The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #2 March / April 2013
Language Learning Methods
by Erik Zidowecki
March / April 2013 | 

No matter what you are using to help you in learning a language, you are most likely going to pick up a book during the process. There are a number of types of books you may use, and among those, the quality will vary greatly.


If you are studying by taking a course with other people or even having a personal tutor, you are probably going to be using a textbook. Textbooks are usually the most formal types of books you could use because they are designed to be used by teachers in a professional capacity. They are also usually considered to be the most boring, since it is their job to present you with the information. It is the role of the teacher to explain further what they are telling you and make it interesting.

Textbooks are broken into many lessons with each lesson divided further into rules, examples, and exercises. A teacher would go over the lesson with the students during the class, work some of the examples with them, then assign them some of the exercises to be done by the students outside the classroom. These exercises might be collected later and graded by the teacher, adding to the overall grade for each student for the language course.

Textbooks are also usually very expensive, compared to other learning books, because a student is forced to buy specific books for a course and can't choose a cheaper one. Everyone uses the same textbook for the course.


While studying a language, you are most probably going to pick up some kind of book or printed material to aid you.

The most common kind of book used for self-study is a "teach yourself" book. These books are aimed at the individual reader and will try to make the content easy and interesting, since it now has to be both the teacher and the source of information. The method the books uses will vary between series. Some may focus on teaching by using conversations, another by using readings, and others might focus entirely on grammar as the primary format. In general, these books will offer rules, examples and exercises, like a textbook does, but in a more entertaining and informal way. We will look at a few of these common series.

Teach Yourself

One of the most common and most successful series is the Teach Yourself one. The name is sometimes confusing, since people refer to the entire kind of book as "teach yourself", so the title is often shortened to "TY". These books have been around for decades. The modern variety are large paperbacks and may have accompanying grammar books and dictionaries. They may also have an audio aspect in the form of cassettes or CDs.

The common format for these lessons is to start with a conversation along with vocabulary for the newest words and phrases used in the dialogue. Some simple questions might be asked for the reader to make them think about what they read. The lesson will then give grammar explanations of some parts of the conversation, followed by another conversation or some exercises. The answers to the exercises are given in the back of the book. There may also be a reading to help the learner practice their new vocabulary and grammar understanding.

These books are popular for their simple approach using situations backed up by grammar rules. The books also will usually contain simple line drawings to represent some things. They are a good size for travel as well, being larger than "pocket size" but not the burden of a full-sized textbook.

Made Simple Books

The Made Simple series is like a teach yourself / textbook hybrid. These books are paperback and textbook sized, but thinner than a normal textbook. They are titled with the name of the language, like "Italian Made Simple", but there are Made Simple books for many other subjects.

The language branch of these books are similar to the Teach Yourself series in their method, using a conversation or reading followed by vocabulary, grammar explanations and exercises. However, they present the material flatly, without really trying to engage the reader. They could probably be considered the "lite" version of a textbook, being much cheaper, which makes them popular among students who want the textbook approach without the textbook price.


Berlitz is one of the big names in languages, providing products such as teach yourself books, audio courses, full classroom courses, software and phrasebooks. It is their phrasebooks which are perhaps the best known product, being both very concise as well as colourful.

The Berlitz self-teaching books focus more on vocabulary and phrase learning, giving only a few grammar rules and questions. They also have a small dictionary in the back. This format is used because the Berlitz line of products are aimed mainly at the travel aspect of languages. They are the books you would pick up when you are planning to travel to another country and want to learn enough to get around, not necessarily to become fluent.

Living Language

If you are using a grammar book as your main source of self-study, then a dictionary becomes essential.

The Living Language series is essentially a grammar guide with phrases and audio. The normal setup is to have one book being the "conversational manual", which teaches the grammar and phrases and another book being the "common usage dictionary". Cassettes or CDs are likely to come with these to provide the student with an audio to go along with the readings. The books also contain exercises. These books are probably the thinnest among the series discussed here, perhaps relying more on the audio to help guide the student, although one might wonder which is supposed to be supplementing the other. Living Language also produces online courses and apps.

"Promising" Books

There is a variety of self-study books I called "promising books". These are the kind that claim you will learn a language within a given amount of time or in a certain way. Such titles are Hindustani in Three Months, German in 32 Lessons and Japanese in 10 Minutes A Day. These books are promising the reader they will reach their goal (whatever that may be) within a given amount of time as long as they adhere to the methods given. The major problem with this approach is that it almost certainly will damage your self-esteem. While you may start using one of these books believing it will do just as it promises you, when you fail to master the language in the given time, you will feel like you have failed. These titles are made specifically to sell the book, not to teach you the language.

These books will use all kinds of methods of presenting the material, often claiming they have found a "new" and "advanced" method that will allow you to succeed as they promise. They are also the books you are most likely to see being ridiculed in the media by expanding what is to be learned while minimizing the time given, such as "Mastering Ancient Tibetan in 39 Seconds".


Young woman studying a phrasebook while traveling.

Believe it or not, phrasebooks are often used as self-study books because they present the reader with the essentials they will need for basic things while traveling as well as providing them with some pronunciation guides and vocabulary. For many, that is all they are trying to achieve in the language, not requiring full fluency. If they are going to be staying in another country for a long period of time, these books can provide the bridge to a natural immersion that they can't get from any book

For these reasons, some of the series we mentioned above, like Berlitz and Living Language, focus much more on learning phrases than grammar. There are also a large number of books that sound like they will be self-study books but are actually basic phrasebooks, and they are often not even good phrasebooks.

Italian in a Nutshell sounds like a it would be a good course book, but it is really a thin paperback which gives a pronunciation guide to the alphabet, a paragraph on sentence structure, then vocabulary and phrases for many situations. Pronunciation guides accompany all the phrases. At the end, there is some grammar, focusing mainly on forming verbs, then a short dictionary. It is pocket sized and obviously made for travellers.

Let's Study Japanese is a basic phrasebook with simple line drawings. There is no attempt to teach you grammar or even the alphabet, since everything is romanized. It has some "exercises" which are just phrases with blanks, no answers. At the end is a very small dictionary which is basically useless.

Just Enough Serbo-Croat is little better. It is all just phrases and vocabulary lists with basic pronunciation guides. At the end are eight pages of "Notes on the language".

Say It In Dutch is the same as the Just Enough books, except without the final pages of notes. Out of all of these books, only this one tells you it is a phrasebook. The others want to leave you with the impression that they will actually be teaching you something.

If you are wanting to get a phrasebook for learning or as a refresher, you are probably going to get the most out of the Berlitz series. They are the among the most compact and concise, providing the reader with colour coded sections, a large variety of phrases (usually having pronunciation guides) and vocabulary lists.

12All pages
Language Learning Methods - Books
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
fastfood: Bookshelf
Jonathan C. Haynes: Woman reading phrasebook
cohdra: Open dictionary
shinjaejun: Japanese Manga Books
clarita: News rack
Petey: Bookstore, Langenscheidt dictionaries

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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