Learn Languages Faster with Books, not Apps

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Learn Languages with Books but not Apps
Learn Languages with Books, not Apps

Our favourite way 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.

Why not Apps? The Unproductivity Trap

We constantly try new apps and learning methods. Some of them are cool. But the allure wears off for most after a few weeks. They work best when they replicate one part of the teaching process, like conveying a textbook’s instruction or helping with memorisation.

General caveat is that the one app we say is mandatory for language learning is Anki. You need to learn words, and you need to learn them forever, and Anki is the best out there. Here are our tips for language learning with Anki if you’re unconvinced.

In the beginning, every app is great. You go from zero to ten really fast learning new words and phrases at blistering speed thanks to their innovative methodology, engaging interface and intelligent algorithms. They’re a great way to learn a new alphabet. Then you start to learn basic phrases, like greetings and simple declarations (“The shark is big!” is one I remember learning very early in Duolingo Italian).

But you quickly hit an inflection point where any language-learning app stops being as useful as it was in the beginning. It might fail to explain a grammar concept clearly, assuming you’ll pick it up through their teaching method. It might teach you words you’ll never need, like how to give detailed directions (everyone knows that 90% of the directions you’ll ever give or receive are “sorry I don’t know” or “I think it’s that way”). It might drill you constantly on something you know, not letting you skip it or say “this is boring and unnecessary to my life”. Or maybe you’ll learn something that a friend tells you is not quite right, like when I found out I was learning too formal a tone of Korean. Then you begin to question everything in the app.

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!

There’s a dark side to gamified learning: 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.

Because 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. The rest of our day is filled with planning, socialising, resting, exercise, eating and menial tasks. If we have 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 Language Learning Textbooks

The best way to start any language learning process from scratch is with a book (or excellent online course, structured like a book) to teach yourself the basics.

I don’t mean books instilling into you pages and pages of useless grammar tips. Nobody cares about the subjunctive. Nobody needs to learn to say “Since Deng Xiaopings’s Open Up and Reform initiative, China’s economy is ever more developed” or “Muhammad is the one true prophet and Arabic was his language” as their first sentence, which was the first example sentence in one textbook I used (and not representative of many Muslims’ beliefs).

No, the best language learning books come from one series: the Routledge Colloquial series. Pictured below is the one I’m using 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.

Reason 1 textbooks are great: They teach you core sentence structures

The most important thing a textbook does, in my opinion, is 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.

“The hardest thing to learn in any language,” my brother once told me while studying German, “is saying everyday annoying things that happen like ‘Argh! my pen fell off the table and rolled under my chair and now I can’t reach it!’” Try saying that sentence in a language you know already. It’s not easy.

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.

Reason 2 textbooks are great for language learning: Exercises

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.

Reason 3 textbooks are great: Sample sentences and audio

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 with Flashcards and Lists

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 definitely the second thing we do, but it takes a bit of setup. It’s free, it works and everyone uses it.

But personally, I’m a huge fan of just an organised list in Google Sheets of words as a starting point.

I just have three columns:

  • The word 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 is the most important thing. Learn words in concept.

Discover Discomfort - Tools for learning languages - Google Sheets
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, I export lists like this into Anki and often just work straight from Anki.

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. Jo likes the news in French, with the added 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 handy podcast format. In the past I also enjoyed the radio, but I’m not actually 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 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…”

(By the way, oddly, Android doesn’t come with a default convenient voice recorder! I got a free and ad-free one called Easy Voice Recorder.)

Got another old-school language-learning tip?

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
3 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
2 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.