Language Learning: Foreign Language Books of all Shapes and Sizes

If you are a visual person, language books can be the best approach to beginning your language studies. Whenever I listen to audio programs I wonder if I really am pronouncing a word correctly or if I misunderstood what the native speaker said. I need to have that visual reference to see how a word is spelled and how a sentence is being put together.

Walk into any bookstore and you are surrounded with language book options. Every publisher seems to have at least one, if not more. But where do you begin?

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • What are you hoping to learn?
  • Do you want to be able to speak, read and write the language?
  • Do you want to be able to hit the road with a few key phrases you can build on?
  • Are you looking for vocabulary drills?
  • Can you stick with a straightforward program or do you need a course that mixes it up a bit with their learning techniques?
  • Do you want an audio accompaniment to your text-book learning

My shelves hold more language books and CDs than I probably need. Most of them are Spanish, but we have an Italian course book I used to prepare for our trip to Italy.

To give you an idea of what is out there I’ve pulled two books off of my shelf to review.

Italian Now! Level 1

  • Publisher: Barron’s
  • Published date: 2005
  • CD included? No
  • Why I have it? I bought this book when Mike and I first started talking about going to Italy back in 2007. I had already been working through the Spanish Level 2 text so I was familiar with the series.
  • Structure: Each part of the book highlights a particular aspect of the language, from basic skills (greetings, numbers, etc.) to interacting with people and getting around in your daily life. These parts are broken down into easy to absorb chapters, or as they call them “Units.”

    The book keeps you engaged by starting off with a written conversation followed by a vocabulary list. You may then be asked to translate a few sentences, answer if a statement is true or false, or do a crossword puzzle. You will then end with a cultural note; greeting someone in Italy with a handshake or a kiss on the cheek, holidays and Italian coffee.

    Each of the six parts of the course ends with a review of the 5 units included. At the very end of the course you will find a section on irregular verbs, a glossary and the answer key.

  • Pros: The short activities in each unit make learning the language fun. You aren’t just drilling vocabulary into your head over and over again. The activities reinforce the dialog you learned at the beginning of the unit, while building on what you learned in past sections. It was easy to grab key phrases for flashcards so we could study at the dinner table with Dek too.
  • Cons: The book is very big. Think college textbook heavy. You also need to follow the program in order to learn. You can grab a few quick phrases, but you will be taught so much more if you go straight through the book, which will require time at the table doing your homework.

Spanish for Dummies 2nd Edition

  • Publisher: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Published date: 2011
  • CD included? Yes
  • Why I have it? This is the newest book on my shelf. I generally do not grab books from the Dummies series, but when the opportunity came up to review one I decided to finally dive in. Like most books in this series, it is aimed at people looking for an easy introduction to the Spanish language.
  • Structure: This program was developed along side the popular language publisher Berlitz. The book is meant to help travelers pick up a few key words and phrases for their next adventure, or to simply learn how to say hello to your new neighbor.

    It will not make you fluent in Spanish, but the authors are very upfront about that. It does not focus heavily on reading and writing as it assumes you are just looking to be able to speak the language not draft a letter to parliament.

Chapters are chock full of vocabulary to cram into your head. Very short bits of conversation are in each chapter, but it is not as long or as detailed as other textbooks you might have used in high school. Every now and then a task, like a crossword puzzle, pops up, but this is not a fill in the blank sort of activity book.

My favorite part of the course can be found in Part IV: The Part of Tens. In this section you learn a little more about the culture and what you should and should not say when speaking with a native speaker. Phrases like “Asi no es como lo hacemos en los Estados Unidos” (translation: That’s not how we do it in the United States) can be found in Chapter 19: Ten Things Never to Say in Spanish. It will make you a better traveler, which is never a bad thing.

  • Pros: The book can be read in any order. Chapters do not need to be read chronologically. You can pick and choose what you like. The CD is there to help with your pronunciation so you don’t butcher the language completely when you attempt to say “hola!”
  • Cons: The CD does not include all of the vocabulary in the book, which assumes you are not a “dummy.” There is a good sampling to get you started though.

Each of these books can give the user something unique, but by no means covers the wide range of language learning course books on the market. Find the program that works best for you. You may want to get in and out of the language quickly, which Spanish for Dummies will provide. Or you can take your time and dive deeper into a language through a book like Italian Now!

No matter which route you take you will be learning something new. And that is the best part of all.

NOTE: Special thanks to Wiley & Sons for sending me a review copy of Spanish for Dummies. I was under no obligation to give a favorable review. All opinions are my own. 

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written by Keryn Means

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2 comments

  1. Interesting! I have been going for kindle books and more recently audios and podcasts for on long bus trips. I thin you do miss out somewhat without the visual but we are now at a stage where we HAVE to learn to hear what is being said :)

    • I haven’t tried out Kindle for foreign language books yet. How do you like them? I’ve been checking out loads of audio programs, software and websites though. Will have to dive more into my Kindle too. Found a few useful apps so far.

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