What you need to know to learn a foreign language by Paul Nation (book)

I finally got around to reading this great book by Paul Nation, What you need to know to learn a foreign language. The book is offered as a free PDF from his website. If you are unfamiliar with Nation, he is a leading researcher in Foreign Language Education with an interest in vocabulary acquisition and teaching methodology. While most of his research is aimed at the classroom, with this book he attempts to bring the results of his research to the student who might be trying to learn a language on their own.

It’s a somewhat short and easy-to-read book that just gets right to the point rather than giving you long-winded anecdotes and motivational stories. It could easily be read in a single afternoon. Much of the book in influenced by his “Four Strands Principle”, in which he believes that the most effective way of learning a language involves balancing your study across four different types of learning.

The Four Strands consist of:

  1. learning from meaning-focused input (listening and reading)
  2. learning from meaning-focused output (speaking and writing)
  3. language-focused learning (studying pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar etc)
  4. fluency development (getting good at using what you already know).

The main meat of the book consists of descriptions of twenty different learning activities that you can do, with different activities fitting into each of the different strands. He also spends a short bit of time explaining exactly WHY certain activities can be helpful. For instance, did you know that doing just a bit of timed reading can quickly improve your overall reading speed by 50-200%?

Here is a list of the different types of activities described in the book:

  • Reading while listening
  • Extensive reading
  • Narrow reading
  • Role play
  • Prepared talks
  • Read and write
  • Transcription
  • Intensive reading
  • Memorized sentences or dialogues
  • Delayed copying
  • Repeated listening
  • 4/3/2
  • Repeated reading
  • Speed reading
  • 10 minute writing
  • Repeated writing
  • Word cards
  • Linked skills
  • Issue logs
  • Spelling practice

I mention this just to give you a general idea of what you can expect to read about in the book. For the details of what each activity actually entails, you’ll need to read the book (which again, is free).

There are a lot of different opinions out there about how to learn a language. There is one camp which advocates focusing solely on input, and not worrying about anything else. Nation, on the other hand, argues that a fully balanced course is the way to go. While there is research out there to argue a lot of different opinions, we may never know for sure exactly what is truly optimal. With that said, nothing that Nation writes in this book feels terribly controversial, and it all just seems to make sense. I can’t imagine that these ideas could really steer anyone wrong, so I highly recommend this book for anyone who is currently learning a language.

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