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The Trap of Searching For the Perfect Language Materials

People who love learning languages commonly suffer from a certain problem: they are distractable. Not necessarily distractable in the sense that they stop to check Facebook every 2 minutes, but distractable in the sense that they are visionary. They have lots of ideas and lots of things they want to try. Sometimes this results in them bouncing from one language to another, because they`re thinking about the next language before they`ve gone very far with the one they`re currently studying.

It also sometimes makes them fail to commit to any language learning materials because they are always on the prowl for the perfect materials. Maybe they keep delaying the start of their studies while they look into the best materials, or worse yet – they browse torrent trackers and sharing sites trying to get a complete collection of materials before even getting started. Others might do a few sections in one book or a few tracks from an audio course, and then start to look around for “better” materials, at the expense of their study time.

Maintain consistency

Consistency is king. There is no substitute for studying everyday come Hell or high water, and the more study time you can fit in the better. If you take your attention away from your daily study to conduct a search mission, you might find some better materials, but how much better will they be? 20% better? The new materials probably won`t be better enough to make up for the lack of consistency and lost momentum. Your foreign language skills are kind of like a bucket with a small hole in it, meaning that if you top it off everyday it can stay at its current level or even rise. But if you fail to top it off everyday, there`s a slow leak that drains a little of your ability at a time. And the more of a beginner you are, the more of your ability gets lost when you fail to top up the bucket.

Of course this may not be a big problem if you just take a couple hours one evening to look for other materials, and quickly make a decision and buy something and start using it. The problem is when the searching is habitual, and functions as a kind of procrastination.

Avoid backtracking

Spending too much time reviewing basic languageWhen switching language learning materials there`s a tendency to backtrack. What I mean is, if you have finished 3 chapters of Teach Yourself Italian and then you decide to switch to HUGO Italian in 3 Months, you will probably start from chapter 1 and spend time re-studying things you have already learned whereas your time likely could have been used more wisely by pushing forward. When you backtrack like this, it`s easy to justify it to yourself because some of the language in the early chapters will be different from the other materials you had been using, so it feels like you need to make sure you don`t miss anything. But overall, you won`t be challenging yourself as much as you would have if you had kept pushing forward in your original materials.

Again, this isn`t a huge problem if you change materials once. But if you change materials regularly, then you will be spending a lot of time backtracking and repeating rather than progressing.

Feed your focus, not your distraction

Perhaps the worst part of the search for perfect materials is that it feeds your habit of being distracted. Unlike reading internet top 10 lists or whatever other pointless distraction you know you shouldn`t indulge in, the materials treasure hunt is so easy to rationalize. “This will help me improve”; “If I find the best study materials I`ll become fluent”; “There might be materials that make learning easier and require less effort, so I`ll save time”.  So it`s easy to get caught up in the search, and in doing so you are reinforcing your distractability which will likely become more a habitual and more generalized part of your behavior. Before long you might be downloading Paris Hilton`s latest tv flop or getting caught up in a hypnotic blackhole of Youtube related video clicks.

How to deal with materials

The best thing is to look at a few different materials, read reviews of a few products, then just choose something that you find interesting and clear, and work through it a little bit every day. Stick to that material as your main text, even if it`s not perfect – because no materials will ever be perfect. The benefits of consistency will likely outweigh the benefits of a better material.

While you are sticking to your consistent study schedule with the main material you choose, you can use some of your discretionary time to try out and use other materials as well. Of course if you discover something that blows your other material out of the water or is much more motivating, you can use it as your new main text. But if the benefits are marginal, then keep working through your main text. The main point is to not spend your study time searching for and dabbling in materials when you would serve yourself better by pushing forward in your studies.

  • Marta

    Great article. I did not realize how much I suffered from this myself! It’s time to concentrate on the materials already at hand. It is very tempting to be on the lookout for the “best” materials out there and because the choice is so versatile and rich, it is just difficult to commit to one.

  • Brian Bowker

    I’m learning Spanish. My two resources so far are Memrise and Rosetta Stone. I’m about to finish the Rosetta Stone course but my Spanish is way below where I want it to be. My plan was to start RS again from the beginning to fill in all the gaps. Do you think this is a good strategy or can you recommend another. My aim is to speak Spanish well enough to understand the news and communicate reasonably with people when I visit Spain on holiday. According to my records, I have missed only four days since starting my studies in July 2017.
    Your Youtube videos are always very informative. Thanks for all your work.

  • Jack O’ Lantern

    Hi, Brian,
    As another language learner, I recommend not starting RS again, primarily based on what you just said (about your level being below where you want it to be). I would say find a beginner course from Teach Yourself or Assimil (or a text book) that you can work through on your own. Let that be your primary material that you can always supplement with other material if needed. I can’t speak to Teach Yourself but I can speak to Assimil. This course is graded; it starts easy and progresses through harder grammar and vocab ideas. While doing that it gives you real-world contexts and dialogues with additional notes and exercises. It’s a bit pricey but if you choose Assimil the accompanying audio is a must.
    Buena Suerte!

  • Jack O’ Lantern

    Fell into this trap myself many times…