Learn Languages Faster with Books, not Apps

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One of our favourite ways of getting started in a language is still an old trick: self-teaching textbooks.

We then like to follow up by memorising a bunch of words (in context), and then doing exercises in listening, repeating and making my own sentences and mini speeches.

There are some apps we like, though — those that teach you just language that you need, focused on a specific outcome.

We’ll explore this below.

Learn languages with books not apps cover image

The Gamified App Unproductivity Trap

We constantly try new apps and learning methods, and even develop some of our own. Some apps are cool. But few are generally useful for mastering a language.

Apps work best when they replicate one part of the teaching process, like conveying a tutor’s or textbook’s guide to doing a specific thing (e.g. “How do I order food?”), or helping with memorisation.

Unfortunately, most language-learning apps are glorified games, designed to give you an endorphin rush, rather than teach you anything.

One app we generally like is Anki. It’s great for learning sentences and words through spaced repetition. Here are our tips for language learning with Anki

Gamified language-learning apps feel great in the beginning. They teach you words quickly, and they give you a glow from meeting your learning streak or ticking off things in a list.

But at the same time, even though you’re learning things, they’re not terribly useful things. You can say “The apple is on the table” or “The shark is big”. But I’ve never had to say those in real life.

With gamified language-learning apps, you quickly hit an inflection point where it starts being more of a waste of time than a benefit. An app might fail to explain a grammar concept clearly, assuming you’ll pick it up through their teaching method, or not correctly teach you pronunciation, or just teach you something irrelevant to your goal.

For example, many apps (or even books) have a section on giving and receiving directions. In reality, anyone with a beginner level of a language just asks “Where is xyz?” and then looks in the direction of the hand of the person that is answering. At most, you’ll have to understand “It’s that way,” or “I don’t know.”

Or worse, often game-style language-learning apps teach you things that are irrelevant, outdated, or flat-out wrong. Some apps are designed to be self-correcting based on user feedback. Unfortunately, you’re part of the product — your feedback shapes the content.

For example, some apps teach the wrong “tone” level. If you’re a young adult, then learning the formal tone in European languages is nowhere near as important as mastering the informal tone. But you may not know this unless someone tells you.

So you go on — what else are you going to do? You’ve been earning “lingots”, or blooming flowers, or increasing whatever metric the app uses. You get notifications to keep up your momentum, and it feels good. It feels like a game, and you’re learning!

This is the dark side to gamified language-learning apps: it’s a trap of unproductivity. You begin to go through the motions in the app just to make the app happy, even when it comes at a cost to how fast you could be learning a language.

In other words, you might still be learning, but you could be learning faster by doing something else; but you’re stuck.

Apps are relentless in giving you abstract rewards and guilt. “Congratulations, you earned a lingot!” “Keep your bars healthy!” “You’re on a seven-day streak!” “Hey, you haven’t logged in in a while!” “Hey, your plants are wilting!”

(The reminder I hate most is the Duolingo passive-aggressive one: “We notice these reminders aren’t working. We’ll turn them off.” Imagine if a friend texted you “I notice you haven’t been responding to my messages. I’ll stop texting you.”)

You get constant notifications, emails reminding you that constant daily practice (with their app) is the most effective way, and that upgrading to premium for only the price of two tubs of premium ice cream a month gets you what you have but slightly more, plus eternal glory and happiness.

Or you could get ice cream and delete the app.

Each day, we only have roughly three to four hours a day of active brain time. This is my estimate, where I think of “active brain time” as learning or creating. Both of these are exhausting activities.

Aside from “active brain time”, the rest of our day is filled with planning, socialising, resting, exercise, eating and menial tasks. If we have a maximum of four hours of productivity, we want to spend it as optimally as possible. You can’t stack together seven ways of learning; you only have time for two or three.

If you’re going to learn effectively, you will need guidance and motivation (which apps give in abundance), but must be able to optimise your time to learn as best possible.

So below are three tricks for learning languages fast, the old-fashioned, reliable way.

Step 1: Use the Best Language Learning Textbooks and Targeted Apps

The best way to start any language learning process from scratch is with a book or app focused on teaching you the essentials that you actually need.

Most people learning a language want to do basic things first, like

  • Greetings, chit chat, and how to be polite to strangers
  • Food-related things, like asking for recommendations
  • Prices and negotiation
  • General questions a traveller would ask, like “Where is the bathroom”

Soit’s quite disconcerting that many books launch into discussions of grammar and syntax. Nobody cares about the subjunctive, unless you’re learning it in specific situations.

And nobody should be learning political or religious aphorisms as their first foreign-language sentences, like (real examples from textbooks I’ve used) “Since Deng Xiaopings’s Open Up and Reform initiative, China’s economy has been ever more developed”, nor “Muhammad is the one true prophet and Arabic was his language”.

No, the best language resources focus on teaching you methodically how to do the basics that you actually need: greeting, talking about yourself, asking about others, and then doing everyday things like eating, buying things, and getting by in daily life.

The best language books come from one series: the Routledge Colloquial series. Pictured below is the one I used for Egyptian Arabic.

Best old school language learning tips - Textbooks, Lists, Exercises
Colloquial Arabic of Egypt. A great course in Colloquial Egyptian Arabic.

Here’s why I think textbooks are still great.

Sentences and context rather than words

Firstly, language learning textbooks teach you core sentence structures.

As humans, we’re naturally drawn to things that sound easy and fun. An app might try to make learning like a game, or claim that you can learn without even trying to learn any grammar. Sounds amazing! Tell me about this life hack, please.

But too much fun in learning can be a trap. It works for a week or two, but it gets very hard to guess what’s going on without someone explaining it clearly. That’s what books do: explain how to make sentences.

As a child, you have time and the patience to learn grammar through countless examples. But children take years to learn a language. Adults have the advantage of being able to understand grammar concepts, which is an advantage that adults have in language learning.

Everyday concepts like possessives (my book), word order (I put the book on the table), basic conjugation (eateatsateeating), basic pronouns (thisthatitthe one) and what I call “connecting words” (by the wayabove allfirstly) are best taught by books.

You can’t learn a word without any context. That’s why, for example, I love the books I recommend for Arabic; they have so many example sentences it’s ridiculous.

Exercises for drills and practise

The second thing I love about textbooks is the exercises.

Too often, when we read books, we just look over the paragraph and think “Yeah yeah I get it.” And move on, at our peril.

Later, when trying to recall a concept or word, all we know is that argh, I learned this. But did you? You just looked over a paragraph. To really learn something, you have to practise it immediately, then once more the next day, then once more the next week. (That’s a brief summary of “spaced repetition”).

Do the exercises at the end of every chapter and you’ll be shocked at how much you already didn’t know. Do it again a week later and you’re done.

Sample sentences and audio-based learning

You need sample sentences to understand how to use any word.

Let me tell you three words in French: manger means “to eat”, vouloir means “to want” and pomme means “apple”.

If I told you that ten times, you might think you know a few words of French. But frustratingly,  if that’s all you know, you still wouldn’t be able to pronounce the words, make a sentence or understand someone else saying it.

Books in the McGraw-Hill and Routledge series come with resources online (previously CDs; far before that, but not before my time, audio tapes). Many other books do too. Get the audio and listen to it religiously in many ways, both to follow along with text, to memorise pronunciation and later, to listen to it to test yourself.

Discover Discomfort - Learn Arabic with Textbooks - Audio tape
This is a “Cassette”.

Step 2: Memorise Words and Sentences Methodically

There’s no way around just having to do a bunch of memorisation.

There are just words and phrases in any language you need to learn to exist in daily life, that you don’t really need to invest in flashcards for. Things like

  • Numbers: for money, counting, clothing sizes
  • Everyday places: bank, post office, airport, hotel, restaurant, market
  • Colours: “Do you have this in black?”
  • Locations of things: next to, nearby, under, past
  • Greetings and exclamations: “Hello, and watch out!”
  • Times: now, 7pm, tomorrow. “What time do you open tomorrow? Oh, some unintelligible number?
  • Foods: Kebab, apple, milk, sandwich, bottle, “Can I have some kebab and a bottle of water?” (this may be all you need to learn)

(Here’s the starter list of ~700 words, if you want an idea of core essentials. My basic list is around 2000 words for conversational fluency, though.)

If these sound like the chapters of a textbook, it’s not a coincidence! There’s a reason so many introductory books have these as chapters.

Some people like to use paper flashcards or an app like Anki. I’d encourage you to use Anki. This is the second thing we do, but it takes a bit of setup. It’s free, it works and everyone uses it.

But before Anki, I use a Google Sheet to organise words and phrases I want to learn.

I just have three columns:

  • The word or phrase I’m trying to learn, and a sample sentence
  • The sample sentence in English

I used to look at “category” and “status” like in the screenshot below. But these days, just the sample sentences are the most important thing. Learn words in concept.

Using Google Sheets for language learning
Don’t look too closely. I can see mistakes. I’m still learning!

Beware of making too many columns, like one for foreign letters, separate columns for sample sentences, etc. It can quickly become a task in database administration.

I also normally only use this method in the early stages, and don’t use it for things like learning the spelling of words, or characters in another language. I find other systems better for that, like writing.

I then just go through the list every day, focusing on words I need to review, starting from the top.

Pretty soon, when I identify sentences that are challenging or that I need to repeat a lot, I export lists like this into Anki and often just work straight from Anki, where I can also add audio to my flashcards.

Step 3: Make and Do Your Own Exercises in Speaking and Listening

This part is mandatory. You have to make and do your own exercises. Exercises in textbooks help, but you have to do your own work to be more natural, and talk about things relevant to you, with vocabulary you need to describe your own life

Listening: Actively listen to things you enjoy

Find a style of listening you like — preferably colloquial, like talk shows, interviews or TV shows. Listen to it, but don’t just listen passively; listen actively. Look for those words and constructs you’re learning and make sure it’s entering your head.

We like to watch dramas on television, because they suck you in and keep you watching. I like to listen to the news in French, with the bonus that they come in simplified form (like “Les Nouvelles en Francais Facile” — which, in my opinion, is the only level you need to attain for the news, to discuss it colloquially). That comes in podcast format. In the past, I also enjoyed the radio, but I’m not sure that exists any more.

Remember: Listen actively. Pause and rewind sometimes. Repeat phrases out loud. You don’t need to go as far as taking notes, though — that will make it too much of a chore.

Speaking: Practise saying things you need to say, recording yourself

Every time we open our mouths to speak we think… damn it, I should really know how to say this by now! Things like

  • Who we are, where we’re from and what we’re doing in life (how do I say “I work or myself”, and “originally from blah blah”?)
  • Why we’re learning such-and-such language (how do I say “colloquial” and “communicate”?)
  • If we’ve ever tried cooking local food (argh how do I say “frying pan”, “microwave” and “vegetables”?)

Yes, exercises in textbooks get you part of the way, teaching you how to say things like “I work as a ___” or “I have been in ____ for [____ period of time]”. But you need to fill in the blanks.

If a situation happens a couple of times, make a note of it, then go back and write a paragraph for yourself. Look up the words.

Then, this is the fun part: read it out loud 2-3 times, until it sounds natural. Record it into a note-taking app and then you can even send it to your teacher. They’ll correct your pronunciation and words.

The next time you have that conversation you’ll be surprised how much easier it becomes.

Or you can just play the recording. That way, you’ll only need to memorise how to say “Here’s something I prepared earlier…”

Wrap up

Our language learning methods are always evolving as we add more languages to our portfolio as we travel. But as time goes on, we still focus on audio-first language learning of only the important things, and always in context.

Using books lets us do that, as we can skip around, learn concepts, and use the audio. But spaced repetition is just as important, as is

If there’s something else you do that you think is super effective, leave a comment or send us a note. We’re always on the lookout.

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Eric C
Eric C
4 years ago

Thanks for writing this. I’ve gone down the app road and discovered the unproductivity of it all. Wish I’d read this earlier. Thanks!

Hamza K
Hamza K
3 years ago

Nice article, I enjoyed reading it. Although I would make one point. I hope you replace this sentence – “Muhammad is the one true prophet and Arabic was his language”. Islam openly regards itself as part/continuation of the Judeo-christian religions. The sentence misleads readers as to what Muslims believe and might cause non-muslims to feel like we disregard their religion. Please change it.