Tips for Choosing Language Books

Since I was very young, I have been studying foreign languages. I will not name all of the languages I've studied, but there are nearly ten on my college transcript. Once in a while, I get bitten by the bug to jump into another language. So, it's off to the bookstore with me to peruse the stacks.

There are a wide variety of language books in whatever you're trying to learn. I've recognized that certain patterns emerge in the tone of these books. Let's lump them into three categories (and a limited fourth one).

  • Business Travel - "I'm going to Abroadia next week for business and I'd like to be able to tell the taxi driver in passable Abroadian which hotel I'm staying at."
  • Cultural Enrichment - "I'm ethnically Abroadian, but I grew up in America. Learning to speak some Abroadian might help me connect with my roots." or "I've always been curious about traveling to Abroadia and learning more about her people."
  • Language Student - "I want to become as fluent as possible in Abroadian, learn as much of its grammar as possible, and be able to read newspapers and websites in Abroadian, carry on conversations with people who live in Abroadia, and learn vocabulary that makes me an independent communicator."
  • Public Service - This narrow category is generally geared toward law enforcement, health service, and legal professionals. "I'm a police officer, nurse, or lawyer and I need to be able to ascertain the needs of immigrant Abroadians living in my community." In my local bookstore, this is primarily for Spanish and, to a limited extent, Chinese.

I place myself squarely in the third of those categories. When I'm shopping for language books, I'm always looking for the ones that have as much of the core of the grammar and vocabulary as possible. I'm actually interested in the grammar and how sentences are constructed. In shopping, there are several indicators that tell me whether or not this is going to be a book I'm likely to outgrow very quickly or whether it's going to give me enough information to be able to read a book, even if I have to use a dictionary to translate some of the words.

Here's a list of the things I like to find in the index of any book I, as a language student, would consider essential.

  • Broad Vocabulary - The vocabulary, reading examples, and conversations cannot be limited to tourism / travel topics.
  • Verb Conjugations - In Indo-European languages, verbs tend to have endings that vary with person, number, tense, and mood. In particular, I look up pluperfect, subjunctive, imperfect, irregular verbs, and Gerundive or gerund. Without these (regular and irregular), a language book instructing a language that has these is incomplete.
  • Noun Declensions - In most Indo-European languages, nouns, adjectives, and pronouns decline (or change endings) by person, gender, and number. Many languages have nominal cases like nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, and locative. There should be areas in the book that describe how these are used for various functions.
  • Reading Material - In addition to simple conversations, there should be some short multi-paragraph or even multi-page stories, potentially culture-related, to accustom the student to reading printed material in the target language. There's only so long I can be entertained by limited dialogue practice.
  • Vocabulary in Chunks - I like chapters to have between 50 and 100 new words. There should be lots of exercises to allow me to use the new grammar and vocabulary. It should challenge me, but not hold my hand too protectively.
  • Cultural Material - I enjoy language instruction books that give examples and anecdotes here and there, talking about the people who speak the language. For very widespread languages, I prefer some diversity in the cultural material presented. For example, a French book should give some dialogues, stories, and culture notes about Paris --- as well as the rest of France, Quebec, Monaco, Belgium and the other places where the language is used. I have an old Spanish book that assumes its readers are primarily talking to Spaniards (the word Mexico is only in the book twice). The cultural material should also be reasonably recent.
  • Interesting Content - Some instructors that write language manuals are really boring and present their material in an uninteresting, difficult-to-grasp way that loses us in a few short lessons. This is also true for language tutors or teachers. Don't give up trying to learn German because this instructor, book, audio course, or podcast is boring.

There are a few titles I look for especially, but I'll let the reader of this lengthy column research their needs.

One more point before I go, though. Don't give up. As humans, we have varying degrees of interest in one topic or another. We make big strides during one period of time and are stymied in our studies during another. When we are stymied, it's tempting for us to think we're not intelligent or dedicated enough to master this language (or any language). Set it aside for a while and come back to it later. Any language that you care to study was around long before you were born and it will certainly outlive you. The noble people of Abroadia will wait for you.

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