Learn languages through reading

One of the hardest things to do, is move from an intermediate or advanced level of the language you are speaking into a native or near native level of speaking. I have friends who have done that and I was really impressed with how they did it. I’d like to share my thoughts on how to become more fluent in a language here.

It took me years to work out how to get fluent, but I’ll give you some information here that will help you to become fluent in the language or languages that you are learning, once you know, it’s easy to get rid of the main block that has so far prevented you from learning a language fluently. My story starts in Vietnam…

I Love travelling and a few years ago I spent some time travelling in Asia. During this time I spent some time living in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam, about two and a half years. One of my close friends is from Vietnam and I’m always impressed by how good his English is. He has never been to an English speaking country, but he speaks English almost like a native speaker, so I became curious and asked him how he had learned English to such a high level. He told me that first he just studied in the usual way and then just by reading a lot of books in English. He also said that learning the culture associated with that language is also important. He told me that even if your language skills are not that good, if you know about the culture you can communicate really well even with limited language skills, and then after that you will start to become more fluent. I will come back to this in a moment. First I want to mention something called the Input Hypothesis.

One of the most important things about language learning, is that first we need to read and listen, before we can speak and write. Stephen Krashen the linguist and activist calls this the Input Hypothesis. When we are very young, before we start speaking, first we spend a lot of time not speaking and instead listening to everything going on around us. Even when you start speaking fairly early on when you are learning a language, you still need to do at least some reading and listening before you can speak and write in the language that you are learning. Even if it’s only 2 minutes of listening, listening and reading, ‘input’ comes first. It’s the law of nature.

It helps if we already know something of the culture of the country of the language we are learning in our native language first.

Try to understand the culture contained within the language you are learning, this will greatly improve your ability to speak the new language that you are learning. When you learn new words in the language you are learning, you will already understand the concepts behind the words that you are learning. Richard Feynman the Nobel Prize Winning Physicist did a BBC interview titled the Pleasure of Finding Things Out, during the interview he describes how knowing the name of something is not the same as knowing about the thing.

all the kids were playing in the field and one kid said
to me, “See that bird, what kind of a bird is that?” And I said,
“I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.” He says,
“It’s a brown throated thrush,” or something, “Your father
doesn’t tell you anything.” But it was the opposite: my father
had taught me. Looking at a bird he says, “Do you know what
that bird is? It’s a brown throated thrush; but in Portuguese
it’s a . . . in Italian a . . . ,” he says “in Chinese it’s a . . ., in
Japanese a . . .,” etcetera. “Now,” he says, “you can know in all
the languages you want to know what the name of that bird
is and when you’ve finished with all that,” he says, “you’ll
know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You only
know about humans in different places and what they call the
bird. Now,” he says, “let’s look at the bird.”

Richard Feynman – The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Concepts that seem familiar in one language and another may not actually mean the same thing. For example, take the words ‘Family Life’. In Japanese we can use the equivalent word for Family Life, but Family Life in England follows different patterns than Family Life in Japan. So knowing the words to say ‘Family Life’ in Japanese tell us nothing about what Family Life in Japan really is. So we need to learn the meaning behind the words and the processes that are going on behind the words. Also there are words and concepts that exist in one culture but don’t have an equivalent in another culture. So we have to be careful when we are learning not to impose our ideas of what a word means onto the culture we are learning, and also we need to remember that knowing the name of something in another language doesn’t really tell you anything about the culture we are learning about.

So therefore when you are learning a new language, it’s good to learn something about the culture first, in your first language, which can be done by reading a book translated into English first, and then approaching reading the original version of the novel in the language that you are learning. Once your skills have developed then you can learn new concepts in the new language, because your language skills will be better and you will not break the state of flow that you are in when you are reading in your new language.

When reading, sometimes we can feel pressured as though we are going to be tested on the material we have been reading, but research has shown that by reading without the pressure of being tested afterwards, just reading for the pleasure of it, has improved the skill of learners learning a new language.

Also another thing is when learning new vocabulary, it’s important to see the words in context.

So as a tip for learning languages, I recommend reading in that language, and reading something that also teaches us about the culture of the country we are learning about.

If you are learning Spanish, you could give reading one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels a go, for example ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ As well as learning the language you will also learn about South America at the same time. You could try reading the novel in English first and then reading it in Spanish after you have read it in English, another reason this is useful, is because when you read it in Spanish after reading it in English you will have an idea of what is going on in the novel which will help you to understand what you are learning. You could also listen to ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ on audio book in Spanish while you are reading along so you can get the correct pronunciation. One Hundred Years of Solitude is one the most amazing books I have ever read.

One Hundred Years of Solitude in Original Spanish – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

If you are learning Japanese, you could do something similar, Kawabata Yasunari’s novels are a great way in to learning about the nuances of Japanese culture. Why not try reading the novel in your own language first and then in Japanese while listening to the audiobook. His novel Snow Country is beautiful. I think this works because you learn about the concepts first in your own langauge and then learn the new vocabulary in the second language. I think in the beginning stages of learning a new language this is good because it breaks down the complicated process of trying to learn a new concept and a new vocabulary word at the same time in a new language into simpler parts. Which makes it easier for the language to go in and also puts us in a state of flow.

Kawabata Yasunari – Snow Country in Japanese

Reading is one of the best ways to learn new vocabulary, because when you read and see the word in a sentence and in the context of a story or a non fiction book that you are interested in, you will find yourself being able to remember the word more easily because it’s connected to something memorable and to something that evokes an emotion and feeling inside of you. You could also directly study the culture, not only through novels but through directly studying that culture using non-fiction books.

If you only learn from memorizing lists or flashcards you will most likely forget what you’ve learned quite quickly. It’s also more enjoyable to learn through reading. Some people find flashcards work for them, but if you’re not in to flashcards and memorizing from lists then reading is great way to learn a new language, and also if you’re only memorizing from flashcards, you are learning nothing about the culture or context of the words.

Also it’s really relaxing aswell, i think reading can make you feel very relaxed

Also I think because you feel an emotional connection to the story and words you are more likely to remember them. If we already know the story in our own language and have an idea of the concepts of that culture by learning about it first, we can start to understand and pick up the new language.

So, to help you to remember, I think reading helps and it helps if we already know something of the culture of the country of the language we are learning in our native language first.

So try to understand the culture contained within the language you are learning, this will greatly improve your ability to speak the new language that you are learning.

Thank you for reading.