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Make Libraries Your Language Learning Headquarters – Here’s Why

foreign language learning in libraries

Neil Gaiman’s defence of libraries comes at a crucial time: people begin to wonder whether these places still serve a useful purpose in today’s societies. For language learners, a library can become an extremely valuable resource, even with the online world at their fingertips. What should a foreign language guerrilla learner expect from librarians – and how to make it work?

0. Libraries aren’t what they used to be, so stop using them wrong

My mum introduced me to our local library and that was it. Books took centre stage, and even on a day full of football, fights and video games, me and my brother still found time to read. But the problem with people’s perception of a library is that – very often – that’s all there’s to it: stuff you can borrow.
It’s changed nowadays, and the most important part of a library tend to be the people staffing, supporting and using it. These are sources of information, inspiration and help. So whilst it’s true that libraries can’t beat Internet for content, they sure can exceed the Web when it comes to the interpersonal dimension.
How does this apply to foreign language learning – can this happen in libraries?

1. Dig deep and specialize

Sure, you can find many free language courses online – and they work well for the most part. But the problem begins when you’re looking for a rare language – or for specific areas to learn within a popular one. This becomes either a paid option, or an area of such expertise that internet cannot supply all the answers (I know, I know. Sounds incredible).
Bigger libraries can be good places to start. Their catalogues often contain hidden treasures, and the access to scientific and academic online “walled gardens” means that you may be able to find what you’re looking for. Plus, there’s always someone around to help you start your search.
What’s more – if you’re lucky enough to have a specialized library for your language, you’ve truly struck gold! This is where things get really interesting, and the resources you gain access to are frequently much more valuable than any online alternative.

2. Slow down and go back in time

Remember cassettes?
Librarians do. They may still have a few of them in stock – language courses, video tapes with subtitled films…just because the medium is dead, it doesn’t mean that the language should die along with it. And if you still have some old tapes / vinyls / video tapes lying around – it may be possible to bring them to your library to actually use them on the devices they have (once your Walkman finally goes the way of the dodo).
Feeling awesome whilst learning Hungarian from microfilms – that’s a big bonus, but there’s more to that retro set-up. Libraries – with their silence, lack of stimuli and distractions – are perfect for some intense language learning work. Not necessarily for conversations, but definitely good for reading, listening or writing practice. Try it out and see how it suits you.

3. Social learning? Get real.

You can post things on friends’ walls until they get fed up with your search for a perfect German study buddy. Or you can go to a German library and post one note on their message board.
In fact, the library will make this even easier for you. The help desk, the event programme, the classes organized at the spot – this is what makes today’s thriving libraries special.
It may feel weird at first, but this may be the best decision you take as a language learner.

4. Next step: look for your library (and look after it!)

Go and see how many libraries there are around you. Look for their language learning sections. Look for specialized foreign language libraries.
Ideally, call them up or pop in to sign on. They’re much better in person.
Good luck!


(Photo credit: Brenda Engberts Kaya  / eltpics, some rights reserved)

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