that you’re going to need. No one book can give you enough reading input or (assuming there is audio) enough listening practice.
Yes, use a textbook to maximum effect but make sure (particularly when you get to the intermediate level and have the core structures and vocab) to get lots and lots of listening and reading input.
Likewise, a textbook can never teach you to speak. Yes it can help explain pronunciation. Yes it can give you more or less useful vocab and phrases but you have to get down and dirty and use them, pushing through the discomfort zone time after time.
A language textbook is like a cookbook or a car manual. Very, very useful, but no substitute for actually cooking or driving.
Check out the next post in this mini series: What’s the best language course for you? It explores the different approaches that a textbook/online course might take.
Arkady G. Zilberman says
A language textbook is like a car manual, but you don’t need to know the manual to be able to drive a car. All your considerations are based on conscious learning of language skills, i.e. learning the manuals. Try a totally different approach to Subconscious Training English Skills and you will discover a new world of acquiring language skills when subconscious is controlling the whole process.
Hi Arkady, I combine approaches. No magic bullets in language learning…conscious or subconscious. Your method sounds interesting!
Thanks a lot for this text!
I’m a teacher tempted to stop using a textbook, because I want my classes to be more natural, materials more authentic, fun and engaging, but I’m still wondering how to provide clear structure and progression to my students without them.
So I found your thoughts (of an experienced foreign language student :))) quite useful, because they helped me reflect on the textbooks from the other, student’s point of view.
I still don’t have a solution, but I’ a step closer to it!
May you keep enjoying your language adventures!
Many thanks for reading and commenting, Ana! I’m glad you found my piece interesting 🙂
I am late to the party, but having progressed pretty far in learning my first second language, I agree that textbooks get an overly bad reputation. I have met people who were aided by textbook learning and I know certain things I do well because of textbooks.
Textbooks are great for structuring grammar learning. Grammar topics are learned in fairly repeatable sequences, present tense first for example. So textbooks are great as a reference and to get practice reading some grammar and indicating what you should and shouldn’t worry about at your current stage.
Textbooks also serve as partially graded readers. They can be good input. It’s kind of silly for people to simplify language for children but not foreign language learners. It took a long time for child me to understand adults talking.
I do agree however that the vocabulary and domain choices in textbooks are frustrating. Sometimes you have to spend more time looking upwords in an exercise than doing th exercise. (Also I doubt most authors of textbooks are able to put the time in to perfect them).
Also, it is probably not worthwhile to learn all the vocab in a chapter. For example, don’t fret over memorizing all the names for different sports or foods unless that’s meaningful to you at your stage. To me, it needs to be part of an experience like a story.
Sometimes I think it’s good to read the chapters, study the texts and then just do some of the exercises that are easiest and continue. The fault comes when we feel we need to get an 80% to pass the chapter or that we never need to look back.
Dr Popkins says
I agree, Cassandra. Yes, the advice “don’t move on until you’ve mastered everything in this unit” isn’t right. Meanwhile, I have textbooks where I spend half the time trying to find the words or explanations to do the exercises because the lack of a wordlist at the back in both languages and an good subject index.