How to find great language-learning materials

03.03.2017 |

Episode #2 of the course How to learn a foreign language by WordBrewery


There are countless language-learning tools and materials available. Today we will explain how to evaluate whether particular materials suit your needs. This step will save you both time and money.

Yesterday we asked you to decide on a language and ask yourself why you want to learn it. Knowing why will help determine what you need to learn. Knowing what you need to learn will help you choose the best materials to reach your goals.



There are many language-learning apps available, though they vary widely in purpose and quality. In addition to our own WordBrewery, which teaches languages through real sentences from the news,worthwhile options include Memrise, Anki, LingQ, and Clozemaster. Memrise and Anki are flashcard-like systems that use spaced-repetition algorithms to help you review vocabulary when you are on the verge of forgetting it, a tactic that strengthens your long-term retention. We like Memrise’s use of crowdsourced mnemonics, and we like Anki’s customizability and unparalleled spaced-repetition algorithm; accordingly, at WordBrewery, we have built an Anki Spanish deck and an export feature so users can study their WordBrewery vocabulary and sentence lists in one of these other programs. 

LingQ, like WordBrewery, allows learners to read and listen to reading materials in context, but uses longer texts and does not focus on high-frequency words. Clozemaster, like WordBrewery, allows learners to study example sentences, but its sentences are crowdsourced from Tatoeba and thus are not necessarily authentic or reliable. Nevertheless, both sites are valuable tools for serious learners.

Other well-known options such as Duolingo provide slow-paced, gamified beginners’ lessons that many learners enjoy. These lessons can provide a decent way to get a basic sense of a language’s structure and grammar. However, the sentences are often inauthentic and unrealistic, and they often introduce beginners to uncommon words rather than focusing on high-frequency words. 

An app-based approach can be more wallet-friendly than a reliance on courses, tutors, or books.We encourage you to try as many websites and apps as possible to discover what works for you.


Books and Audio

Textbooks can be expensive, heavy, and boring. However, they tend to offer valuable and reliable grammar and vocabulary instruction for intensive learners. Many include online audio and video components. On the other hand, textbooks can be heavy and boring. And you should only use a textbook if it is accompanied by audio.

Unless you are taking a class that requires a particular edition of a textbook, there is usually no need to buy the most recent edition. Also, you can find older textbooks in used bookstores for affordable prices.

In addition to traditional textbooks, language learners often use more affordable book-and-audio combinations for self-educators. Such series include Living Language’s Teach Yourself series, Routledge’s Colloquial series, and Hippocrene’s Beginner’s series. This genre of books varies widely in quality, but courses by these publishers as well as McGraw-Hill and Schaum’s tend to be well-done and worth your time and investment. We are less enthusiastic about books and audio courses that make outlandish promises such as Master Thai in One Night or Japanese in 30 Days. Fluency is a lifelong journey, not a one-night or one-month sprint.

But before you invest in new language-learning tools, here are some questions to ask:

• What levels are included? Does the difficulty level match my current skills and goals?

• Does this material teach the vocabulary I want to learn?

• Are the explanations clear?

• Is the material written by native speakers or experts?

• Are audio recordings included?

In addition, at the risk of stating the obvious, not every free online resource is trustworthy or useful. Beware of studying text that is crowdsourced or computer-generated, as it may teach you bad habits. Even some of the most well-known and popular language-learning sites do not teach vocabulary in context, and do not use real example sentences written by and for native speakers.


What about learning to speak the language?

Learning how to speak is often the most intimidating task for learners. The best way to learn to converse in your language is to speak with native speakers as often as possible and about as many topics as possible. Luckily, the internet has made it easier than ever to find conversation partners. You can find them on language forums such as those on Reddit or on dedicated platforms such as italki, HelloTalk, and Meet-Up.

Check in tomorrow to learn how to put all these resources together to create a customized curriculum that builds toward your language goals.


Recommended resources

• Gabriel Wyner, Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It | This may be the best book about language-learning strategy since Barry Farber’s How to Learn Any Language. You should also check out Gabriel’s website, which has many useful resources and blog posts.

• Otto Jespersen, How to Teach a Foreign Language | This 1912 book, though ostensibly aimed at language teachers, is full of useful and contrarian advice for language learners. Jespersen was a Danish linguist famous for his work on English grammar and grammar theory. He also contributed to the development of international auxiliary languages.


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