I collect TONS of language resources. Huge sections of my bookshelves are packed with textbooks and phrasebooks from 10-15 languages– most of which I probably will never sit down to learn! At my parents’ house, I still have a bookshelf in my childhood bedroom crammed with the big dictionaries I didn’t bother to take with me when I left.
That being said, I definitely have my preferences in terms of resources. I’ve tried out many commercial textbooks– from the widely available ones you can find at any bookstore, to really old ones, to university-level textbooks that cost you an arm and a leg. But I prefer things that are cheap and easy to find. Books I use for hours before I outgrow them.
So, here are my recommendations!
1. Teach Yourself
That’s not a smart-aleck answer, I swear. If you’re not familiar, Teach Yourself is a U.K. based brand of widely available language textbooks (among other subjects) that have been around pretty much since the dawn of time. Or 1938.
These books are everywhere. Sure, the Teach Yourself Complete series (which is the most recent) are kind of pricey– I think 60USD for the book plus the CDs– but the last two editions of the books alone can be found in used bookstores and through Amazon third-party sellers for reasonable prices. And if you want to go back further, the ’90s editions can be found for pennies!
Why are these so great? I like them mostly because I can start a new language with hardly any money, and I can get a textbook of decent quality while I’m at it. These books aren’t too creative– they cover the basics (greetings, time, money, food, blah blah) and they don’t try too hard dressing it up to make it palatable. Where they fail in presentation, they succeed in amount of content per dollar.
Additionally, these books are available in so many languages, in generally the same format which I love. Dependability speaks volumes. However, each language book will have a different author, so they’re not exactly the same. And some books are better than others– the Icelandic ’90s Teach Yourself I bought had little more than a rote set of grammar tables 😛 (most of the ’90s books have dialogues and aren’t so rote). On the other end, the Czech version from the 2000s (before “Complete”) is twice the size of most books and is pretty comprehensive. That being said, you simply can’t find too many Icelandic textbooks outside of Iceland, so I was happy with what I got. Even better, other rare languages are available, too– like Xhosa, Zulu, and Latvian.
I recommendation purchasing any of the editions from the ’90s to the present day. The “Complete” books aren’t much different than the older Teach Yourself books– they include a little more cultural information and possibly even out new vocabulary between chapters. From what I can tell, the older editions kind of lapse into cold grammar tables with fewer dialogues and example sentences, but if that gets you going, then go for it!
Oh, and none of this is an advertisement for Teach Yourself. In fact, I don’t think I’ve given Teach Yourself a penny of my own money thanks to used bookstores.
2. Lonely Planet Phrasebooks
I have given Lonely Planet my money, however. But this is still not an advertisement.
Before discovering these beauties, I was pretty against phrasebooks. Why not sit down and learn the whole language? Why are sissies using phrasebooks to get around foreign countries? Wimps.
I was sorely mistaken. These phrasebooks are wonderful. They’re pretty (I like a good cover), and they’re packed with information. Of course, you won’t learn a whole language from these, but for about 8USD you can get a pretty decent mini-dictionary, basic grammar, pronunciation, and a lot of basic vocabulary. That’s pretty good.
As with Teach Yourself, Lonely Planet phrasebooks come in a disorientingly wide variety of languages. They have Amharic! They have an India phrasebook that includes several (several!) Indian languages! They have Lao!
I’ve personally used the Hebrew phrasebook a bit to learn some basic vocab using this word list technique. I didn’t get very far in Hebrew, but if I’m ever learning another language with limited resources, I’ll definitely find the Lonely Planet phrasebook for it.
3. 501 Verbs
So, these books are exactly what they say they are. They are books full of verbs, and each page fully conjugates one verb. They don’t come in as many languages as the above two companies– mostly only the popular European ones like French, German, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese. I don’t use them as a verb reference, however. These books are fantastic for SRS.
At the bottom of each page, below the verb tables, there will be three to four sample sentences using the verb in question. This is your gold mine! Plug these into your SRS (along with the accompanying English translation) and it’s the easiest sentence-mining you’ll ever do. I recommend the second-to-newest edition for this (the ones with the white covers, not the yellow covers). I tried using the newest 501 German Verbs book in the same way, but I found that the sentences were too complicated for beginners. I did use the older edition of 501 Italian Verbs, and the sentences were just right.
(Also, beware of the 201 Verbs series for less common languages– I know that the Swedish one, at least, does not include example sentences, so check whichever book you pick up! I can only vouch for Italian.)
All three of these book series can be found in any minimally-comprehensive US bookstore, and I really love using all three whenever I’m embarking on a new language journey. They’re best for beginners, but they’re decent resources and cheap enough that you won’t feel guilty for spending the money when you outgrow them. Let me know in the comments if you have any textbook series recommendations!