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Language self-study books: how to pick a decent one

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Table of Contents

When you think about studying a foreign language, you probably come up with a textbook. Here’s how to pick a good language self-study book.

Do you really need a textbook?

Language self-study books, anyone? When you think about studying a foreign language, as with virtually any other subject, you probably come up with a textbook. However, while traditionally this is certainly the most common learning tool, it’s rarely the most effective one.

Although it depends on your level and goals, as well as which other learning resources you use, as well as the quality of the textbook, generally I don’t recommend studying with a textbook.

To learn the latest two languages that I studied, Portuguese and Russian, I didn’t use any textbook, either printed or digital. For other languages, I used one or two. The more languages I learn, the less I feel the need for a textbook.

However, I understand that a casual language learner needs more guidance, both from a teacher and from self-study resources. For example, the student often doesn’t know which grammar patterns to study and which words to learn. With that in mind, I’ll give you some advice on how to choose a good self-study book.

How to choose a language self-study book

I usually limit my library to one “all-in-one” language self-study book. This means that it’s made to cover all the skills that you need and can practice alone.

Let’s have a look at the structure of such a language self-study book. Typically, this kind of textbooks is made up of 10-20 units, 5-20 pages each, each unit covering one major grammar point and/or one topic:

  1. A couple of dialogues
  2. A list of the new vocabulary from the dialogues
  3. Concise grammar notes with examples
  4. Short readings
  5. Drills

Here’s how I use this kind of language textbooks:

  1. I listen to the dialogues from the audio files or CDs that come with the textbook
  2. I read aloud the dialogues, as I do with any written material I come across
  3. I memorize some of the new words by taking notes, making sentences with them, or using them in my next conversation or class, possibly using the new grammar patterns from the notes
  4. I rarely go through the readings because they’re not interesting.
  5. I also ignore most of the drills for the same reason, and rather put the new words and grammar pattern into practice by producing my own contents, both in writing and in conversation.
  6. I ignore any text whose purpose is not learning the language, unless it’s written in the target language (for example: culture notes).

A textbook doesn’t need to be boring, but it should be serious

Funny language self-study book
Looks fun, uh?

I’m suggesting how to use a textbook in a productive way. To me, this is just being methodical, but for others, it might be boring, but I don’t know any textbook that can help lazy students. By its nature, a printed textbook is less attractive than any kind of learning resources that are popular in the digital age like audio courses or apps, as well as 1-on-1 lessons. However, with discipline and integration with other study methods, above all 1-on-1 lessons with a focus on conversation, a textbook can be a good foundation for further practice.

On the other side, it’s not always the student’s fault if studying with a book is boring. Many textbooks, especially those older than 20 years (but also most of the language self-study books I regularly see nowadays in some countries) are so dull that it’s better to live without them.

A textbook doesn’t need to be boring, but it should be serious. I’m not a fan of books with fancy design that teach you to “master a language in one month” or prepare you to do shopping pointing at pictures and parroting standard sentences. These books are utterly useless. They’re also one of the main causes of deforestation. Even the little educational value they offer is wasted because those who buy them are inexperienced learners who get discouraged after a few pages because they “don’t understand everything”, “can’t speak”, or “it’s too difficult”. They end up collecting dust on a shelf, and then they’re buried in a box.

“Steer clear from grammar reference books”

Features of a good and a bad language self-study book

I lived in Japan and occasionally taught Italian there. I was always dismayed when I browsed the language textbook shelves in bookstores in Japan. People waste appalling amounts of money in language education, including laughable self-study books, and still make little or no progress. Among the Italian self-study books that I’ve seen in the multi-story bookstores in Tokyo, there’s not even one book I’d buy. And there’s a lot of Italian textbooks there because Italian is the 4th most studied language (after English, Chinese, and Korean). They’re heavily skewed towards grammar, they use Japanese characters to show Italian pronunciation, they’re written in a messy design, and they’re padded with grammar notes and cultures notes in Japanese that make you forget the little contents in Italian that you were reading.

These are the features that I expect from a good language self-study book:

  • The focus is on communication, especially conversation
  • Grammar notes are kept short, and are based on examples rather than rules
  • It’s monolingual, or with discreet and brief notes or translations in the student’s language
  • It spells the target language in its real script (for example, Chinese characters for Chinese), with the exception of books for total beginners
  • The layout is neat and visually appealing but not messy
  • Culture notes are absent, if ever, are written in the target language

These are the features that put me off in language self-study book:

  • The focus is on grammar and translation
  • Grammar notes are lengthy and list rules and exception
  • A large part of the text is in the student’s language
  • The target language is transliterated, i.e. it’s written in script different from the original (for example, Latin characters instead of Chinese characters), even above total beginner’s level
  • The layout is dull, crowded, or messy, with too much emphasis on the text in the student’s language
  • Culture notes are long and written in the student’s language

Grammar books should be practical

“English Grammar in Use” series by Cambridge University Press
The “English Grammar in Use” series by Cambridge University Press to me is an example of the ideal study material for grammar.

If you’re a grammar geek as I am, or the language you’re studying is completely different from any language that you speak (for example, Japanese, Chinese, or Korean) you might want a practical grammar textbook so that unfamiliar script, sounds, or sentence structure don’t scare you off. Monolingual books are best (e.g. a German grammar textbook written in German only). If it does have grammar notes in your native language, each shouldn’t be longer than a couple of lines and most of the space should be left to examples and exercises.

The “English Grammar in Use” series by Cambridge University Press to me is an example of the ideal study material for grammar. Each unit is only two pages long and covers one grammar point (for example: past simple, past perfect…). On the left page, it explains the grammar rules, and on the right page, it provides drills to put the new knowledge into practice.

Steer clear from “grammar reference books”, because you’d get lost in tedious academic explanations instead of actually learning how to use grammar patterns.

You’ll never learn pronunciation from a book

pronunciation chart
That’s how you pronounce things! Yeah.

Don’t expect to learn correct pronunciation only by reading a book, even if it comes with a CD. Don’t waste time with the section of a language self-study book with illustrations of tongue, teeth, and lips, or international sound notation. Go and speak with someone, then try to speak as they do. Ask your teacher to correct your pronunciation from day one. If you practice speaking from day one, it will become natural to pronounce correctly.

Best Italian language books

A couple of suggestions if you study Italian.

  1. Italian Made Simple” by Cristina Mazzoni

This textbook offers a beginner’s look at grammar and vocabulary. Learn Italian with common expressions and a selection of contemporary Italian readings on culture and history. All the grammar and vocabulary acquired in this textbook are reinforced with exercises, language games, and puzzles.

  1. Living Language Italian” by Living Language

With 46 comprehensive lessons, exercises, cultural notes, and grammar summary guides, this textbook is a complete course. In addition to the three books, it comes with 9 audio CDs complete with vocabulary drills, dialogues and audio exercises to help you speak Italian like a native.

The audio material is great to learn Italian in the car.

  1. Italian Grammar: Barron’s Grammar Series” by Marcel Danesi

While a little lacking in audio and pronunciation, this textbook is ideal for learners looking to hone their grammar skills and get a systemic look at all of Italian’s intricacies.

Designed as a quick-reference book, this one has you covered for mastering parts of speech, sentence structure, punctuation, verbs tenses and moods. This guide is also loaded with exercises to practice and test your fluency, as well as useful day-to-day vocabulary that beginner textbooks may omit.

In conclusion: a textbook can help if it’s a good one

Nowadays textbooks are not the best way to learn a foreign language.

However, you can still study productively with the help of a well-designed language self-study book with a focus on conversation, written in your target language.

Living Language Italian is an excellent example of integration between textbooks, audio, and online activities. Remember to supplement this self-study time with conversations with native speakers.

If, instead you want to focus on speaking, choose a course like “Ripeti con me!” based on spaced repetition and comprehensible input.

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