What materials and tools do I need to study a language?

Possibly the most useful tools there are for learning a language are writing implements, such as pens and pencils, and something to write on, such as paper or a notebook. You can use them not only to make notes and lists of vocabulary, phrases, etc, but also to practise writing in your L2.

The range of other materials and tools available to help you with your language studies is huge. From language courses and dictionaries, to mp3 players and portable translators. All of them can help you in different ways, and your language learning goals will determine, to some extent, which ones are most useful to you.

Below is a guide to the types of some of the language learning materials and tools currently available.

Language courses | Dictionaries | Grammars | Phrasebooks | Flash cards | Audio books | Recording devices | Sound editors | Electronic translators

Language courses

Language courses come in a variety of guises, including traditional ones, all audio ones, CD-ROMs and online ones.

Traditional courses

The traditional ones tend to consist of textbooks containing dialogues, exercises, notes on grammar, and maybe cultural information. Accompanying cassettes, CDs and/or mp3s are often available.

Most such courses are intended for complete beginners or people with only minimal knowledge of the language. Intermediate and advanced-level courses are available for some of the more popular languages, such as French, German, Italian and Spanish.

Examples of this type of course include:

All audio courses

This type of course usually consists solely of cassettes or CDs, though some may also include a limited amount of printed material. All dialogues, exercises, instructions and explanations are recorded and the focus of these courses is teaching you to understand and speak the language.

Examples of this type of course include:

Computer-aided learning

Various language courses are available on CD-ROMs and DVDs. Each course is different but they generally include dialogues, audio, exercises and tests. Some also include phrasebooks, dictionaries, videos, games and provide online and/or telephone support.

Examples of these courses include:

Online courses

There are online language courses and lessons for just about every language you can think of. Many are free, while others require a one-off payment or a regular subscription.

There is considerable variation in the quality and quantity of the material available in each online course. Some of the free courses are excellent, while others are perhaps somewhat lacking in organisation and/or accuracy.

Links to online courses for many languages


Dictionaries come in a number of formats including bilingual, monolingual, illustrated, electronic and online. Bilingual dictionaries are perhaps the most useful ones for beginners and intermediate learners, while monolingual dictionaries, which are designed for native speakers, are also useful for advanced learners.

Pocket dictionaries are good for quick reference and easy to carry around. Larger dictionaries are better if you want more definitions, examples of usage, and information about pronunciation, grammar and possibly etymology.

Electronic dictionaries are available as handheld units, or as software. Handheld ones are portable, easy and quick to search, and often provide other functions, such as, text-to-speech, voice recognition and speech synthesis organisers, address books. They tend to be rather expensive though. Software dictionaries offer many of the same functions, and can be used on computers, PDAs and mobile phones.

Dictionaries for many languages are available from: Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.fr

Online dictionaries range from simple lists of words, to sophisticated bilingual and multilingual dictionaries.

Links to online dictionaries for many languages


Grammars are useful reference tools and provide detailed information about grammar and usage. Some include exercises to help you practise the various aspects of grammar. Some language learners like to know exactly how the grammar of their L2 works and find grammars very useful. Others prefer to absorb the grammar through immersion without studying it formally.

Grammars for many languages are available from: Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.fr


When visiting foreign parts, a phrasebook can come in very handy. Phrasebooks that come with recordings of phrases are particularly useful, as working out how to pronounce them from the written pronunciation hints is not easy.

Phrasebooks for many languages are available from: Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.fr

Flash cards

Flash cards are a useful tool for learning vocabulary and grammar, if you look at them regularly. I found them particularly useful when learning Chinese characters. They might have a character, word, phrase or sentence on one side, and a translation, definition and/or notes on the other side. You can make them yourself, buy readymade sets of cards, or use flash card programs such as Anki, Mnemosyne and Supermemo.

Flash card programs are available from:

Audio books

Listening to audio books in a language you're learning is a great way to improve your listening comprehension and vocabulary. If you can read printed versions of the books at the same time, even better. You could also use foreign audio books to learn a new skill or to learn about a subject that interests you through the medium of your L2.

Listen to more than 25,000 audio books programs. Choose from popular and informative categories. Join now and receive free MP3 player.

Recording devices

A recording device of some kind is a very useful tool to the language learner. You can use it to record conversations, radio programmes, songs, classes and lectures. Such recordings can help you to improve your listening comprehension. You can also make recordings of your own attempts to speak your L2, analysis of which can help you to improve your pronunciation and intonation. They also provide a snapshot of your speaking abilities, which you could use a later date to assess how much progress you've made.

Recording devices come in the form of tape recorders, mini-disc recorders, mp3 players with voice recording facilities, and dictation machines. The most convenient are those which can be connected to your computer so that you can transfer the recordings, edit them and/or copy them to another device.

Some recorders require an external microphone, another useful tool for language learners, while others have built-in microphones. The quality of recordings is generally better with external microphones.

It is also possible to make recordings on your computer using software such as Audacity (see below), or sites such as Odeo.

Sound editors

Once you've made recordings, you might need to edit them. Various programs that enable you to do so are available.

I use Audacity to make and edit recordings on my computer. It's free, fairly easy to use and has a range of functions, including changing the volume, speed or tempo of sound files, cutting out silences and background noise, adding fade-ins and fade-outs, and multi-track recording. You can also use it to listen audio files, or parts of them.

Audacity of available from: http://audacity.sourceforge.net/

Other free sound editors

Electronic translators

Electronic translators are available as handheld units, or as software. Handheld ones are portable, easy and quick to search, and often provide other functions, such as text-to-speech, voice recognition, speech synthesis, organisers and address books. They tend to be rather expensive though. Software dictionaries offer many of the same functions, and can be used on computers, PDAs and mobile phones.

Language learning tips

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