Just as the printing press democratized access to the written word, ebooks are again revolutionizing how information is produced, distributed and consumed. Even successful authors, whose very livelihoods have depended on the sale of dead-tree books (e.g. Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek and The Four-Hour Body, and Seth Godin, author of Tribes, Permission Marketing, and All Marketers are Liars) have seen the writing on the literary wall, and agree that “print is dead”, or at least “dying fast”…

But this is not necessarily a bad thing considering the myriad advantages of ebooks, especially for learners of foreign languages.

The Rise of eBooks

Here are a few reasons why the ebook is beating print books to a “pulp” (pun intended):

Lower Production & Distribution Costs

This allows for lower retail prices, putting books in the hands of more and more readers. And many ebooks are available at no cost at all, including literary classics no longer covered by copyright (e.g. Project Gutenberg) and new works that are free by choice (this is one of the common “freemium” strategies where an ebook is used for free marketing to promote other paid content or services.)

Read Anytime, Anywhere

You can literally carry thousands of ebooks with you on your mobile device or ebook reader. Language learning is then just a click away whether you are on the bus, a plane, or bored to tears in a meeting. And if you forgot to download books at home, you can always download more on the go via WiFi or even 3G networks.

More Time Efficient

Many ebook readers allow you to easily cut and paste words and even look up unknown terms using built in dictionaries. This can save the learner hours and hours, especially in ideographic languages that usually require looking up characters by strokes, radicals, or handwritten input.

So now that I’ve made the case for ebooks, let’s look at my two favorite weapons of choice for using ebooks in foreign language learning:

Best Ebook Readers

There are heaps of ebook reader devices on the market today (the Amazon Kindle, the iPad, the Sony PRS series, the Barnes & Noble Nook, etc.), as well as numerous ebook reader apps available for Android devices, iPhones, iPads, iPod touches, Blackberry devices, PCs and Macs. After trying out hundreds of different devices at last year’s CES and stealing…I mean “borrowing”…a few of my friend’s devices for further testing, here are my two finalists:

Amazon Kindle | Japanese1st Place: Amazon Kindle

Starting at $79 on Amazon.

While I am a full-fledged Apple fanboy, I must give Amazon credit where credit is due. Despite serious competition from the Apple iPad, Sony’s various ebook readers, the Barnes & Noble Nook, and myriad other me-too products, the Kindle remains a hot seller, and my humble opinion, the world’s best ebook reader.

Here’s what I love most about the Kindle:

1) E ink is easy on the eyes and your battery.

Unlike the pixels used on computers and smartphones (which can wreak havoc on your eyes and zap your battery), the Kindle’s use of E Ink creates a reading experience pretty darn close to physical books, all while consuming very little battery life. They accomplish this amazing feat by employing millions of itsy-bitsy, electronically charged “microcapsules”, within which there are tons of little black pigment pieces and white (or rather, light gray) pigment pieces. Text is produced by causing the black pigments to run to the top of specific microcapsules, while the background is created when the gray pigment is forced to the top. The Kindle display is also much easier to read outside in the sun, while most other devices (including the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch) suffer from serious glare problems.

2) Direct access to the world’s largest book store pretty much anywhere in the world.

Users can wirelessly access over 750,000 ebooks, plus heaps of audiobooks, newspapers, magazines and blogs, in over 100 countries worldwide. And unlike the iPad, the 3G wireless connectivity is provided free of charge.

3) Great Apple and Android apps.

If you don’t want to fork over the funds for a Kindle, or you already own one but don’t feel like lugging it around all the time, you can always just download the free Kindle app.

Available for Android, iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Blackberry, Windows Phone 7, PC, and Mac.

iBooks2nd Place: Apple iPad & iBooks

iBooks is free on iOS and Mac OS X. The iPad is available on Amazon or at the Apple Store.

1) More than JUST an ebook reader.

My only gripe with the Kindle is that it is only an ebook reader. With the iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, on the other hand, your device is only limited by the apps you download to it. I currently have about 100 hundred apps on my iPod touch, including Skype for calling tutors and language partners, Evernote for keeping notes of new words and phrases, iLingQ, etc.

2) Sexy, intuitive user interface.

The Kindle interface isn’t bad by any measure, but it pales in comparison to the rich, elegant design of Apple iBooks. The new “retina display”, available on the iPhone 4, iPod touches (4th gen), and likely the next vesion of the iPad, creates extremely crisp, vivid images, and makes reading text far easier than on lower resolution devices.

3) Excellent built in dictionary, bookmarks, highlighting and search features.

iBook’s built in dictionary, bookmarks and highlighting tools are a thing of beauty. To look up a term, you need simply tap the word and then click “Dictionary” from the pop-up menu. To highlight, you again just tap a word and then drag the handles to the left or right to select the words or sentences you want. Bookmarking requires just a quick tap in the upper right corner. Best of all, you can then quickly go back to your saved highlights or bookmarks using the table of contents tab. Also, you can use the search feature to quickly find all instances of a particular word (a very useful feature for language learners as it allows you to quickly see how a particular word is used in context.)

Getting the Most Out of Ebook Readers

As we’ve seen, ebooks and ebook readers are wonderful language learning tools indeed. But as ESLpod’s Dr. Jeff McQuillan puts it, “A fool with a tool is still a fool.” Here then, are some tips on how to best apply these amazing new tools.

1) Don’t fall into the trap of reading more than you listen.

Reading is an important part of language acquisition, and is an essential component of learning how to write well in a foreign language. But remember that listening and speaking should be the focus of language study, especially in the early stages of learning. It is all too easy to spend too more time with your nose in a book than listening to and communicating with native speakers, especially for introverts and those who have been studying for too long with traditional, grammar and translation based approaches.

2) Read an entire page before looking up unknown words.

Lest you get distracted and lost in the details, I suggest making at least one full pass through each page in your ebook before looking up unfamiliar words.

3) Choose books that are just a tad beyond your comprehension level.

By “comprehensible” I mean that you can understand about 70 to 85% of the text. Too far above or below this and you will quickly get bored and likely give up.

4) Use the Kindle’s Text-to-Speech Tool.

The Kindle can literally read English-language content out loud to you. Use this feature when you are doing other tasks that require your vision but not your ears, and as a way of building your listening comprehension. I suggest listening to a passage first and then reading to back up your comprehension.

5) Get audio book versions of ebooks you read.

While the Kindle’s text-to-speech tool works well, it can get a bit monotonous with its robotic pronunciation. For longer books, I suggest buying the audio book version the book, which tend to be read by professional voice actors, and are therefore far easier to listen to… Audio books are available from Audible (get a free 30-day trial), iTunes, and countless other sites, and make sure to check out the free Audiobooks app for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.

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