How to build a language learning toolkit

Language Learning Toolkit

Create an effective library of resources to train your language skills.
It has taken me about 2 years to build my language learning toolkit, and I must admit, I need to stop now. I need to focus on the resources I have, as I’ve found that I’m wasting time trying to find new and better, when really I could just be learning from what I have. But, before I can settle with my toolkit I feel the need to share it with you and I hope that after you’ve read this article you can build your own toolkit to make your learning more efficient and effective.

*This article is aimed at high beginner — advanced English language learners, but much of it can be applied to anyone learning any language.

Why make a toolkit?
Instead of randomly and aimlessly searching the internet for new and seemingly better content every time you sit down to study, why not pair down your resources, and choose your favourite content. Stick to it, go to it every day, know where it is, make friends with it, follow the updates, get to know the content creators, even ask them questions and sign up to their newsletters. This will boost your motivation, keep your interest, save time and ultimately make your language learning process more effective and efficient.

How do you make a toolkit?
Categorise all the resources you use under the headings in the bullet points below. Keep the ones you like, know and use regularly. Make a folder in your bookmarks to put them in. Scrap the ones you don’t use much or don’t like. Change it up every few months or so, but stick to the same resources for some time so that you get really involved in how your resources and content providers work. You’ll find that over time you keep going back to the same ones, and leave ones that aren’t so effective behind.

What should you have in your language learning toolkit?

  • Online language learning websites/apps.
  • Listening/reading material.
  • An interesting book at your level.
  • A good tutor and/or language partner.
  • A clear grammar resource you can easily return to.
  • Dedicated time every day.

Online language learning websites.
There are many many online resources, obviously I’ve not tried all of them, but this article will discuss some popular and lesser known ones.

A lot of people swear by websites like duolingo, busuu or babbel. I think they are really great for beginners. I used quite a lot several years ago when I restarted learning French. They are like glorified flash card apps and some of them provide great speech recognition tools and community feedback. They are also great for people who like to play games. But I’ve found that I don’t really use them, for several reasons; firstly, I don’t really like the game and “level up” aspect of the sites. Great for some, but not me. Secondly you have to pay to upgrade features to make the learning experience better. I use so many websites I can’t afford to pay for them all. I only have two or three resources that I’m willing to pay for.

Avoid sites with long term subscription plans so you can subscribe to one site for one month then mix it up and subscribe to another site the next month.

I do this with my favourite sites NewsInSlowFrench and fluentU. Thirdly I didn’t like that started me as a beginner when I’m more like a low-intermediate level. I had to go through a lot of stuff I already knew, which was annoying and time consuming.

After a lot of searching for something different I have found some great online resources that work in a different way, more immersion centric and less game like. They still have paid features but the free content is much more in depth and you can dip in and out of levels to really get a feel for where you are at.

These resources are FluentU and LingQ, they are both similar but FluentU uses video and subtitles to help you with your listening and comprehension and LingQ uses mp3’s and transcripts to help in a similar way. LingQ also has it’s own spaced repetition flashcard system and various built in exercises that work with the words you have selected to study. I use both, mainly because they offer different ways of processing similar content.

Online language learning apps.
All the above mentioned websites have their own flashcard systems/spaced repetition systems built in, but if you want a standalone flashcard app (these are especially good for a 5 minutes revision session with your morning coffee) I’d recommend Quizlet, Memrise or Mosalingua. I like all three apps for different reasons. Quizlet is great because it’s user generated so you can create your own sets or find sets made by other users, then it automatically creates games and quizzes from your sets. I don’t use this on a daily basis. It’s much more useful for intensive learning. Memrise is similar to Quizlet, a nicer look and feel but less flexibility and more game like. Mosalingua is great because it’s really simple and does all the work for you, you just chose a topic and it quizzes you every day using the spaced repetition technique.
According to Stephen Krashen the only way a language learner can effectively learn and retain information is by understanding what they are learning, this is why watching movies with closed captions on gives an added level of understanding.

So there’s this great new app called which enables you to stream the closed captions from a Youtube, Netflix or Amazon Instant Video onto your phone whilst watching the video. This means you can look up the meaning of a word on your phone without pausing the movie. It has a history feature too, so you don’t even have to read the definition there and then, you can go back to it later. Just tap the word in the CC stream and it will save it to the apps history. This a really slick way of making your input comprehensible. It works well on Netflix, though it’s very hard to find a movie in French with French closed captions (I used to use a VPN but Netflix blocks most VPNS now). YouTube also works well if you can find a video in your target language with closed captions, just watch out for auto generated subtitles, a lot of them are complete gobbledygook. I haven’t tried it on Amazon Instant Video.

*Closed captions are subtitles for the deaf, so are in the same language as the audio whereas subtitles are translated text so you can understand the movie in a different language.

An interesting book at your level
There are countless articles from some great linguists and polyglots all over the world who swear that reading plays a huge part in language acquisition. My article Why I’m learning to read Russian and NOT speak it explains in more depth why and how reading is so important. But for now, let’s talk about how to find a good book, and what to do with it.

Why I’m learning to read Russian and NOT speak it.

How reading improves our chances of second language acquisition.

How to find a good target language book
Read the back cover. If you can’t understand the back of the book you aren’t going to understand what’s on the inside. You need to be able to understand 90% of the language, this means that you will be able to figure out most of the meaning through context, you can make a pretty good attempt at guessing what the new word means. Make sure it’s short, you’re going to read this book at least twice!

How to use the book
For the first reading (do this chapter by chapter), read it through, don’t check a dictionary, just see what you understand. On the second reading underline the words that you still don’t know, guess what they mean, then look them up in a dictionary. Write their meaning above or beside the word, then at the end of the chapter write down all the new words. You could put all the new words into a flash card app like Quizlet. Do this throughout the whole book.

Once you’ve read the book, and you’re not tired of it, you can go through it again, this time with a different colour pen, and underline any new grammatical features.

You don’t have to underline everything you don’t understand, just take a few language aspects, find patterns and study them. It’s a free process where you make up the rules and study whatever you feel you need to improve on.

Just reading the book, without any note taking (if that’s what you’d prefer), will work too. You could try both and see for yourself which is more effective.

What kind of book should you use?
One that is just above your level so that you can understand the context. One that you don’t mind writing in.

For intermediate readers I recommend anything between a grade 4 and 8 level, don’t be put off by the low level…

…some of the worlds best works are written at a grade 4 level John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” for example.

Of Mice and Men is a classic piece of literature, easy reading, and not too hard to pick up a second hand paper back that you can write in. If it’s too hard go down a level and too easy, of course, go up!

You can use the Book Wizard on to search for books by reading level, most of the books are aimed at children, but there are plenty of books written for adults, at all levels. Don’t reject adult oriented books that are at a low level, all it means is that the writers style is easy to read and accessible to all.

Here’s a selection of excellent authors who have an easy to read style and have also written some of the worlds best selling books.

  • Ernest Hemmingway
  • Jane Austin
  • Hunter S. Thompson
  • Stephen King
  • John Steinbeck

If you want more choice here’s a great list that spans a wide variety of genres.

Fiction for Adults

Recommended Reading for English Learners These are popular English novels from many different genres that appeal to…

Listening and reading material
I’ve discussed above why finding a good book can be really helpful for your vocabulary and grammar development, but listening is just as, if not more important than reading and when both are done together (as per subtitled movies at FluentU or mp3’s with transcripts at lingQ) it’s even better! So you need to find some good reading and listening content.

Sure you can search around and find something useful or interesting every time you want to study, but that really wastes time, so I recommend to find some online content providers who really interest you, subscribe to them, and go back to them every time for content.

It’s also important to subscribe to two types types of content; material specifically made for language learning, and general interest material. Find a content provider whose material you really enjoy and subscribe to their newsletters, get all their latest content, follow them, get to know them. This way you get familiar with their style, you know what to expect, you know where to find them. This helps you save time, and keeps your interest going. If you’re always wondering what your favourite teacher/provider is going to publish next it helps to keep you motivated.

I’d recommend these guys

And of course it’s also important to subscribe to a blog, YouTube channel or podcast that isn’t language specific, but just something you enjoy learning about. I listen to the French Ted Talks, as well as movies in French. I also get to listen to Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig in French as my daughter is learning French too!

A good tutor and/or language partner
There are several good websites where you can find a language partner or teacher/tutor. I’m going to give you some links, but talk mainly about (I can’t help sounding like a fangirl, mainly because, well I am!) I did a little exploring around before I found italki, but nothing grabbed my attention quite like this site. It’s easy to use, the payment, booking and calendar systems are great and the community and support is very active and helpful. You could also try verbling which is very similar to italki, and has a nicer schedule viewer, LiveMocha (now hellolingo) and MyLanguageExchange.

I would strongly recommend that if you are going to pay for anything to help you learn languages, pay for an online teacher.

There’s so much free content out there that you can definitely make do without ever having to pay, and I’m sure if you are lucky, you can find a good language partner. But I found that it was very difficult to find committed language parters (I’ve met some lovely people but it was very hard for us to match our schedules). Once I started paying for a teacher the commitment goes up 10 fold and their support and interest in you is much higher. Make sure you get one that lets you speak as much as possible.

This is a time for you to practise everything you’ve learnt in the week, if they dominate the lesson with their own voice, you could have simply just listened to a free podcast.

They need to let you talk, and offer you corrections and areas to improve on, without interrupting you (unless you like to be interrupted).

A clear grammar resource you can easily return to.
Studying grammar should be at the very bottom of your to do list, you can and will learn a lot of grammar through your daily listening and reading. Studying grammar might help you learn about grammar but more often than not it doesn’t actually help you to speak. This opinion is backed by most forward thinking language experts out there and I particularly like Steve Kauffman’s article about why studying grammar doesn’t really help:

by Steve Kaufman: Do you need grammar to learn a language?

Click to get the podcast: Full text: I often get resistance to the idea that language learning should not emphasize…

However, if you are at a more advanced level it’s ok to brush up on a bit of grammar every once in a while. Here are some clear easy to understand grammar resources you could make as your go to option. And of course if you have a good grammar book just refer to that.

Dedicated time every day
Yes you need to study English every day, and I don’t mean head in a grammar book frantically studying past perfect continuous and the third conditional. I mean listening to your favourite podcaster, watching a movie, reading your book, checking the latest publication from your YouTube subscriptions. At least 15 minutes a day. You could do 5 minutes in the morning on your flashcard app, a 15 minute podcast on your lunch break then at home you could watch a movie or read your book. It sounds like a normal day, just in your target language. And that’s the key! Do the things you’d do in a normal day, in your target language, then it seems like normality rather than hard work!

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