The challenge that most of us often face when buying books or resources to learn a foreign language is not that there isn’t enough available.
The problem is that there’s so much out there that it can be tough to decide what’s good and what isn’t.
And a lot of it is frankly rubbish.
There’s actually very little innovation too when it comes to language learning products.
Most of it’s a reinvention of the wheel so to speak; the same content or same approach packaged up and presented a little differently.
This is why I’m always happy to endorse products like Earworms MBT and Glossika a lot on this site – they’re both good examples of ‘thinking outside the box’ and presenting something entirely innovative and backed up by sound research.
But putting solely innovative approaches aside, how do you actually tell if something’s worth your time and money?
Here are 7 questions that you should always ask yourself before you go ahead and purchase anything for learning another language:
1. Are you paying for a brand name?
This holds true for anything you buy – make sure you’re getting your money’s worth and not just paying a lot for a well-known brand.
Rosetta Stone for example is a household brand and because of how well it’s known they can continue to keep a high price tag on it because people trust/assume that it’s the be-all and end-all of language learning.
It’s not necessarily a bad product but just very overpriced for what it is.
Never assume that a high price tag reflects the quality of the product.
2. Are there several dialects of this language and if so, which one is this book, program or audio series in?
Usually a product will say from the outset what the various dialects are and which one it uses but it’s worth doing a bit of research to see if it suits your needs.
Good products will go a step further and include dialect varieties but this isn’t always possible.
If you’re heading to a particular country or region, make sure the product will equip you with a dialect that will enable you to communicate with local people in their local dialect.
3. Does it make an exaggerated promise?
Does it claim to be able to teach or help you learn a language in a few days, weeks or months?
Does it promise fast fluency or use gimmicky words like ‘master’?
Anything promising you a way to ‘get fluent quickly’ is no different to a TV commercial promising you six-pack abs or pyramid marketers telling you how to make 6 figure salaries from home overnight.
I can understand the temptation for businesses to make claims like this in getting people’s attention but the truth is it’s an outright lie.
Yes, a lie.
Languages take time and hard work and even the most diligent, focused individual is not exempt from this fact.
4. Is the audio spoken by native speakers?
Whether it’s a book, CD or software package it should come with dialogues for you to listen to and repeat.
Make sure you find out if it’s spoken by native speakers.
Some products aren’t (e.g. Michel Thomas) and this is an instant deal-breaker for me personally. I would never purchase something that was recorded by anyone who isn’t a native speaker, no matter how good they are (the same reason I won’t take lessons from non-natives).
If it’s not stated on the product then you might have to do a bit of research to find out.
5. Is the text transliterated or in the original script or both?
This is important for languages that don’t use a Latin alphabet.
Ensure that the text includes both the original script and a transliteration.
Although it might help with your pronunciation in the early stages, you’re not going to improve reading the alphabet if it’s all transliterated into English letters for you.
If it has an alphabet, learn it!
With the exception of languages that use characters (e.g. Chinese), you really have no excuse for not spending a couple of days to learn the alphabet properly.
6. Does the material provide useful, relevant dialogue?
Stuff that you actually need and use.
Most products go through the usual standard topics such as introductions, directions, airport/hotel, ordering in a restaurant, etc. but you should always make sure it’s got plenty of relevant material for you to use.
I never work through books from start to finish myself – I always go through and find what I know I need personally.
It’s your job to go through a book and make sure it has all the expressions and vocab that are most relevant to you and your situation.
7. Is there a freely available online alternative?
This is a really important piece of advice.
Most expensive language products are actually unnecessary unless you’re learning a language with limited resources.
Check the content of the book, software package or audio series you’re thinking about buying and then do a search online.
For a lot of languages you’ll find the content is already freely or cheaply available.
Only pay for it if it offers you something you can’t find elsewhere for nothing.
What would you add to this list?