When we think of education and learning, we tend to think of books. We all get our education in life from books and teachers in school, and sometimes it seems the teachers job is merely to guide us through the books. So, let's say we've decided to learn Spanish. We tend to think "gee, now I have to go and get some books on learning Spanish". Although there are lots of other language learning methods that include an audio component, some people still prefer to learn exclusively by books. And even if you choose a different kind of method, if you follow the advice on the Learning Tips page you will probably still use some kind of book as an additional learning tool. So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of learning a language from a book?
It's convenient. You can take language books with you anywhere. You can use them whenever you want, if you have even a few minutes of free time, you only need some light to read by and maybe a pen and paper for the exercises if there are any.
It's easy to follow. The course is laid out for you, in strict order starting from the most basic concepts working up gradually to the more complex. It's comforting to know some wise and experienced team of teachers and writers has put together a tried and true curriculum for us to follow. There are different approaches, however. There is the older grammar-based method (the old Teach Yourself language books are excellent at this), and there are immersion-based language methods (like the new Teach Yourself language books), although these tend to also include audio - it's almost necesary for the immersion approach.
You can use it at your own pace. If you've mastered one chapter move on to the next, if you are unsure of something continue to work on it or move on and refer back to it in a little while and try again. You can move as slowly or quickly as you are comfortable. It's easy to refer back to something for review. If, after some time you wish to review a concept you feel you need to refresh, it's just at your fingertips.
Lots of material. Books tend to have a lot of vocabulary and a lot of subject matter. The exercises will often prompt you to re-use the same sentences with different vocabulary words or verb conjugations. This may be boring but it's excellent work. It's very often possible to work through even a small book and not remember everything. Review may be necessary, but that's not a bad thing. You'll get great value out of a book crammed with information. I find the Living Language books to be very useful upon repeat readings.
Pronunciation guides. All textbooks, coursebooks and even phrasebooks and dictionaries will include some kind of pronunciation guide. These are helpful when there is no other way to learn, but this is nothing compared to actually hearing it. This brings us back to the problem of audio - it's so important for learning to actually speak a language.
Hearing the language. This is the flip-side of speaking a language. While a pronunciation guide might give you some idea of how to pronounce words in the language, hearing the rhythm of the language is a whole other problem. Every language has a certain cadence to it - some words are spoken faster in one sentence or slower in another, or pronunciation may change according to emotion or even emphasis on another word. This can be so complex and subtle, books rarely get into the topic at all, usually just to warn you of this and encourage you to go out and hear the language spoken by natives and to actually speak it yourself.
The conclusion to all this is - if you can supplement your book with some audio tapes, internet radio or resources, music or television, you will have a much better chance of understanding the books' pronunciation guide and using it to get a good grasp of the spoken language. Check the Learning Tips page for more ideas to supplement your language book.
The audio component has become recognized as so necessary and valuable and the cost of adding it to the book has become so inexpensive that it is almost mandatory for any language course or method to include it. Fewer and fewer language courses without audio components are available. The only products available in book form only are specificaly academic tools like a grammar, dictionary or perhaps a phrasebook. Having said all this, books are still a valuable resource. They are convenient, easy to carry or take with you, and easily accessed. You can take your time with a book, use it at your own pace.
Obviously, a book and audio combination or software language course, which includes the benefits of a books' written qualities and the benefits of an audio component, is the best possible choice. However, these need not be purchased together in one package. It is probably best of course, but if money is an issue or you have access to all these tools already, a decent lesson plan can be put together as long as all the tools add up to a good synergistic approach.
Living Language Basic Complete (without audio).Living Language packages a small coursebook with a dictionary and cd for about $25, but you can also find the coursebook sold by itself for about $8. They are available in the most widely spoken languages.
Teach Yourself (new without audio). The newer Teach Yourself books usually come bundled with two cd's, but the coursebook can also be found by itself. These are available in a wide variety of languages.
Teach Yourself (old). The old Teach Yourself books are excellent grammar-heavy books, but they are long out of print. You have to get them used. Try used book stores or online at ABE Books.
Hugo. Hugo's language in Three Month series are pretty solid grammar-heavy courses, but inexpensive and readily available.
College/High School Textbooks. New or used textbooks almost always offer a well-rounded approach to language learning, but they may be a little more expensive.
Language Learning Advisor Home
'Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.'
- Noah Webster