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What innovative techniques can make a textbook for learning a foreign language "pop"?

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One of the biggest obstacles I've encountered learning Chinese is the incredibly dull and boring textbooks. Yes, the grammar in them is important, but it's so boring! Typical writing reads like:

Xiao Li encounters a problem, and politely asks his manager for advice. His manager politely makes some obvious, generic suggestion. It works well, and Xiao Li thinks his manager is very clever, and politely thanks him.

Everything works well. Everyone is ludicrously polite and obeys the rules. Every sentence is generic.

It has equally boring exercises ("complete the sentence"; "fill in the blank"; open-ended questions like "what is success?"). It's very hard to find motivation to work through these books (other than "soon, I will have finished this book").

I think to myself "I'm sure I could write a better textbook than this" (but maybe I'm just deluding myself). The most important thing would be to to make it interesting!

Question: What innovative techniques can make a textbook for learning a foreign language "pop"?

I'm looking for quirky, unusual, and imaginative techniques that worked in foreign-language textbooks that make them more interesting than others.

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5 answers

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I imagine, as Lauren says, you need simple sentences, but they don't have to be boring.

Xiao Li lost his trousers. He politely asked his manager if he could return home for more trousers. His manager thought this an excellent idea, and politely informed Xiao Li his employment was terminated.

Xiao Li requested a list of chicken dishes. The waitress told him the menu contained a list of chicken dishes. Xiao Li requested she recite the list of chicken dishes. The waitress politely excused herself and walked away.

Invent a character that is a bumbling idiot. Put him in ridiculous situations, but make the language and the things he has to say very simple, beginner level, or whatever level of language you are teaching.

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The issue with learning a language is that you need to walk before you can run. You need the simple, repetitive exercises so you can learn the building blocks of the language.

In high school French I remember we were listening to some pre-recorded exercise where we were practicing conjugating two verbs, jouer (to play) and aimer (to like something) plus a direct object. So the announcer on the recording said "We are all going to play tennis, and like it."

The class had a good laugh, but we all needed to go through the practice of "Je joue au tennis, et je l'aime; tu joues au tennis, et tu l'aimes; nous jouons au tennis, et nous l'aimons" and so forth. (Sorry if I got any of that wrong... high school was a long time ago.)

You can try to make the sentences and situations more interesting, but honestly, these exercises are not about writing fic. They are intended to be placeholders for you to do muscle repetitions. Think of them as musical scales for language.

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I'll describe two memorable language books:

1) A slim volume printed on WWII thin paper, published I think by the U of Chicago. Each lesson (chapter) presented about a dozen vocabulary items and a grammar topic. There was a short dialogue and a short narrative, both of which illustrated the grammar topic and used the new vocabulary items. There were fill-in-the-blank exercises to practice the new grammar. The dialogues were independent of each other. They weren't particularly entertaining, but they weren't boring, either. It was possible to use this book independently to get through all of the basic grammar in six months at a comfortable pace. There were no images, no fluff. The book was concise and elegant. The dialogues showed that the authors respected the reader. I felt that this book was everything a language textbook should be.

This book left me with the conclusion that the material should be pedagogically sound, and not annoying.

2) Somehow I came by a photocopy of some chapters of a French textbook. The drawings looked to be vintage 50's or 60's. The dialogues attempted to be cute and mildly entertaining, and they succeeded. I can give you two examples:

a) A vacuum salesman insists on giving a demo of the product he is selling by dumping some dirt on the potential customer's living room carpet. The potential customer kept trying to tell him that (i) she believed in cleaning a carpet by hand (sweeping), and (ii) her electricity was out. The salesman was so hell bent on demonstrating his product that he refused to listen. He ended up having to clean her carpet by hand. The dialogue was well constructed, circling back at the end, and giving you a chuckle.

b) A woman regularly asked her spouse to help her move their big elegant furniture hither and thither. Her spouse would always cooperate and help, but only for the sake of her happiness. The narrator called this story "The Waltz of the Furniture." Whenever my spouse and I move furniture around we fondly remember this story.

Conclusion: if you want to be entertaining, keep it light; let your humor be gentle humor.

And: count yourself lucky that you have any textbooks. I tried to learn Danish but I could not find any textbooks, or a phonetic dictionary.

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The language learning app Duolingo has tried very hard to make its example sentences entertaining. Perhaps I'm juvenile, but what works on me are:

  • Ridiculous situations, such as "The duck is eating three elephants." They are also more memorable than pedestrian ones, and ensure that the student understands the individual words rather than guessing the meaning from context.
  • Amusingly rude sentences, such as "I hate everyone and especially you."
  • Pop culture references, such as "On Wednesdays, we wear pink."
  • Innuendo. If you teach "There is a banana in my pocket.", the student will immediately be motivated to learn "Are you happy to see me?". Innuendo is most amusing when it is never openly acknowledged and the face meaning of the sentence is completely innocent.

As Scott Aaronson puts it: "I all too often ignore my own advice and lapse into boringness. But at least I notice I’m doing it, get annoyed at myself, and resolve to be crasser, less mature, and less professional the next time around."

You do need some inherently boring exercises, such as selecting the correct inflection of a word, but at least the surrounding sentence can be funny or otherwise interesting.

Note that the content should be entertaining, not the window dressing: funny illustrations distract me from the exercise on the next page.

Avoid long drills (rosa, rosa, rosam…). It's probably more effective and certainly more entertaining to encounter the same word or grammatical feature throughout the book than in one tedious chunk.

For advanced students, excerpts from published stories in the target language are usually far more interesting than stories composed specifically to teach. As a child I went through my English textbook every year reading all the example texts.

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I believe the most interesting (and most efficient) way to learning a new language is to avoid translating to the readers first language (I'll assume English) as much as possible.

Avoid:

  • Written translations between the languages

Instead,

  • Teach the way humans naturally learn languages (as babies) as much as possible
  • Have the reader think of the OBJECT when they see the foreign word and NOT the English word for that object

This can be done quite creatively by having the user make the connection between the text of the foreign word and word meaning means through pictures, descriptions (in English or the foreign language), or other visual media.

A very novel approach would be to avoid writing the English word down at all or avoiding English text in the book entirely.

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