Beginner language materials are boring, you don’t need to rely on them

I will preface all of this with the caveat that this is the advice I have found useful for myself and my own learning style – you may find the beginner materials much more rewarding than I do, especially at the very beginning, and I don’t want to discourage you if that is the case! For me, though, especially in my more recent languages, I have relied on them less and less. OK, on with the show…

As an absolute beginner in a language it can be very frustrating to discover that the majority of learning materials directed at you are either boring, or are games (which, in general, I find pretty boring). The moments of excitement that come with understanding somebody speaking naturally, even when you are only catching a few words, are difficult to find when you are relying on one lesson format or another. If you are learning your first second language, it is not necessarily obvious to you that Duolingo, textbooks, and videos/podcasts for absolute beginners (often children) aren’t THE ways of doing things.

They aren’t, though. I have given some suggestions for language learning methods and resources here, but the key is to know that, especially with new technologies, you don’t have to be using material that feels boring and/or childish. You’re learning a language! You want to understand what people are saying! You don’t necessarily want to be learning rules or passing tests.

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When I started learning Hindi and when I started learning Russian I didn’t have textbooks in those languages, and I certainly didn’t have Duolingo. Mostly I watched movies and looked up things on the school computers when I was stuck or curious. I bought some textbooks later, and as reference materials they were extremely helpful, and saved me printer money, but they have never formed the basis of my learning. To be clear, I am definitely not saying that these resources are bad or aren’t useful, but if you want to enjoy language learning and feel like you are really understanding native speakers, even as an absolute beginner it is good to base your learning around immersion. That means listening to and reading interesting materials in your target language – with subtitles or translations first, and perhaps later without (more on how to do this later). Textbooks and google searches are valuable support for that – I’m sure it would have taken me a while to work out the differences between gender and case endings without them and that is obviously an important piece of information – but hearing them used by native speakers in a context not aimed at me was what really helped me to learn.

My Hindi textbook was useful for me in part because I actually really enjoyed the content on offer. It had a story that had an arc across the whole book, and because of that I was motivated to learn the grammatical points that supported the context. Without the fun of interesting content I wouldn’t learn. I would go so far as to describe the textbook as a valuable support to my learning. That is all a textbook can be, and probably all it is trying to be, but as a beginner it can seem like it is the language itself, the test to be passed before you’re allowed to do the fun bits. Interspersing your exposure to a language with grammar study can be great, but just studying grammar rarely is.

It is through the fun of so many movies, TV shows, websites and podcasts that I have learnt most of my vocabulary. They are also how I learnt how to actually care about and use the grammatical points, which I occasionally look up when the content has made me curious. Recognising and imitating a flow of words is, for me, a far more effective way of deepening my use of grammatical constructs than actively trying to learn and remember them. And interesting videos and texts are available to you as a beginner, you don’t need to wait until you have passed a certain number of tests. If you are lost in a piece of audio, just recognising the patterns of sounds and slowly starting to match them with subtitles, then great! You are doing it, and besides, the show is good!

Finding interesting (and useful) content

It seems as though there is rarely an opportunity, as a beginner, to feel as though you are engaging with the interests and materials of native speakers, which is very likely what motivated you to start learning in the first place. But there are ways, and those ways are getting better! I have written about beginner methods in more detail here, but the relevant points are below

  • Videos – if you are an absolute beginner (or if you aren’t) videos with subtitles are a great way to go. Listen, pay attention, see what you can learn. Then, if you enjoyed something, watch it again – and again, and again. The key is to enjoy yourself, so if you don’t like this repetition – which I’m not suggesting you have to do all in a row -you can skip it. However, I have found it very useful for really starting to hear through the blur of fast dialogue and thick plot. If you are inclined to, repeat the things you really enjoy – perhaps, when you are ready and know the video well, repeat without subtitles.
  • Reading – with LingQ or the opensource but slightly clunkier equivalent Learning With Texts. If reading material is more up your street, LingQ and LWT provide audio for each word through Google Translate. LingQ also has separate recordings for a lot of its user-provided materials, many of which are transcribed podcasts and news broadcasts. If you find your own material for LingQ (and I think that is where the fun comes) you can upload associated audio. There are also, significantly, translations for each word to help you through a piece even as an absolute beginner. When you have learnt each word you can mark it as known, until then you can select a word to see translations. I learnt the Russian alphabet using LingQ by playing each word of a book aloud until I knew all the letters. If you use my referral link to LingQ you get some free LingQs (words you mark as recognised) as a referral benefit, and I get a small commission if you upgrade. I have found this site, especially with texts displayed in classic mode, so much easier to operate than LWT that I have been very happy recommending it above LWT on this site even before I discovered the referral benefits. It really has been the bedrock of my Russian study, more than any other resource – though shout out to masterrussian.com for having the answers to the questions I came up with while reading. The major advantage that LWT has is the greater range of languages available – usually if you can find them on Google Translate, you can find them on LWT.
  • Podcasts – I will throw in a quick note in favour of a type of podcast that I find too difficult to find, but is perfect for me as a beginner who doesn’t want to explicitly learn grammar or repeat every syllable slowly. That is, I love podcasts that take sentences on a theme and say them once in English (or your best language) and twice in your target language, as they are neither patronising nor needlessly slow. They provide a good opportunity to hear how related words work in context. Certainly check out the other podcast offerings for your language, though – you might not be as impatient as me and sometimes you have to commute!

Especially when you have subtitles and/or translation software, you don’t need to restrict yourself to reading/watching/listening to material that is at or only a little above your level – you absolutely can if you feel you are getting something out of it, but I habitually work with (enjoy) content that is significantly above my own level because it is what is interesting to me. As I have said, I didn’t know the alphabet when I started reading a book in Russian. I tend to avoid particularly descriptive texts with vocabulary that I will rarely use, but that is a personal preference – again, do what feels best for you! If you have subtitles, LingQ, or LWT to support you you should be able to make your way through difficult material anyway, and have a good time along the way. When you find the material that is really interesting, it is valuable even if it is hard.

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