Buying language textbooks can be intimidating. How do you know you’re getting one with an equal balance of grammar and vocabulary? What if it is too businessy and outdated? What if it’s too difficult? What if you can just find resources online instead?
Here are five simple guidelines you can apply when you’re looking for your next textbook.
1. Establish why you need a textbook
If you’re a complete beginner in the language, getting a textbook is a good start. It helps to have a curriculum to follow, because beginners often feel intimidated and don’t quite know where to begin. If you’re intermediate or advanced in a language, a textbook will only be beneficial to you if it is specialized. Rather than chapters that teach you vocabulary and grammar structures you’re likely to know already, invest in something like a book that improves your writing through essay prompts, or a textbook specifically targeted to advanced or business language usage, if that’s your goal. Perhaps you’d be better suited to something like a bilingual novel instead of a textbook. Write down your language goals and decide what type of textbook will suit your needs best, rather than just blindly purchasing one.
2. Check for audio
You can probably (illegally) get away with downloading a PDF version of a textbook online, but it is unlikely that you’ll find the audio files that go with it. Most well-made textbooks come with a CD in the back. These CDs usually have audio files of the example sentences or vocabulary words. This is extremely important for perfecting your pronunciation. What I like to do with CDs is pop them in my car on the way to work. Even though I don’t have the textbook by my side, I can listen to the example sentences on repeat and really nail the pronunciation, as well as get used to natural grammar.
It’s up to you to decide whether or not you really need audio input. If you’re an intermediate and above learner, you probably have a good idea of how to pronounce new words. I’m still a beginner in Hungarian, and the textbook I use doesn’t have audio input. Luckily, you can work around it by using a website like forvo to look up a word, but having a CD on hand is much easier.
3. Stay away from the following:
Be careful of mass-produced “copy-paste” textbooks (i.e. a language company producing books in multiple languages in the same format. Be wary for books that claim to make you fluent in a certain number of days and weeks as well. I’d also advise against the “for Dummies” series of books – they generally make heavy use of romanization for languages like Japanese and Korean, which isn’t a good start if your aim is fluency.Finally, don’t fall prey to the “1000 most common phrases” books – these are usually overpriced and you can definitely find common phrases online! Don’t waste your money on something you could just Google. My preference for textbooks is textbooks made by companies from the target language’s country. For example, Korean books made by Korean authors, not Korean books manufactured by large international companies.
4. Think about longevity
If you’re at a beginner stage, you tend to progress really quickly in a language. Once you’re intermediate, you might not notice your progress as quickly. Beginner textbooks are the ones that get resold and given away the most, since people work through them so quickly. If you’re able to get a base in the language by using resources online, do so until you feel you need a textbook for more structured lessons. That way, you won’t buy a book, use it for a month and need to throw it away.
Longevity also refers to textbooks that you can go back to and reference. I particularly like the Korean Grammar in Use textbooks because they have grammar structures that I can go back to and refer to if I forget the rules behind using them.
5. But don’t think too much
Use your gut to decide what book is best for you. If you think too much and look up too many options, you’ll be paralyzed and left unable to make a decision. It’s like standing in a shop and seeing 10 kinds of chocolate cereals. It would be much easier to make a choice if there were 3 cereals only, right? In the same way, don’t think too hard. If you see something that just “looks right”, go ahead and buy it! Your heart is telling you so.
All the best with your textbook hunting!