Reading is one of the oldest and the most effective methods of acquiring a second language. Let’s figure out in this article if it’s actually true.
Reasons to doubt the value of reading when learning foreign languages
For most of human history, language has been used for speaking and listening. Reading and writing came much later. Even today millions of illiterate and semi-literate people speak one or more languages.
Look at babies. First they listen. Then they begin to make sounds, gurgling and mumbling. Then they begin to speak. And all this without reading or writing. For several years after birth, they can’t read or even have enough motor skills to write. Yet it doesn’t stop them from developing. So why put yourself through the hell of reading? It’s just unnatural. Shouldn’t we follow nature? By choosing an audio course, you’ll master the pronunciation and then start talking as early and as much as possible. Is there really anything reading can do to help with language acquisition?
Reading wastes time that could have been spent on speaking and listening. After all, our time and energy that can be spent learning languages is limited. And if you’re an introvert, isn’t there a risk that sticking your head in a book will cause you to avoid face-to-face meetings? Don’t you need to be in the thick of things?
Reading can interfere with good pronunciation. Even in languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet, differences in sound attributed to familiar letters can easily throw us off track. When we look at a word in a foreign language, we associate some sound with each symbol. However, there are also reverse situations where different letters represent the same sound.
Such language maneuvers can be confusing and learning a language through reading begins to become overwhelming and tedious.
Nevertheless, we don’t advise you to be scared and forget about reading at all. If you want to speak foremost, reading plays an important role.
Why does reading make sense
Even if it were possible to go the way of an infant, it would take too long. Young children hear words and phrases repeated over the years. At the age of four or five, children have an impressive but still quite limited vocabulary. Nevertheless, they tend to use their vocabulary remarkably effectively.
A good teacher or textbook always focuses on basic vocabulary and structures. There are some similarities to the way children learn. A good teacher organizes their reinforcement and repetition. But that’s not enough.
If you read a lot, you can provide constant contact with the language. Until words and phrases become familiar, you won’t have enough confidence in using them correctly. The great Hungarian polyglot Kato Lomb said: “It is only books that provide an unlimited amount of repetition. It is only reading that can be returned to again and again without being an ordeal.”
Reading can provide tremendous access to fragments of correct language that prepare the ground and reinforce speaking practice. But be realistic and don’t start with scholarly literature, poetry, or Shakespeare.
What to read while learning a new language
It is important to develop the habit of reading texts in a foreign language: books, newspapers, magazines or websites. If you read for at least 20 or 30 minutes every day, you will notice an improvement in your vocabulary and reading skills. For effective reading practice at the start, we suggest the following tips:
- Choose what you like. You can focus on a topic that interests you: soccer, the Internet, fashion, education, news, etc. Look for magazines, books or web pages which discuss these topics. If you are interested in the topic of health, why not study different ways to improve it in a foreign language? If you want to visit Italy, why not study information about Rome in Italian?
- Read simplified books (graded readers, easy readers, learner literature). These are books written in a simple language. They use only the simplest words and grammar. Simplified books are perfect for people who are just beginning to read in a new language. They come in a variety of difficulty levels. Visit the website of the Extensive Reading Foundation, which awards the best simplified books. The following publishers produce simplified books in English:
- Macmillan Readers;
- Cambridge Readers;
- Black Cat;
- Penguin Readers;
- Egmont Easy Readers.
How can I improve my foreign language level by reading texts
Try reading the same book, magazine, article, or web page several times. After the first reading, save them and reread them again in a couple of days or weeks. You will notice that the next time, you will understand it better. Naturally, if you are a beginner, you will be limited by the lack of vocabulary. There will be so many new words and combinations that will make reading into struggling, not pleasure. However, if you use special techniques, reading becomes a tool for learning a foreign language.
5 Tips for reading in a foreign language efficiently
Tip 1: Start basic and small
Children’s books include short sentences and sections. They also provide the option of listening to the audio versions. This is great practice for beginners. (For example, you could read “Charlotte’s Web” in Spanish or watch the Learn French series on the BBC.) Don’t try to immerse yourself too fast in a book or newspaper, as it can be frustrating (or take too much time to continually learn every word you come across). Instead, wait until the language becomes more comfortable for you.
Tip 2: Choose material you’ve already read in your language
Read what you already read once in your native language. It’s okay if it’s been 15 years since you last read this book. Anyway you’ll be able to remember the context. It’ll help to learn new vocabulary and grammatical constructions without even realizing it. If you have experience reading Harry Potter books, for example, you might try reading it again in Spanish or any other language you want to learn.
Tip 3: Read books with their accompanying audiobooks
Even if you don’t understand everything, reading just one book while listening to an audio recording by the narrator can help you better understand and accustom you to the general pace of native speakers. However, if you are just beginning to learn a language, relying only on an audiobook runs the risk of not understanding some of the terms at all. So, to make sure you don’t miss any grammar or vocabulary, try reading the book while listening to the accompanying audiobook.
Keep in mind that most audiobooks do not repeat the spoken lines word for word, which can lead to unnecessary questions and misunderstandings. However, sometimes watching television or movies subtitled in the local language may also be a good option.
The best possible way to practice is to listen to books while reading the original text. This will provide your brain with the most effective way possible.
Tip 4: Read content aligned to your level
You should try to read literature that is difficult but not too demanding for you. However, finding foreign language reading resources that match your current level is one of the most difficult tasks. Here’s some help for you:
- Reading social media posts, short, simple articles, or novels written for children is a good start for beginners.
- If you are at an intermediate level, you should focus on reading shorter news stories and novels that you have encountered before.
- If you are already at an advanced level, read novels, articles, or any other type of native literature you find interesting.
Tip 5: Make flashcards for every new word you find
Flashcards are useful not only for learning before you start reading, but also for learning while you read. Every time you see a phrase or word new to you, create a flashcard to help yourself remember them. Or, better yet, start keeping your own dictionary in the Langavia Personal Dictionary app – add to it all the words and phrases you don’t know, along with the context in which you find them.
This practice will allow you to memorize vocabulary much more effectively, because when you refer to the context, you’ll recall the book itself (and the emotions you felt while reading it).
Books in general are a great way to expand your vocabulary. We’ve talked about this in detail here.
Add all unfamiliar to you words to your personal dictionary along with context