10 Essential Tools For Everyday Language Learners

What's in your language learning toolbox?

My son and daughter have learned to speak Turkish without ever thinking about the learning process and without ever consulting a dictionary, reviewing a flashcard or reading this blog.

And while it hurts my pride to think that my five and seven year olds are not avid readers of  The Everyday Language Learner, their learning Turkish without a single resource outside of their native speaking friends highlights the fact that there is little that we actually need to learn another language.

As adult learners though, we have cognitive abilities beyond those of children.  We can create systems to discover, classify, and review new concepts.  We have better long term memory.  And where kids are dependent on the cruel hand of chance for receiving comprehensible input, adults have the ability to be intentional about finding and exposing ourselves to high quality language learning opportunities.

I believe that if I as an adults were to have received as much input as my kids did – six hours a day, five days a week at pre-school – and if I were to have lived with the same lack of concern for what others think about me as my kids did – I would have learned Turkish much faster than they.  As it is, while I know a lot more Turkish words and expressions than either of them at this point, they speak it much better than I.

While we are all still working on figuring out how not to care what others think about us as we learn the language – something second language acquisition people call the “affective filter”, we can do more to affect both the quality and the quantity of the language we are hearing, reading and seeing.  As adults then we have the ability to take control of our learning and the input we receive in ways that kids do not.

In today’s post then I want to introduce you to ten essential tools for the independent language learner. These are the tools and resources that have helped me maximize my language learning and are the ten things I would encourage all language learners to obtain as they begin to learn another language.  There are other great online resources as well, but in this list I’ll be focusing on those things which you’ll need to either find or purchase.

My kids prove that you don’t need anything on this list save for a native speaking friend, but as adults with the ability to take control of our learning, these resources can help us do just that.

1.  Pocket Dictionary

In today’s Internet age and instant access to online dictionaries, it may seem strange to put the ubiquitous pocket dictionary at the top of the list.  But the pocket dictionary is important for what it does for you as well as what it represents.

A pocket dictionary allows you to navigate your new language out in the community.  It gives you access to concepts and conversations in the flip of a few pages and goes with you as a good friend who has your back where ever you might venture.  It also gives native speakers a tool to help you and you’ll often find your trusty pocket dictionary being taken from your hands and then being thrust back, a pointing finger indicating a word your native speaking friend wants you to know.

Your pocket dictionary is also important for what it represents.  We learn a new language so we can speak it with people and the pocket dictionary is all about being with and speaking with people, real people.  Every time you see your pocket dictionary you should remember this, remember, and then get out and begin interacting with native speakers.

2.  Pocket Phrasebook

Where the pocket dictionary opens up new words to language learners, the phrasebook opens up whole new opportunities.  A good phrase book will give you instant inroads into the culture so that you can quickly begin the adventure of  exploring the country.  A good phrase book is also a great sampling of the language and can be a springboard for further learning.  It is unfortunate that most phrasebooks lack the phrases necessary to unlock the language.  They will help you order a beer and help you find the toilet, but none that I know of help you access more language.  A brief section of password phrases would be a welcome addition to the language phrasebooks that are out there.

(learn more about password phrases)

3.  Notebooks

One of the most important jobs of a language learner is to capture new material so that it can be reviewed and retained.  A small pocket sized notebook is a must then for language learners.  Carry this with you at all times so that you can write down anything that you do not know or understand that you should know.  These entries then can become to focus of study time and the topic of discussion with native speakers.  (See Write it Down)

I also think that writing regularly in the language is an important part of a maximized language learning program and so a larger notebook is also an essential tool.  I wrote extensively right away in Turkish and also see a notebook filled with your ‘journals’ in the language can be an great assessment tool and a real encouragement.  (For more information read Yuki’s Story and Five Reasons You Should Write)

Finally, I always had a third notebook that I used exclusively for planning my lessons and my own personal language learning program as an independent language learner.  By planning, I found that I used my time more effectively.  Having recorded my plans, I was also able to look back and review what I was doing and in the process, figure out what worked best for me.

4.  ipod

Whether it be an ipod or any other mp3 device, having the ability to carry hours and hours of listening material is one opportunity you do not want to miss.  I am amazed to remember that even ten years ago most language learners were dealing with cassette players.  Some of you are too young to even remember cassette players, but if you do, you can appreciate the power of the ipod to store in an organized manner thousands of hours of audio.  Listening and listening often is an important part of a maximized language learning program and an mp3 player like the ipod is essential to make this happen.    (get your ipod here)

5.  Digital Recording Device

Today, most mp3 players and smart phones have adequate recording abilities for the everyday language learner.  Listening to audio files that others have created is good, but listening to audio that you have created – with the help of a native speaker – is the best.  Making your own recordings will give you the very best chance to create comprehensible input.  You can record answers to grand tour questions, create handcrafted audio with your own writing and can record all the password phrases you can think of.

6.  Introductory Book

Another essential resource is an introductory book to the language.  My favorite is the Teach Yourself Series.  A good book will explain the basics of grammar, offer insights into the culture and introduce important phrases and expressions used by native speakers.  It should also have exercises you can work through and a good glossary of terms for easy reference.

(Here’s my review of the Teach Yourself Series)

7.  Reading Material

Reading is an important part of learning another language.  Reading extensively allows the learner to take in large amounts of the language at your own rate and on your own time.  It is important then to find high quality reading material in the target language that will help you be a more effective language learner.  In order to better know how to find and use reading material, take a look at  4 Considerations for Choosing a Great Book for Language Learning and 9 Ideas for Finding Target Language Reading Material.

8.  Assessment Tool

One of the great difficulties independent language learners face is in knowing how they are doing.  In the classroom, a teacher assesses progress and helps students know what they are doing well at and where they need improvement.  The ability to know how you are doing does much to help you to create a focused plan for your learning and helps sustain motivation.  As an independent language learner of Turkish, I was frustrated to no end wondering if what I was doing was working and if I was really progressing as quickly as I could.  I used a lot of different resources – the ACTFL and CEFR are both great self assessment tools to get started with.  In the end though I wanted something more and so I created a more robust tool  I call The EDLL Guide to Self-Assessment.

9.  Training

While learning another language is not rocket science, it is something that as adults, most of us have never done before.  Getting some training is an essential part of creating a more effective and efficient language learning journey.  Abraham Lincoln said, Given six hours to cut down a tree, I’d spend the first four sharpening my axe.  Getting some training then is a lot like sharpening the axe.

This could be done by simply subscribing to this blog and reading along as I do my best to empower and encourage independent language learners.  Check out other great language blogs as well.

You could sign up for my free Ten Week Journey course that was designed to give both teaching and tools for learners as they get started learning the target language.  There are other great programs as well.  Check out Multilingual Living’s new Challenge 180.

Or you could read a book like The Whole World Guide to Language Learning, How To Be a More Scucessful Language Learner or The Everyday Language Learners Guide to Getting Started First Class Edition which is a comprehensive package of ebooks, interviews, audio lessons and worksheets designed to give you a firm foundation in independent, self-directed language learning.

(Read Reviews of the EDLL Guide to Getting Started at Mezzofanti Guild, Lingua Trek or Polyglottaly)

Finally, if you want a more personal training experience, you could find a specialized program focusing on preparing learners for community based, independent language learning or you could consider finding a language coach.

10.  Native Speaking Friends

I want to be clear here that I do not in any way see native speaking friends as a “tool” for language learning.  They are the reason for learning language, not a means to an end and I want to caution all learners to take care not to ‘use’ people to reach your goals.  One of the concerns I have with most language exchange programs is that the focus is too often on learning the language and not on building relationships.

That said, if we are serious about learning another language we need to have friendships with native speakers.  They will be an important resource, will be someone with whom we can practice regularly and will help us sustain motivation when the road gets tough.  But if we approach this with the right attitude and the right focus, all of these things will help our friendship become deeper and more intimate and lead to a lifetime of great memories.

Are There More?

Are there more things that we could call essential for the everyday language learner’s tool box?  Certainly there could be and there could also be fewer than I have listed above.  Each person will have their own list.  You need to take a look at your situation, your learning style and personality and at the goals you have for learning the language and decide what is best for you.

And of course I would love to hear from you in the comments below so that we can all learn from one another.  Tell us about your list of essential language learning tools and resources.

Disclaimer:  Some of the above links are affiliate links.  I’ve used them all though and am excited to recomend them to you.


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7 Responses to 10 Essential Tools For Everyday Language Learners
  1. wteccom
    March 21, 2012 | 6:33 pm

    With an ipod touch and apps like spanishdict or wordmagic (these are for Spanish and don’t require web access) you don’t have to carry around a book. The ipod touch also has all my Spanish podcastes and audiobooks.  When I learned German 30 years ago I always had a dictionary in my pocket or purse.  These apps also make it possible to check any verb that you are unsure of.  I still see students carrying 501 Spanish verbs.  That is serious weight. Now I only carry the spanish novel I am reading.  (There is not a great collection of ebooks in spanish.) 

    • aarongmyers
      March 22, 2012 | 5:41 am

       @wteccom Yes, as language learners we live in a new day and age and the weight/bulkiness issue is one of the biggest advantages.  Reading through those who wrote about the process of language learning 20 years ago is always interesting as they are talking about their ‘tape recorders’ and boxes of cassett tapes.  The power of technology is really amazing when considering what those who went before us did to make recordings and listen to audio.

  2. mikenewt
    March 24, 2012 | 4:32 am

    Great post Aaron! I’ve been struggling lately with getting my language learning schedule established (something I’ve never done properly) and so I naturally turned to EDLL for some inspiration and expertise.
    I have easy access too all ten tools included in this post but I still can’t get anything to stick. I have the resources and I have the motivation but there’s something lacking: accountability. I have no one to hold me accountable for reaching target goals in my language development. My own personal form of accountability usually means I set some goals, miss them, and whip myself mentally about it for a while. Rinse and repeat.
    Do you think accountability is an important part of learning a foreign language? If so, who do you have to hold you accountable in your own life? How would you recommend that others get accountability in their own lives?
    Thanks again Aaron. You know I love me some EDLL.

    • aarongmyers
      March 24, 2012 | 9:19 pm

       @mikenewt Thanks for the comment Mike. Hope you are doing well!  Accountability – I think it depends on the personality of the learner.  Some of us (not me) are nose to the grindstone sorts of foks who can just keep at it no matter where the emotions are.  Others love language learning so much that they can hardly sleep because they are so excited to get back at it (again not me).  Others however – the everyday language learners among us – will do well to add accountabiltiy to the mix (that’s me).  It could be in the form of a friend.  It could be in writing a blog and recording what we are doing. It could be in finding a mentor or language learning coach.   For me I think it is my wife and I holding one another accountable and pushing one another.  Whoever it is, it is good to find someone – perhaps another language learner who you can agree to email back and forth once a week giving a report on how things have gone and what you’ve done.   Someone who you can be honest with but who will push you.  Those are my thoughts.   Good luck!
      Oh, and I think too that the more robust of a learning environment you can create the better off you will be.  If you only have Chinese on your ipod and Chinese movies in the DVD shelf, then there is no need for accountability for what you will listen to or what you will watch – it’ll just have to be Chinese.

  3. KD0IMH
    March 25, 2012 | 8:40 pm

    My toolbox contains native movies with native subtitles — ie: not English subtitles. Great way to listen to words spoken while seeing what they are, and to get vocab, grammar, and culture all in one fell swoop.  The deaf community has done a decent job of putting up subtitle files for DIVX videos and such (if you pirate movies… which I don’t endorse) but it’s not too terribly hard to find real DVDs that have these, even if you’re not in the country.  In some ways works almost as well as a native language helper.

  4. [...] on your own, working with a language helper one-on-one, or learning as part of a group. See Ten Essential Tools for Everyday Language Learners. EDLL’s latest tool is a free email series called the Ten-week Journey. Check it [...]

  5. Bob
    September 24, 2012 | 12:09 pm

    I have been looking for a lot of these in ebook versions. They are slowly coming out. My dictionary on my phone is the best pocket dictionary. Weightless. :)

    I also keep paper and pen. I used it this weekend to write notes about different ways to say ‘because’. I can review later with my native speaking friend.

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