A language textbook is a handy source of study material, which is why nearly every language course on the planet uses textbooks for maintaining structure throughout the lessons.
But it’s damn hard to find a textbook that lets you learn the language with maximum efficiency. Moreover, if you’re learning a rare language that doesn’t have a wide selection of textbooks to choose from, it’s even less likely that you will find optimized books.
What I mean by efficient textbooks is that the creators have put genuine thought into the design and scope of the textbook. Poorly designed textbooks teach you how to use pointless phrases like “Sir, is this your wristwatch?” or “I seem to have an eye infection. Could you please give me the directions to the ophthalmologist?”
I think there’s a misconception in the textbook business, or in the language learning department itself, that people tend to think that they should first learn the things that concern safety and well-being. How to find the doctor, how to describe your symptoms, how to order food, etc.
In reality, though, these kinds of phrases are not typically used in daily conversations. In fact, I’ve never had the need to see a doctor while traveling. Besides, you’d probably be better off speaking basic English rather than causing fatal misunderstandings in the ER.
And as a beginner, you should focus on learning how to use common words to construct descriptive phrases.
You might want to learn some of the more commonly used phrases, such as “I am ___,” “Where is ___?” and “I’d like to ___,” to start expressing yourself dynamically—without always relying on fixed phrases. When you find yourself lost and unable to find an expression for a given situation, you won’t have the flexibility to describe your thoughts in your own words. Self-constructed phrases are not going to be as concise and grammatically correct as textbook phrases, but you’re training yourself to SPEAK the language rather than reciting pre-constructed expressions that you’ve merely memorized.
The above phrases are useful because they can be transformed into other useful expressions just by changing the key words.
Here’s a great list of commonly used English phrases translated into several languages.
Pros and Cons
Now that we understand why textbooks aren’t always the most efficient way to start learning a language, I’d like to talk about creating your own customized textbooks.
Having your own textbook comes with advantages as well as disadvantages. I’ll list down a few of them:
- The words and expressions will be tailored to suit YOUR own needs.
- Reduce clutter. You don’t waste time on useless topics.
- You can keep track of your progress.
- Your textbook serves as a reference of everything you’ve learned so far. Whenever you forget something, you can look it up easily.
- You are learning as you’re writing the textbook.
- It’s free.
- You need to create the content yourself. You have to look for the material.
- You are in charge of keeping it organized.
- Your textbook won’t be 100% error-free (unless you hire a proofreader).
You must be thinking that having a textbook with errors would defeat the purpose of efficient learning. Let’s face it, it would be awesome if every textbook on Earth was error-free.
Sadly, this is not the case. As we know, commercial textbooks come with errors and misprints. My Chinese textbook has mistakes in it. And your textbooks will have them too. But that’s a good impetus for us to work even harder.
Have you ever seen newbies that spoke perfectly? Everyone makes mistakes even if their textbooks are 100% error-free. But as long as you are honest with yourself and accept that you’re human and prone to making mistakes, you will learn from them.
I’ve been studying Mandarin Chinese on my own for the past 8 months or so, and I know that I make mistakes all the time. But I’ve learned a lot during these 8 months. If I compare my current self to the one 8 months ago, I’m completely different. I still make mistakes, but I’ve come a f***ing long way.
Where to Gather the Materials
Your textbook will always be a work in progress. You will add more content as you find it, so don’t worry about populating your pages too quickly.
And don’t make the mistake of deliberately looking for content just to fill the textbook. You’ll only want to include things that are truly useful to YOU, and eliminate what’s nonessential.
Use a variety of different sources to study your language. I personally like to use YouTube and TV shows for learning natural Chinese. I also use Google extensively to look up certain expressions and their English equivalents that have been asked and answered by native speakers (it works surprisingly well). You can also take a look at my post on how I’m currently studying Mandarin Chinese for some tips.
So whenever I learn something new, I just store it in my textbook. You can see a couple of examples later in this post.
Style and Format
When it comes to formatting your textbook, simple tends to work best.
My Mandarin Chinese textbook follows a very simple format: 1 block per entry, 3 lines per block for Chinese, pinyin, and English.
Yours might be different. The important thing to remember is readability. You’ll want your textbook to be easily accessible. Keep it organized so that you can quickly find the entries you’re looking for and add new ones.
If you want to include images, do so, but I personally haven’t found them necessary because I’ve made the translations and explanations descriptive enough for myself. As long as you get the right meaning, you’re fine.
Here’s an excerpt from my Mandarin Chinese textbook:
get; obtain; attain
Nǐ zuì xiǎng dé dào shén me?
What do you want to get the most?
shì shí shàng
in fact; actually; as a matter of fact
___ jié shù le.
___ is over.
Lǚ xíng jié shù le.
The trip is over.
Dìng yuè wǒ de YouTube pín dào.
Subscribe to my YouTube channel.
Textbooks can grow extremely fast—mine is currently a 135-page long OpenOffice document. This is why you should consider organizing it into appropriate sections. The ultimate option probably would be to have an application to handle all the data, so that you could just focus on viewing and adding content and let the application handle the organization.
As your textbook grows, you’ll also have to deal with duplicate entries. But sometimes it’s beneficial to keep duplicates even though it might seem redundant. If you’re dealing with the exact same word or phrase accompanied by the exact same definition, description, etc., by all means delete the duplicate(s). But if the entries are different from each other—that is, if they use varying examples or describe nuances—it’s worth keeping both entries, or merging them if appropriate.
Sharing Is Caring
Consider publishing your textbook for free. Many people would appreciate your generous contribution. I’m also planning to publish my Mandarin Chinese textbook, but it needs to be properly organized before I can offer it to the public…