Reading has been extremely important on my journey with languages. It’s no coincidence the languages I speak the best are also the languages in which I’ve read the most. I see language learning as a holistic process, meaning a combination of factors have to come together for success, so I want to highlight that reading is just ONE PART of the process, nevertheless very important.
1) Why is reading important?
2) What’s the most effective way to read as language learners?
These two questions will be addressed in this article, but first watch this short video I recorded with David Mansaray about reading:
An article about reading wouldn’t be complete without addressing the acquisition of words. We might come to the obvious conclusion that reading is important for increasing vocabulary. This of course true, but surprisingly, I’ve never picked up a book for the sole purpose of learning words. One of the simple “secrets” to learning words, if I can say that, is to select a book of interest and learn words as they appear in context. When we are interested in what we’re reading, our brains have a way of digesting new words more efficiently. I’ve developed some special techniques for learning words and expressions from context, which I’ll go into detail in my up-and-coming book, but generally speaking, we learn vocabulary best when we combine emotions, context and interest. Instead of directing your attention towards words, focus on exploring ideas. Learning words through reading Is never a goal but a consequence of exploring what I find interesting.
“I don’t want just words. If that’s all you have for me, you’d better go” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald
Speaking Is Not Enough for Reaching the “Upper Levels” of Language Competence.
Many people say that going to a country to learn a language is the “best” way to learn, or a “guaranteed” way to speak a language fluently. This is an article about reading so I won’t discuss fluency here, but I will say these common beliefs are far off from the reality. Speaking with people is a valuable way to learn, and it’s a core part of my language learning. However as I’ve mentioned before, successful language learning requires a number of factors coming together in order to build a language core.
If you pay attention, you’ll notice that most of the conversations we have with people repeat themselves. We’re social beings so we often talk to each other about our lives, what we’ve been doing and how we’re feeling. It’s unlikely that we’ll jump straight into a conversation about politics or philosophy with a person. You’ll also notice that conversations change very quickly. We might speak to a person for one hour, but speak to them about ten different topics. This is how we communicate with each other as humans. What does this mean for the language learner who doesn’t read?
Obviously, If you speak to a lot of people without reading, you’ll get less exposure to the language than those who read in addition to speaking. I’m pointing this out because most conversations are general, and all people have different interests. So with that in mind, how will you develop your vocabulary about politics? Geography? Philosophy? Economics? When we look at it this way it’s clear that without reading It’s difficult to learn spcialized vocabulary and to refine the way we speak about specialized topics.
As language learners we can select texts and stick to one topic, which will help us refine the way we speak about it. However outside a language exchange, it’s unrealistic to think we can select a topic of conversation and stick to it, because language is free flowing and spontaneous. Therefore relying on solely conversations to learn vocabulary and improve how we communicate puts a lot of our learning into the hands of others. And we'll fail to embrace all the different factors which can lead us towards success. As I always say: “languages cannot be taught, they can only be learned”
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.”― Dr. Seuss
Mental Time with a Language
Reading allows the mind to travel anywhere in the world and explore novel ideas in the comfort of your own home. This is what I mean by spending “mental time” with a language through reading. I’m constantly exploring in the languages I’ve learned through the written word, and this exploration helps me to connect the dots.
Writers use specialized vocabulary, often express themselves clearly, and writing is also generally more dense than speech. The more time I spend with this type of language the more I’m able to express my thoughts with precision.
“It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” - Albert Einstein
How to Read in a Foreign Language
I mentioned earlier that I don’t read to learn words, but to explore ideas. However this doesn’t mean I don’t have a strategy for learning words. There are a number of steps I go through to make language I encounter my own. I’ll explain the first stage here briefly with an example:
- I do most of my reading with physical books. If it’s an article I’ve found on the internet I print it. Reading on the computer tires my eyes, it’s distracting and I am not able to digest information from digital sources like I am able to with physical literature.
- When I am beginner/Intermediate learner I only read articles. The types of books I like to read are too complicated at this stage and I prefer to read shorter content that I find interesting, even although it’s challenging.
- I make notes on the article and underline new words and expressions to make the content mine. I’m selective about what I take into the second phase of the process, which is all about digesting the content and making it active.
I can’t express how important reading has been for my development as a language learner. Written language is special because we can work with it in more ways than we can with other forms of language. It’s also refined. Writers take the time to select appropriate words to express their thoughts and emotions. Immersing yourself in this refined form of language will refine both your thinking and language skills.
I work as a language coach with over 100 students from all over the world and I’ve worked with hundreds more in the past. After years working with my students I’ve realized that reading is often the missing piece for those struggling to advance, and an essential tool for those who make big progress.
I hope you've found the post interesting, but before you leave, I have one question for you:
How important is reading for your language learning?