The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #29 September / October 2017
How Can My Study Book Be Monolingual?
by Tarja Jolma
September / October 2017 | 

Traditionally, one of the first things people do when they start learning a new language is to get a study book. This is usually easy for those who study a language which is very widely spoken in the world and usually also for those whose native language is English or some other globally common language, as there are likely to be more language books written for English speakers. However, many learners have to adapt to using books with some other foreign language as the teaching language - or resort to monolingual books.

Over the years I've noticed a change: nowadays most basic level study books of my native language Finnish seem to be monolingual. Learners may be a bit surprised when they see a monolingual study book for the first time, but it is indeed very useful to have them – especially for immigrants and expats who learn the language as a second language (L2), as people who live in an area where the language is spoken. It's very likely that they outnumber all the learners outside Finland, and they are a very heterogeneous group with various native languages and very different language learning history. Many of them do not speak English.

Using course books exclusively in Finnish means that no one in the group is disadvantaged because of not knowing the bridge language. These monolingual books often have bi- or multilingual vocabularies sold separately. In theory, ready-made vocabularies could be given in several languages, but in practice, they often include languages that are rather well known in the society, like English, German and Russian in Finland. Recently, one popular starting level book, Suomen mestari 1 by Gehring and Heinzmann, was first followed by a multilingual vocabulary book for speakers of English, German, French, Russian and Serbian. A second vocabulary book was published later on, this time for speakers of Arabic, Dari, Paštu, Persian, Somali and Sorani. I'm especially sure this second one got a really warm welcome since native speakers of those languages have less or no bilingual dictionaries and they may not speak good, if any, English.

With or without a vocabulary, people who are used to bilingual study books often wonder how students understand the chapters, and especially, how they understand the grammar. Well, that's the thing: starting from level 0 requires illustrations, graphics, and simple instructions. I think books like this are not meant for self-studies if the student is starting from zero. However, they are very good for starting from scratch with a teacher, because they tend to explain everything gradually, whereas bilingual books often give lots and lots of explanations on every point, and some of them use complex grammar terminology that an average student is often not familiar with. For example, describing a gerund as “the English verbal noun ending in -ing that has the function of a substantive and at the same time shows the verbal features of tense, voice, and capacity to take adverbial qualifiers and to govern objects”. These wordy explanations could blur the clarity of examples meant to illustrate the use of a new word or grammatical point.

Often the visual presentation does not seem so important either when things can be explained in another language. When there is no other language, the grammar points have to be thought through so that they can be presented with pictures, tables, and simple examples. The visual side includes tables, colors, boxes, arrows, circles, bold text, italics, underlining, strikethrough, capital letters, photos, drawings, flags... whatever is needed. Verbs and objects can be presented with pictures, so no problem there. Another technique is writing all the question words (who, what, when) in bold and the crucial word (John, book, 3 a.m.) in bold in the answers. This is very handy in both examples and exercises. Practice does make the master, so there should be enough of them. Many books don't have sufficient simple exercises before going forward to either a new topic or more difficult grammar or vocabulary, which leaves gaps in the knowledge.

Nowadays, with the internet available in so many places, it's easy for both students and teachers to find pictures of things. Choosing clear pictures is vital to avoid misunderstandings. A picture of a woman could represent female, mother, wife, sister, aunt, teacher, bride, daughter, or a dozen other things. Explaining abstract things is often the hardest part, but even then pictures may be helpful. So is acting. L2 teachers often do also a lot of acting in class purely out of necessity: they need to demonstrate things to their students, and the target language might be the only language they have in common.

So, what about the instructions on what is needed in an exercise? Things may be explained only or also with a picture, but when there is text, the text needs to be simple. It should not be so long and complicated that students get frustrated and spend more time trying to decipher the explanation than doing the exercise – or simply give up. Not everybody has someone able to help at home, and what the teacher says in class may be misheard, misunderstood or simply forgotten.

Another common thing is a vocabulary that the student can fill in using his/her native language. One is good to have before each new dialogue or chapter, and one in alphabetical order in the back of the book. Listing the number of a chapter or page in which a word is first used is very useful especially when there is no translation. Students forget words, so going back to a chapter in which a given word has already been studied might help a lot.

If the script does not clearly give the entire pronunciation of the words (vowels which are assumed, syllable stress), it would be good to have it in the vocabulary using something else, like IPA, diacritics (accent marks), and other notations for omitted vowels (such as in Persian, Arabic, and Hebrew). Other unmarked features may need extra symbols, while transliteration could be used for some languages like Japanese and Russian and pinyin for Mandarin Chinese. The new vocabulary of each chapter would be best to have on a recording as well, and preferably as a separate section and not just included in the audio of the whole chapter for resources with an audio component.

Along with a simple font in which spaces between words (if there are any) are clearly recognizable and similar letters are distinct from each other, students benefit from space between the lines, so they can write notes in order to explain things to themselves and even more importantly to write translations of words and their pronunciation. Pages full of content are not functional. This is especially important when the student is learning a new language with a new or not so familiar alphabet. Decreasing the number of pages by reducing space in pages is not as important as giving space for side notes. This applies to all study books, but even more to books that are for basic and elementary level students.

Some people don't write in the books, mainly because they want to sell them after the course or because the book they are using is from the library. However, most students who own their book want to make side notes, and it becomes both difficult and messy when the space between the lines is scarce. Some years ago, I took a modern Greek elementary course with two of my friends, and we had a monolingual book. The book had good exercises and good texts, but we were all frustrated about the lack of space between the lines. In addition, the font was rather small.

Speaking of space, if you are planning on making a book (be it mono- or bilingual) please give enough space to write the answers in the exercises, both when only one or two words are missing and when it's about writing complete sentences in a notebook. (Furthermore, I wish all those lines would be made with a very thin line or very small dots. Choosing a line made of dots does not mean that "big" black dots are functional.)

One suggestion about the spoken language: if the language in question has clearly two forms, one being the standard version used in written language and the other one a spoken version, probably different from region to region but with national common traits, one nice way to present it would be to give a mildly spoken version of each dialogue in text and tape and then after that present the same dialogue in standard form, marking the differences for example with color. This kind of dialogues are found for example in a fairly new Persian elementary book, Persian in Use: An Elementary Textbook of Language and Culture by Anousha Sedeghi, and for me, this seems a perfect way to give the learner a possibility to learn both versions but still keep them clearly apart.

Students are also made to pay attention to the details by filling in the blanks first in the spoken version with audio and then in the written version based on the spoken one. Only one word per blank point is missing from the text, so it's not too much effort for beginners.

Nowadays more and more learning material is developed in many languages. More and more immigrants of various types learn the language of their new home country on very heterogeneous courses, so monolingual basic level books have proven to be very useful. I think the need to use only one language has been beneficial to the development of the materials because I believe that with experience of what works without a bridge language, it's easier to see the makings of a functional book.

I don't think the nature of the language matters, for example, if the language has complex conjugation forms or if the words don't conjugate at all. All kinds of grammar features can be explained in a monolingual book. Finnish is regarded as complex, but these monolingual books have proven to be very functional.

However, bilingual books are still very important. Many students are learning the language without a teacher and without the language environment, and bilingual books are needed also for self-studies and additional help. There just aren't enough of them in enough languages to fill the needs of all students. Of course, some are studying very commonly spoken languages and there should be lots of bilingual learning material. Everything is relative: Arabic is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, but there aren't many study books that teach Arabic in Finnish. Instead, we have lots of material for learning languages like English, German, Swedish, Spanish, French, Italian and Russian.

This article was inspired by both my own and other people's efforts in using monolingual and almost monolingual learning material.

Tarja holds a Master's degree in Italian Philology with studies in Finnish, Spanish, and cultural history and also has experience in teaching Finnish (L2) for foreigners. Her daily work as a tv-subtitler writing subtitles for the deaf and the hard-of-hearing consists mainly of her native Finnish language, but all kinds of language skills are useful. She simply can't stop studying languages, especially the ever challenging and fascinating Mandarin Chinese.

How Can My Study Book Be Monolingual?
Writer: Tarja Jolma
Petey: Confused girl (splash); German books; Kitchen images; Character chart; Students

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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