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Can books make you fluent in a new language? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is not as clear-cut as a lot of people would like to think. Let’s talk about what you can expect from learning a language with books, specifically through a very common, very popular course called StoryLearning, also known as the Uncovered series.
What is StoryLearning?
So if you’re not familiar already, the StoryLearning strategy is basically just using stories to learn a language. You’re presented with very short chapters of a story, and then you use those stories to gain comprehension skills or vocabulary, learn grammar, and all that good stuff. But the idea is that you don’t really realize you’re learning because you’re so invested in the story.
Now, StoryLearning claims that they can teach you a language through story, but can StoryLearning make you fluent? Or can reading books in general make you fluent? No. Why? What’s the difference here?
This is the important thing to understand is that StoryLearning is primarily reading, you’re generally reading the story and picking up the vocabulary and grammar rules and whatnot through the story. While that’s all fine and dandy, reading is only one skill of learning a language, and that skill is not speaking.
So if you have the intention, if you have the goal to be able to have a conversation in the language, this isn’t the most direct route. It’s not the direct, the most simple strategy.
Can reading books help you to become conversational? Yes. While it’s not directly the skill that you need to be able to have conversations, it’s still information, it’s still using the language, it’s still learning new things. And I always like to say that any exposure that you have to the language, even if it’s not intentional, even if it’s not a challenge, even if you don’t feel like you’re actually learning anything, it’s always a benefit to your language learning goals.
However, don’t expect to spend all of your time reading stories and reading books and then think that in six months you’ll be able to magically have a conversation. That’s just not going to happen. This is because speaking and conversational skills in general are not a priority in StoryLearning or in reading books.
If you’ve ever tried StoryLearning for yourself, I know what you’re thinking:
Jamie, they have speaking sections in every single chapter of the story. At the very end, you have recommendations of things to talk about with a language exchange partner or a language teacher. You have a full lesson plan, all that jazz!
Unfortunately, if your goal is to speak the language, these sections are not enough. These sections are there to support the goal of being able to read and understand the language. But it’s not meant to get you conversational.
In order for me to consider this effective speaking practice, I would need any number of types of tools that you can find in so many other language learning apps, things like speech recognition, things like listening to audio and being led to repeat the audio and, you know, having you focus on how you are moving your mouth, like Pimsleur does, for example. This would be a really easy way to just make it a little bit more effective to be able to just open up that section of the course, get in some speaking practice, get in some pronunciation practice, and then move on to the next chapter.
But instead what StoryLearning does is they give you a lesson plan and they say, hand this off to a language exchange or a language tutor or whatever the case is. This isn’t bad, but it’s assuming that you have these connections, you have a language tutor, you have language learning friends, and not everybody has access to this.
Not only that, but it creates an obstacle. Because when I look at this course and I get to the speaking session, I see it and I say, Well, I can’t do that right now. So either I’m going to skip past all the speaking sessions in the entire course and then be frustrated that I can’t have a conversation, or I’m going to say, okay, I’ll come back to this course when I have somebody who I can hand this off to. And then I would just never come back to the course. It’s a lose-lose situation if you’re trying to build your conversational skills.
Now, I know I spent the majority of this video criticizing StoryLearning, criticizing using books to get fluent. However, that isn’t to say that it can’t be beneficial to some language learners. It really depends on your goals and your interests.
Should you use StoryLearning to learn a language?
So how do you know if StoryLearning or using books to learn a language is the best strategy for you? My suggestion is to just use common sense. Do you enjoy reading? Do you enjoy getting lost in a story? Do you wish that when you were reading a book you were just kind of passively taking in the language and your brain is figuring it out for you?
If that’s the case, then StoryLearning or books in general might be a really effective addition to your language learning strategy.
Now, of course, if your goal is to speak the language, it’s just an addition. It’s not the whole strategy. But if it’s something that you enjoy and you’re going to get something out of it, then I would definitely recommend it.
However, if getting lost in a story is really not your cup of tea and you want to get straight to having actual conversations, then I would recommend other things and I’ll talk about that in a second.
Now let’s talk about alternatives. First I’ll talk about other alternatives to StoryLearning, meaning finding books that you enjoy, getting lost in a story, all that kind of jazz. Because while StoryLearning claims to be the only one who does this, this is just not the case. And there are other options to achieve this.
The most well-known alternative for this that I would recommend is LingQ. LingQ is a platform that has a lot of audiobooks and books and videos basically put into its platform and has a transcript for you to learn to comprehend the language.
Other language learners all over the place also use LingQ to upload their own content and use the same strategy to learn a language. Now honestly, the LingQ platform itself is not the greatest, but you can access all of the content for free.
The second alternative for those of you who like to use stories to learn a language is Kwiziq. Now, Kwiziq is only for Spanish and French language learners, but I really like it. It’s very similar to StoryLearning in that the stories are very short, very manageable, and very easy to consume. The platform is also a lot higher quality than StoryLearning’s, and you have a whole bunch of different types of stories because while StoryLearning focuses on one story and just breaks up the course into all these different chapters, the Kwiziq stories are their own individual stories, so you get all these different types of options to keep you interested, keep you hooked.
And because of the way that Kwiziq works, you have access to all of these lessons on every single little grammar point that any particular story uses. And so you can really kind of like deconstruct what you’re struggling with in a particular story and really strengthen any particular skills that you’re missing.
Now, what about alternatives if you want to have conversations in a foreign language and the story isn’t really your thing and you realize now that it’s just really not your thing, but you don’t know what else to do? I know a lot of us get really sucked into marketing with things like StoryLearning. And so if I just saved you a bunch of time and a bunch of money, I don’t want to leave you high and dry with nowhere else to go.
So if that’s the position you’re in, I would highly recommend you take my free course about how to choose a language app for you. It’s a three-day video course that you’ll get sent directly to your inbox with directions about how to use my language app search to find an app that will work best for you and your language learning.