Learning A Language By Reading Books

Learning A Language By Reading Books

For the bookworms out there, reading books in a foreign language can be a great way to expand your vocabulary, whilst slowly introducing you to the grammar of your new language. There are a number of ways you can incorporate the thing you love doing most into your language studies, and gets loads out of it, no matter what level you’re at.

What are some of the techniques?

1) Intensive Reading – Look up every word

This method involves reading a book with a dictionary close by, and looking up every single word you encounter that you don’t understand. You’re reading for understanding and active vocabulary building, not necessarily for fun. Getting through one book will take time, but by the end of it you’ll have learned so much.

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If using a hardcopy/paperback book, the best way to do this is to write translated words in pencil, and add any other notes at the tops or bottoms of every page when necessary.

If reading an eBook, you can utilize the app’s dictionary and highlighting features (most of the major apps have these).

You should also have a vocabulary notebook available, and write down important words or terms you come across. I use this one I got from Amazon:

Language Learner Vocabulary Notebook: Learn 5 new words a day - Gain fluency fast!

as of December 9, 2023 3:13 am

2) Extensive Reading – Look up very few words

Quite the opposite of the aforementioned method, this involves passively reading a book, for enjoyment, and looking up few if any words. The idea is that you’ll pick up vocabulary from its context, and requires that you know at least a little bit of the language beforehand.

This method would also work well if you were familiar with the story, i.e. if you read it in your native language first.

You’ll spend large chunks of the story not understanding it, but gradually your comprehension will increase.

The esteemed Hungarian polyglot and interpreter Kató Lomb is renowned for using both the intensive and extensive methods to acquire some of the 16 languages she spoke. She talks about that in Chapter 7 of her book Polyglot: how I learn languages, the PDF of which you can read free from Tesl-ej.

3) Listening-Reading

The listening-reading (L-R) method can work in a couple of different ways:

a) You listen to an audiobook in your target language (L2), whilst simultaneously reading the text of that audiobook in your native language (L1). By doing this you expand your target language vocabulary and improve your listening skills considerably.

With this method enjoyment and understanding of the story isn’t hampered, but you still pick up tons of vocabulary, and learn how words are used.

b) You listen to an audiobook in your target language and read the text in the same language. This focuses more on your listening comprehension, as you learn to pronounce the words you read and also get used to hearing the language as it’s spoken by natives.

Listening-Reading as a whole is an interesting technique that, to do it effectively, would require you to carve out a large chunk of your day(s). Some have said about 8 hours of uninterrupted L-R are needed for you to get the most out of it. Whilst others have seen results with much shorter, though consistent, timeframes.

Side note: there’s even a third way, where you listen in one target language (L2), whilst reading in another (L3)! But let’s leave that one for another day, shall we?

4) Parallel-reading

This is when you read the same text in both your native and target languages. You can read a paragraph or page before switching to your target language, it’s entirely up to you. You’ll understand everything that you read in your target language because you just read it in your native one.

I picked up The Tale of the Three Cookie Men on Amazon. It’s an English-Jamaican Patois kids’ book with parallel text. 

The pros and cons of learning a language through reading

Pros Cons
You’ll learn loads of vocabulary – you’ll learn so much, you’ll see how words are used in context Tedious to stop and look up words
Learn to use words in context You’ll spend a long time not understanding anything that happens in the books
Be able to quickly understand the language when it’s spoken to you Without actual study, the grammar won’t make sense
Learn the correct spelling and grammar from the start You won’t be able to use what you learn without practicing your other skills, like speaking and listening
Your writing skills will improve Requires lots of focus and determination

How I use books to learn languages, and what you can expect

I’ve always been a big reader; so as soon as I’m able, I start reading in my new language. When I read in a foreign language, it feels like I see the world of the story through different eyes. I read out loud to practice pronunciation, and I have tried, at one time or another, every method outlined in this article. They’re all effective in their own way.

It will be tough in the beginning, I’m not going to lie. You’ll want to die! You’ll have to look up every other word, and the whole thing will make you want to give up.

(The first book I read in Spanish was Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal… Yeah, not the best choice. And it was painful! I remember thinking that I would never understand Spanish.)

But guess what? Halfway through the book you’ll realize that you’re not so reliant on the dictionary, that you’re getting to the next page faster, and that you’re actually enjoying the story. It might seem impossible at first, but believe me, you will get better at it.

Eventually, and this is the magical part, you’ll stop translating words into your native language in order to understand them, you’ll simply read them and understand them in your target language. This takes more time, but one day something will just click.

What should you read, and when?

Depending on your level, and how much exposure you’ve had to the language, I’d suggest starting with kids’ books. Don’t go for anything too simplistic, as you don’t want to bore yourself.

Translations of English books you’re already familiar with are great at the start. If you read a book you’ve already read in your native language, you’re more likely to follow the story and get more out of the experience.

Some of the ones I’ve used:

  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (this was the first book I read in German)
  • The Narnia books
  • Roald Dahl’s books
  • Goosebumps
  • The Wizard of Oz (and its sequels)
  • Comic books are also good, as they’re light on dialogue and won’t overwhelm you

Next, move on to young adult novels, maybe Vampire Diaries, the Twilight series, Percy Jackson, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Harry Potter etc., or original target language young adult books. I’ve found that stories translated from English are easier to understand than original target language stories.

When the books start to feel a little too juvenile for you, it’s time to move on to adult fiction. Mix things up by reading both translated and original books: thrillers, dramas, comedies, romance novels… The latter are great because they’re usually not too complex and use relatively simple language.

The difficulties of finding books

Many European languages and some Asian ones are well catered for when it comes to reading material, and you won’t have a problem finding books to read, both translations and original works.

However, if you’re learning a more obscure language, this might be tricky. Finding Swahili books, for example, was challenging. They were available, certainly, just in Africa, and would have cost a small fortune to have shipped.

The only thing I can suggest here is that you reach out to natives on social media, and ask them to do a book swap with you, if they also wish to acquire books in your language. That way all you pay is postage.

Should you learn to read or speak a language first?

This is entirely up to you. Both skills need to be honed, but you should do whichever one you feel most comfortable with, or whichever one will get you to your goal faster.

If, for whatever reason, you must learn to speak the language – perhaps you’re emigrating for work or study – it would make sense to learn to speak first.

Final thoughts

No matter who you are, or which method you choose, you’ll get something out of reading. You’ll be able to take your active vocabulary to another level.

However, it’s no use just stockpiling a bunch of vocabulary and not using it. Eventually you’ll need to spend time speaking and listening; you’ll have to actually use the language.

Reading will give you a false sense of security, in that you’ll think you know more than you do because you have an extensive vocabulary. Only when you try to speak will you realize that you can’t reproduce what you’ve learned – you can’t put anything into practice.

This is a grave mistake that many readers make when they start learning a language this way. Don’t be one of them. Combine reading with the other three skills from the start.

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