I don’t know about you, but one of my favourite things to do over Christmas is to sit down and dive into a good book. So what are the best books for the language enthusiast in your life?
Maybe you have an aspiring polyglot in the family, or maybe you yourself are the language fanatic. Whether you’re buying a gift for someone special or just treating yourself, I hope this list will encourage you to discover and share some of the best language-related books I’ve come across recently.
These books are listed in no particular order but I’ve organised them by category to help give you a better idea of what each one is about. I’ve included books with different connections to language. Some are written in a foreign language or are ideally suited for learners, some focus on methods and techniques for learning a language more effectively, and some are more about the history and development of language. There are even a couple in there that are technically not about languages at all! But I’ve included those because I feel they provide some very useful lessons for language learners of all levels!
So, without further ado, let’s look at some of these books!
Category #1: Books in a Foreign Language
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Of the foreign language books I read this year, Persepolis was by far my favourite. Although, in fact, it’s not a strictly a book but a graphic autobiography!
Persepolis is the autobiography of Marjane Satrapi and depicts her childhood and adolescence in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. It was originally published in French (the author now lives in Paris) but has been translated into multiple languages. I read the original French version, but you should be able to pick up a translated copy in almost any language you’re learning.
I recommend this book for a number of reasons, first and foremost being that it’s a fascinating insight into the mind of a child living through a volatile political situation. Secondly, it’s easy to read and the ‘graphic’ format makes it perfect for learners.
I believe that it’s important to develop a flow in your foreign language reading and the format of this book allows you to do that. There is less dialogue than in a normal book and the images and context will help you to understand words as you read. You may still need to look up some new vocabulary but you’re less likely to spend half an hour reading a single page, like you might do if you tried to read the Lord of the Rings in French! This means you get to read content that is suitable even for upper beginner or lower intermediate learners, while still enjoying real content written for adults, rather than something that’s written with a child or beginner learner in mind.
Another bonus is that once you’ve finished the books, you can also watch the film version to practice your listening skills with some familiar content!
Short Stories for Beginners and Short Stories for Intermediate Learners by Olly Richards (with Alex Rawlings and Richard Simcott)
For upper beginner or lower intermediate learners, Olly’s ‘Short Stories for Beginners‘ and ‘Short Stories for Intermediate Learners‘ series are the perfect foreign language books to practice with.
One of the things I really love about these books is that the stories are actually interesting! All too often when texts are written for a specific language level they end up feeling dumbed-down and boring. But that’s not the case here. Olly has done a great job of ensuring that the stories he’s included are genuinely fun to read. You’ll find yourself hooked and excited to see what happens next, all the while picking up valuable new vocabulary in your target language.
The fact that these are short stories as opposed to a novel is also a major benefit, for two main reasons:
- You can easily sit down for a 30-minute reading session and read through an entire story
- Because the stories are short you can re-read and repeat them.
Each book also includes an enlightening introductory chapter which explains how to get the most out of our your reading time. Rather than throwing you in at the deep end, Olly explains how to use the books efficiently so that you can get the most out of your reading time. Within each chapter, you’ll find new or important vocabulary marked in bold and there are short comprehension sections at the end of each story to make sure you’ve understood the main ideas.
I’ve already read the French book and I’m excited to dip into the new editions which have recently been released.
The beginner books are currently available in 5 languages:
Category #2: Books about Language Learning & Memory Methodologies
Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language by Richard M. Roberts and Roger J. Kreuz
Have you ever felt like you just can’t learn a language? Maybe you think you’re too old or you’ve had a bad experience in the past.
This book helps you overcome those negative experiences by looking at the science behind successful language learning. The early chapters deal with how negative mindsets and thoughts are created and why they hinder your progress. You’ll find yourself realising that things which you hadn’t even considered before could be affecting your language learning. These chapters also explain why it’s essential to define what success means to you and how doing this can help motivate you to improve more quickly.
This book is intelligent and entertaining, and it’s refreshing to see someone coming at language learning from a scientific angle. You’ll notice that this book tends to back-up and re-assert many of the methods and techniques that the world’s top polyglots favour. Can you see a trend starting to appear? Far from being at odds with other books on this list, it actually reinforces many of the core strategies that the other polyglot authors on this list encourage.
Fluent in 3 Months by Benny Lewis
For anyone new to language learning or for those who have tried and failed to learn a language before, Benny’s book is a must-read.
In my opinion, it’s the definitive introductory guide on how to learn languages. It will provide you with plenty of inspiration as well as the knowledge you need to really take control of your language learning from Day 1.
Step-by-step, Benny shows you why your excuses for not learning a language shouldn’t hold you. He also outlines how you can go about making some real progress in a relatively short period of time by applying his ‘language hacking’ techniques. What I really love about Benny’s approach is that he’s great at motivating readers to open their minds and try new approaches.
Like all of the other ‘learning tips’ or ‘methodology’ books on this list, Fluent in 3 Months requires you to take action. But if you do read and apply the tips in this book, you can be sure they’ll make a significant impact on your language proficiency.
If you (or the person you’re buying for) is learning French, Spanish, Italian or German, I’d also highly recommend Benny’s Language Hacking series. These books ideal for beginners and will take you from zero to around B1 level. In fact, they’re the perfect books for anyone setting a New Year’s Resolution to start learning a new language!
How to Develop a Brilliant Memory Week by Week: 50 Proven Ways to Enhance Your Memory by Dominic O’Brien
This is the one book on the list that I haven’t actually read yet, but I’m really looking forward to doing so in the New Year. If you’re like me, you’ve probably tried all of the most common memory techniques mentioned by language experts and polyglots. A non-langauge specific book like this offers the opportunity to learn about other memory techniques and see how they could be applied to your target language.
Learn everything you can, anytime you can from anyone you can; there will always come a time when you will be grateful you did.
– Sarah Caldwell, opera conductor
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
This next book is technically not a book about languages at all, but it is about a topic that’s very important for successful language learning – habits.
I firmly believe that language learning requires consistency if you want to achieve results. I think it’s important to practice a little every day or almost every day if you want to become fluent. Sure, you can make progress without being consistent but it’s just not the best way of doing things. You’ll end up wasting time repeating things you’ve learned but forgotten and you’ll struggle to build any momentum in your target language.
So how can you become more consistent? Well, a lot of people will say you need willpower. But as I mentioned in my recent post about setting goals, willpower doesn’t really work. What does work is building habits.
As you’ll learn in this book, a habit is effectively an action your brain takes automatically when it receives a certain trigger or cue. For example, most of us have a habit of brushing our teeth before going to sleep. But how much do you really think about doing that every day? Is it a conscious decision? Not really. For most of us, it’s become so normal that it’s now ‘just something that we do’.
This book breaks down the science behind habits. How they work, why the work and how we can change or create them. If you struggle to dedicate a little time to language learning every day, building the right habits could make a huge difference to you. Or even better, you could replace an old bad habit you don’t like with a language learning habit! Imagine how much you could achieve if you managed to actually study for even 20 or 30 minutes every single day? Within a couple of months, you’d make massive progress with that kind of consistency.
‘The Vocab Cookbook is meant to live up to its name and give you some guidance, some directions, and clear information on how each of the many language learning methods fits into the big picture’.
– Kerstin Cable, author of The Vocab Cookbook
No matter what language you’re learning, you’re going to need vocabulary. Because without words, well learning a language would be … word-less.
The thing is, memorising all of the words you need to actually speak a foreign language is difficult. After all, even in our native language, it takes us years and years to actually build up the kind of vocabulary we have as adults.
So what’s the best way to build-up your foreign language vocabulary?
Well, this book doesn’t actually answer that question directly. Instead, it presents a number of different methods for learning new vocabulary and encourages you to test them out and see which one is best suited to your learning style.
What I love about Kerstin’s book is that it’s more than just a book. If you’re willing to truly embrace the concept of the book and the ideas within, this is a personal exploration of your memory geared towards finding what works best for you.
And that’s why ‘cookbook’ is such an apt name. Just as you might dive into your favourite cookbook to try new recipes or meals, you can use the Vocab Cookbook to try different methods and approaches for learning vocabulary.
If you want to read more, you can grab your copy of the Vocab Cookbook here.
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve included quite a few books related to memory and memorization on this list. And with good reason – memorising new words and structures is an essential part of achieving fluency. Like it or not!
The method Anthony discusses in these books is the one I use for the hardest words I come across – the ones that really won’t stick for me – because it’s an extremely powerful method.
These books are about the concept of ‘memory palaces’. In a nutshell, Anthony shows you how to apply memory palaces to your language learning. The basic idea is to imagine a place you’re familiar with in your mind, and store memories of things you want to remember in this place. It sounds simple, but it works incredibly well. By simply putting the memory of what you want to learn in a specific place, you make it much easier for your brain to locate and recall that information later.
Obviously, the method contains many more subtleties than this and Anthony covers all of them in the books. If you’re not already familiar with memory palaces I’d highly recommend picking up a copy! Although the core method is the same, Anthony has written language specific books for a number of different languages so you can see exactly how the technique can be applied to the language you’re learning. I’ve used this method for Russian, Latvian and French in the past and I’ve always found that I have an incredibly high retention rate for words I learned using this system.
Category #3: Books about Languages
The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way by Bill Bryson
If you just want to learn a foreign language, this might not be the book for you. But if you’re fascinated by everything linguistic, and find yourself wondering how languages come to be the way they are, you’ll love this irreverent history of English.
I read (or rather listened) to this book on a sleepless overnight hour bus ride from Vilnius to Tallinn during the summer, and good company it was too!
If you’ve read any of Bill Bryson’s other books, you’ll now that his witty writing style makes for a very entertaining read. This book is no different. I found myself smiling or even laughing out loud a number of times, which may have seemed slightly odd to my Baltic bus companions! The Mother Tongue is both humorous and informative throughout and it will teach you things about the English language you’ve probably never even considered before.
The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter
My girlfriend gave me a copy of this book for my birthday and I have to say I loved it! If you’re interested in learning about what languages are and how they came to be the way they are today, then this is the book for you.
In many ways, it’s an introduction to the world of linguistics written for the non-academic. The author examines how languages and dialects develop and traces the evolution of language from the beginning of speech right up to the present day.
After reading this book, you’ll find yourself thinking differently about language and what it actually is. You’ll soon come to see that language is very much a living thing which is evolving constantly. Have you ever tried to read Old English? Well, take a look:
Unless you’ve studied it you won’t be able to read it! And yet it’s the direct ancestor of the language we speak today. This book will explain how languages such as Old English and Latin have evolved into the languages we speak today and what these processes can tell us about the future of human language.
It’s time to start reading!
So there you have it! These are just some of my favourite language-related books but there are plenty more I simply didn’t have space to include on this list. What books would you recommend to other language lovers and learners? You can leave your answers and comments on these books in the comments below.
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