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When you go camping, you’ve got to bring the right gear for the trip. And language learning is no different.
Always pack the right gear for the trip you’re taking. You don’t want to go on a camping trip with your TV, and you don’t want to go to a European campground with anything but an RV. (Just kidding, they can actually be quite nice – if not exactly quiet.)
The same goes in language learning. Pack the right gear for the trip – use the right tool for the job. There are enough language learning tools, methods and theories out there to make your head spin. Everyone’s got their own take on what’s best. But really, only you know what’s best for what you’re learning, what your goals are, and how you learn. I’d break down the materials out there into three rough groups: exercises, courses, and reference. You need to know what you’re going to use, and when.
A lot of language learning apps fall into the exercises bucket, but also activity books count here. Exercises are great for giving you quick, bite-sized brain teasers to munch on in short bursts. You can do them on the bus, in the bathroom, waiting in line, or at dinner while you ignore your boring parents or friends. But they’re not nutritious. They’re not going to sustain you in the long haul – you can’t become fluent through an app or book alone. It’s a great kick-start, but you’ll need richer nourishment to climb higher.
That’s where courses come in. Courses probably make up the majority of quality language learning material out there. Whether subscription software, an online class or an in-person program at a vocational school or one-on-one with an instructor, courses are designed as longer term commitments. They’re for when you’re ready to say, “enough toe-dipping. Let’s get swimming.” They carry the heaviest price tag, but of all the purchasable language learning materials out there, they’re probably the most effective. At the end of the day, language learning is a skill, one you can only develop through practice. A course will guide you the right way along that path.
Reference resources are the final category – these are dictionaries, phrase books and grammar table posters you hang up in your kitchen. They’re to remind you of things you’ll otherwise forget, or even give you a brief head start if you’re just dabbling in a language, or just traveling through a country. Like exercises, they won’t sustain you, but they provide the quickest, shortest burst of effective communication in a foreign language.
There’s one final category that I didn’t mention, and that is: you. It’s not technically a language learning material, but it’s by far the most useful and effective tool you have. Your own reading, speaking, and resourcefulness during this language learning quest will be the only thing that, at the end of the day, really makes a difference. Your dedication and motivation matter more than the positive internet comments or jacket-cover endorsements on any purchasable product. You could do without all of the above and still become fluent in a language.
But know your resources, know which materials to use and when, and you’ll get there faster.
What are your favorite language learning resources and materials?