As with anything, it takes lots of practice to get good at learning a language.

And no, we’re not talking about your target language itself. You also need practice to get good at learning. It is a lot like exercise but for the brain and to see the best results, you also need to employ the correct techniques at the right time. For example, one mistake that beginner language learners make is to think that once they’ve settled on a suitable textbook-workbook combo, it’s all smooth sailing.

Sadly, that is very far from the truth. In worst cases, relying too much on a textbook can actually start holding you back.

Not all textbooks are created equal

The first problem with textbooks is that they vary greatly in terms of their usefulness. While a select few feature actually relevant language, many textbooks get stuck in an artificial representation and have very little in common with how your target language is actually used day-to-day. And then there are the truly tragic examples of books that won’t help anyone.

You’ll know what that means if you’ve ever come across an example resembling this:

A: The French is far more difficult to Englishmen.

B: I am persuaded of the contrary. I can hardly believe it.

A: Experience shows it us every day.

It is very much a case of publishers trying to make language fit to their book, instead of working on an accurate description of how it is used on the street. All of this means that much of what you learn from textbooks is difficult (or impossible) to put into practice.

Textbooks losing popularity everywhere

In recent years, the entire field of teaching foreign languages has started to move away from using textbooks. Instead, the focus has shifted to learning the language as it’s used by native speakers every day, as a tool for communication. This is part of a wider trend of trying to move past a textbook-based education.

The main points that usually get pointed to when discussing the problems with textbooks are that they are static, often feature factual errors, and their efficacy is very hard to measure. Static means that it’s very difficult to update textbooks once they’re printed. That is how you end up with the example dialogue from above. Language is an ever-changing phenomenon and it will not stand still to fit in any one textbook. Another issue with using a single textbook is that there is usually a least a few factual errors in them and if you don’t use any other sources, you’ll get stuck with the mistaken view. Additionally, it’s difficult to measure which textbooks are actually effective in teaching, so you might end up with one that doesn’t help you much at all.

Good for beginners, terrible for advanced

Now, it’s not all bad, obviously. Textbooks are often very useful for complete beginners. When you’re just learning the basics, it’s difficult for even textbooks to mess up your progress. Although, you should certainly make sure your first lessons focus on things such as introducing yourself and asking for directions, instead of some of the more questionable content. However, once you can say “My name is..” in three different ways and follow the most basic directions, it’s already time to start steering away from textbooks.

Your time is valuable and you don’t want to spend it on learning whatever the creators of the textbook thought you might be interested in. Instead, you should choose what to study based on your own interests and learning goals.

What you should do instead

Instead of trying to learn your target language from the page of a textbook, turn your focus to real-life resources. Incorporate your target language into your daily schedule or carry out your hobbies in the tongue you’re trying to learn. Playing games or listening to music is often preferable to learning from textbooks and there is a long list of other activities you can try instead.

In fact, it might be a good idea to simply get a phrasebook, learn the few absolutely necessary phrases by heart, and then turn to you-specific vocabulary, instead of messing with any textbooks.

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