How to read in a foreign language

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:

Vocabulary

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.

I’ll go into the specifics in my book, but you can listen to an interview I recorded about “How to Live your Life through Language” to get some more insights about spending mental time with language.

“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:

  1.  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.
  2. 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.
  3.  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. Here’s an example:

 

Luca Lampariello reading example

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’ve developed some extremely effective techniques for reading, learning vocabulary and activating what you learn as quickly as possible,  which I apply on my students, and discuss in my workshop.  I’ll also be going into more detail in my book.

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? 

  • Simi Silva says:

    Hi Luca,

    I have found that reading in Hindi has been extremely helpful in helping me learn the language. I’ve implemented your suggestion on highlighting the unknown words in the text (works well on PDF files too) and then looking them up after a few pages of reading and writing the meaning in the margins. I need to work on adding examples of how the word is used to, as I’m sure that will speed up the learning process. Huge thank you going out to you and David for all your advice and help so that language learners can succeed!

    Best Regards,
    Simi Silva

  • Artur says:

    Hi Luca, David, I must admit that this is a very interesting topic that you’ve brought up. I generally like listening to both of you giving constructive advice and I appreciate your effort that you put in it, however, I’ve one technical reservation about this interview. Don’t get me wrong but I think you must have been sitting around quite busy street that day and there were too much noise… it would be great if you find a better solution (quieter place or microphone clipped to your shirts) about this issue as it seems the video footage (1080 HD) is much better than audio which I found very noisy.

    Kind Regards,
    Artur

  • Lisa says:

    I think reading is extremely important for being able to express yourself at “higher levels” in your native language as well as in a foreign language. Everyday language is great and it is fun to be able to chat with people, but to be able to talk about a wider variety of topics and go deeper with those topics, you need to read about them and know how to talk about them. Good reminder!

  • Adrián says:

    Thank you very much for these tips, Luca. My favorite topics are PAINT, LANGUAGES, CHESS, RELIGION, THEOLOGY, PHILOSOPHY, LITERATURE, POLITICS, HISTORY, DEBATES, CRITICAL, MUSIC, OPERA, ETC. Lately I’m very interested in specific topics as ‘the legality of Homeschooling in Argentina’, or ‘Fundamentals and testimonies of Homeopathy’. But my curiosity about topics not allow me to stay in the new language ambiguous when read; and I always end up reading in my native Spanish. One of my mistakes is to think that is not worth stopping in atypical words me “confused” in my learning. So I think that in your article; is a great solution to my habits. Thanks and Good Luck!

  • davide says:

    I think reading is most important thing to learn languages , especially when you’re at intermediate level. When I was in high school ,I hated English, always boring grammar exercises. When I finished to study English , I started to love this language , reading American and English newspapers and sport magazines , because I was passionate football and ice hockey fan: this was my way to learn English at good level.I agree with Luca. I learned because I loved what I read. I adopted the same method with Portuguese , and was easier because is a language with many words similar to Italian.
    I’m adopting the same method, following Luca’s workshop,for learning the Russian language .
    I started with Pimsleur before,later I continued with Assimil.
    I’m currently reading short articles on magazines or Lingq.com.It works very well, because I learn without never get bored, even if this language has a very complicated grammar.

  • Claire says:

    Two of my favorite polyglots sharing their point of view on reading. Wow! I loved so much this video, you have no idea!

    Ottimo lavoro Luca, come sempre!

  • honingbij says:

    I read intensively and extensively with parallel texts using Hunalign. It totally revolutionized my language learning ability.

    Thanks so much for this article, Luca.

  • prams says:

    In the picture of the example, why you put the meaning of the unknown words in the other space? Not right above the unknown words if there’s still space to do it. Is there any difference?

  • Benjamin says:

    For those interesting in reading news, Presseurop and Cafe Babel are really cool websites. I often use them because the articles are translated into different European languages.

  • Philippe says:

    Reading is absolutely essential to my learning process. It’s just too efficient to pass on. I use extensions in google chrome (google dictionary and instant translate) and all I have to do is click a word and the translation appears, click again and the definition shows up. All that’s missing is examples of the word being used in sentences.

  • Fabio says:

    Luca, hai detto che preferisci leggere in lingua su supporti cartacei (libri, giornali ecc) che sul computer: cosa pensi dei lettori ereader ? Hanno caratteristiche visive molto vicine alla carta stampata, quindi non affaticano la vista; hanno limiti nella multimedialità (no audio, scarse possibilità di navigare ecc), quindi non si incorre nella frammentazione dell’attenzione (come avviene leggendo sul computer); inoltre è possibile prendere note. Le caratteristiche sopra descritte si riferiscono al sony reader (dispotivo in mio possesso) e quindi non so se altri modelli di ereader abbiano funzionalità e caratteristiche diverse. Mi piacerebbe ricevere un tuo parere 🙂

    • admin says:

      Caro Fabio,

      l’e-reader è un buon compresso fra libro stampato e un I-pad per esempio, e – come dici tu stesso – puoi prendere nota. Inoltre è compatto quindi puoi portarti un sacco di libri in 1 kilo e meno di strumento. Ma non sottovalutare il potere che hanno la tua mano, una matita e un pezzo di carta insieme a livello di digestione dell’informazione.

      Luca

  • Fabio says:

    Grazie per la risposta Luca 🙂

  • Martika says:

    My books!They are the same as yours! I have much more colours!

  • David says:

    Awesome idea Luca! I’ve been reading a lot in French, but doing it mostly to learn vocabulary. But your concept of reading to explore ideas is very intriguing. Can’t wait to try it out over the weekend. Thanks for sharing.

  • Patryk says:

    Hi Luca,

    reading has been always my favourite way of acquiring new vocabulary and I have to say I enjoyed your article hugely. I have one question to you. What do you think about comparing the original text with the translated one? Sometimes I find difficult to translate some piece of text only by myself, because I’m not sure if I’m doing that properly and I’m just afraid of memorizing it. At that time I take translated text and see how the sentence looks like in my mother tongue translated by someone else. Do you think it’s a good way of obtaining new wrods?
    Regards,

    Patryk.

  • Luigi says:

    I have been reading a lot in English and must admit that it is very useful in the language learning process: I’m always learning new words, expressions, way of communicating my own feelings, and as reading itself is one of the best way to enlarge your mind and make your knowledge wider, I think that reading in a foreign language is the best way to combine the mere purpose of reading to that of picking up a language. According to me, however, sometimes reading can be misleading as well: you may just learn a foreign language without understading anything of what you’re reading. So in order to kill two birds with one stone, you should stay focused and get into the text so as to both learn new vocabulary and learn new things in general.

    Thank you
    Luigi

  • Alice says:

    I’ve taken up Kato Lomb’s suggestion of reading a book whilst listening to the audio. I like this because in addition to the benefits of reading (higher level language etc) I’m listening to a native speaker’s accent and not my own. She also suggests reading a bilingual text whilst listening. Generally I don’t like that as I prefer to be immersed in my target language, and there is the hassle of finding or creating bilingual texts. Although there is this great site for Spanish/English/French texts with audio. I focus on the Spanish and peek at the English when necessary.

  • Ilnaz says:

    hi luca i think these tips are so practical and i will try it for sure. I want to say thank you from buttom of my heart for sharing your experience in learning language.i really appreciate it .

  • Gee says:

    You are just perfect! Thank you 🙂 I also improve my vocabulary by trying to skim through a dictionary in my smartphone https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=cz.prialabs.dictionary&hl=cs

  • […] vocabulary by spending time absorbing the language on your own. I would recommend his article, How to Read in a Foreign Language for more […]

  • […] vocabulary by spending time absorbing the language on your own. I would recommend his article, How to Read in a Foreign Language for more […]

  • Angelo says:

    I have been developed a method, which I take the words and phrases from the text that I have learned and put with context into a small notebook and create phrases with them then, sometimes I retell the story in few words. A think using it with speaking you might memorize better.

    • Any time you get to use what you’ve learned just magnifies your ability by a factor of 10 in my book. There’s only so much theory we can absorb. If you don’t put it into practice, what’s the point?

  • Newell says:

    Writing is another way to develop and embed the language. When learning Spanish (at the age of 63), I turned my assignment for ’10 sentences in the imperfect’ into a more useful assignment to write a story I might tell in conversation using at least 10 sentences in the imperfect (along with the past perfect, and present. This approach caused me to choose vocabulary – some of which was new. I chose to think through the story in Spanish rather than write it in English and then translate it. And, whether you are a serious writer (pro or amateur)or not, you can rework your story, refining and elaborating it with refinements and word choices that will further strengthen your vocabulary. Before the end of my immersion, I wrote short pieces of fiction (not for publication). I also discovered that my stories enabled my tutor to identify consistent errors or weak spots for further practice. And – most important of all – she showed me how my habits of thought in English didn’t always lend themselves to Spanish habits. English makes a greater use of the indicative and imperative voice than Spanish; Spanish makes greater use of the subjunctive and the conditional modes. These are distinct cultural “mentalities” that underlie and shape native speaker fluency.

  • Ritchie says:

    Stellar advice. I concur wholeheartedly with the importance of reading. I find that the more I read meaningful content, to me, the better I can converse with my language partners or with random people I may meet locally. While my level of Spanish is intermediate, I know I will acquire advanced skills in the language because I love to read. Of course, I have used Assimil, which for me is brilliant, but I know it matters most what resonates with the language learner. The same with reading, what matters is reading content that resonates with you. Thanks again and good day.

    Ritchie

  • radek says:

    Hello luca when are you going to publish your book:-) regards radek polonia

  • In the video you said, “Read a book you like…”

    That seems like such obvious advice, but I think that most beginning students overlook the power of enjoying the process itself.

    Great post!

  • Susana says:

    Really useful 🙂 I found also something extra with audio pronunciation which can be useful for people here

    Vocabulary exercises

  • Alli says:

    I’m approaching my third year of teaching Spanish and have recently taken up blogging and reading as ongoing personal practices. I wanted to dive into a learning community that is passionate about languages. This is the first post I’ve read on language learning and I’m very glad I stopped by. These are such simple truths that are so enlightening. Thanks for the insights! I’m motivated to keep reading.

  • […] How to read in a foreign language – Luca takes on the topic of improving reading skills in your foreign language […]

    • Rom says:

      Hi Luca!

      I am about a year into German, and really love reading adult fiction books. I’m not struggling, since I can work out most of the words based on the context from the words i do know around it. I really hate stopping to look up words, and feel fine continuing on if i got the idea or the word from the context. Do you feel this is an OK approach?

  • Ly says:

    To make this process of reading a tad bit more effective, I would suggest checking out InterlinearBooks.com

    • KeesAtBermudaWord says:

      Books like these make reading foreign language texts a lot faster. Same kind of e-books, with correct pop-up translation and integrated spaced repetition, for fast reading of a language you don’t master yet, at learn-to-read-foreign-languages.com

  • It looks like neither in the video nor the article you are willing to share any strategy on how to read in a foreign language. Maybe you don’t want to give away the content your worshop. From what I read underlying and highlighting are mostly a waste of time compared to say, flashcards. http://ideas.time.com/2013/01/09/highlighting-is-a-waste-of-time-the-best-and-worst-learning-techniques/

    • admin says:

      The gesture of highlighting – as much as the higlighter itself – are just tools. What you make out of these tools is what really counts.

      The same with flashcards. Some find them great, some don’t. I have personally never used it and never felt the need to do so, but I am sure that those who like using them and use them efficiently benefit from it greatly.

      I highly recommend this book:

      http://www.amazon.com/Make-It-Stick-Successful-Learning/dp/0674729013

      L

    • KeesAtBermudaWord says:

      In my opinion the best strategy for learning to read a foreign language is combining interlinear books or pop-up translated books with integrated spaced repetition. On the one hand you’ll encounter a lot of new words in a fun way because you’re doing extensive reading, on the other hand you make sure you memorize the low frequency words because of the integrated spaced repetition. Examples are InterlinearBooks.com or learn-to-read-foreign-languages.com

  • Dude says:

    I agree. But to elaborate on the importance of reading it gives you a physical impression of the word, which is easier to recall than a heard word and also removes all ambiguity associated to just hearing the language.

    You may not notice but subconsciously you “summon” the phrases and words that you’ve seen before when having a new conversation. Reading is like saying, listening and seeing the language all in your head; it is a supernatural process to learning and in the intermediate+ stages should be the primary form of learning.

  • allasobirova says:

    It’s extremely important. I even started the blog for those who need short simple texts. Because when I was a beginner I had only kid’s books in my disposal.Please check it up and give me the topics (grammar/vocabulary) and I will post texts.
    http://languagereading.blogspot.com/

  • […] English language, rather than just teaching it. He found that he had the greatest success through reading and being OK with making mistakes – taking up the ultimate challenge of completing Steven […]

  • […] articles, poems or essays that you choose are on topics you are interested in. You’ll find reading is no fun if you force yourself to learn from boring texts that don’t motivate you to look-up […]

  • Eloy Chávez says:

    I learned Spanish directly in Mexico , I think is the easiest way to learn a difficult language, visit the country and go to school for it , I attended http://www.taanspanish.com/

  • Hannah says:

    Learning a language has given me a look into new cultures in a way i never imagined. I had traveled, but when you can hear peoples stories it changes everything. graciameansgrace.com

  • Jovo Krneta says:

    This application translation-embedder.com will enable you to upload a PDF or TXT e book and get back the same e book but … when you click on a word you will get an instant translation and will be able to hear a text to speech of the word. I use it to learn german.

  • Janderson Santos says:

    Reading is very important for learning process. I am not able to read books. But I am anxious about getting better with the English language and improve it a lot. So I have learned just a little by reading. In fact I did not read, just watched videos and series, but I found a video on YouTube. Yes I found one of your videos and I started to watch them.
    Finally I am here to thank you Luca because your experience, your videos and your way of speaking about language learning chaged me. Thank you so much!

  • Janderson Santos says:

    Reading is very important for learning process. I am not able to read books. But I am anxious about getting better with the English language and improve it a lot. So I have learned just a little by reading. In fact I haven’t read much but I watched videos and series, but I found a video on YouTube. Yes I found one of your videos and I started to watch them.

    Finally I am here to thank you Luca because your experience, your videos and your way of speaking about language learning chaged me. Thank you so much!

  • […] Read more of Luca Lampariello's article here […]

  • […] or other forms of communal exposure. These are all quality ways to embrace a second language, but some say this alone is not enough. Indeed, there is so much more that children, like adults, can gain through […]

  • Edi Bradicic says:

    hi,
    we have created a reader that will help you read two books in two different languages…great way to learn a new langage…
    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.book2.book2

  • […] about how reading in foreign languages helps you build your vocab and speak more naturally by  Luca Lampariello or “how to read effectively in a foreign language by Olly Richards”. Olly’s six step reading […]

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