If you are learning a foreign language, then you should be READING in it

Modified on by Andrew Cohen



If you are learning a foreign language, then you should be READING in it

We at Brainscape think a lot about the best ways to learn a language.  We’ve already created the world’s most scientifically proven app for studying vocabulary and grammar.  And in a previous blog post, we discussed how practicing speaking a foreign language is a much better practice activity than simply watching TV/movies, since the former provides the learner with an adjustable pace, a stronger incentive to pay attention, and a greater chance of receiving corrective feedback.  Well, there is another underrated activity that is also more effective than television: reading.

Like reading in one’s native language, reading in a foreign language helps us become more comfortable with the words and grammatical rules that enable us to express our own thoughts.  Seeing the text of new words and concepts visually helps to reinforce our memory of them, while having the ability to stop, think, or look up words in a dictionary allows for more individualized pace of mental absorption.

The Importance of Reading a Foreign Language

Reading at even a slow pace also exposes us to more sentences per minute than the average movie or TV show.  (Just think of all the pauses, transitions, and action scenes where characters are not speaking.)  This is exactly the reason why heavy readers of just English tend to speak more articulately than average English speakers, despite theoretically having had the same number of years of exposure to the language.  Being exposed to a larger “brain feed” of vocabulary and grammar simply trains you to use your language better in your own speech.

The main difference between reading in a foreign language and reading in your native language is, naturally, that you began reading your native language once you were already speaking it fluently, while as a beginner in a foreign language you don’t quite have that luxury.  The challenge is therefore finding foreign-language reading materials that are commensurate with your level of vocabulary and grammar.  If the reading is too difficult, it can create an excessive cognitive load, inhibit any real learning, and discourage you from reading further.

Tips and Tricks

Here are some scaffolding tips for finding and using good foreign-language reading materials:

  1. Start basic and small.  Children’s books are great practice for beginners, as are software programs with short sentences or passages that allow you to listen to accompanying audio.  (Try “Charlotte’s Web” in Spanish, or the BBC’s “Learn French” series.)  Don’t try to dive into a novel or newspaper too early, since it can be discouraging (or might take too long to constantly look up every word you see!).
  2. Read things you’ve already read in your native language.  Even if you last read something 15 years ago, the fact that you at least know the gist of it will help you tremendously to pick up context clues and implicitly learn new vocabulary and grammatical constructions.  Otherwise, if you get lost in a new story in a foreign language, it is difficult to recover.
  3. Read books with their accompanying audiobooks.  Reading just a single book while listening to the accompanying audio — even if you don’t understand everything completely — will dramatically improve your “ear training” and habituate you to the general speed and cadence of a native speaker.  Alternatively, using an audiobook alone (if you are a beginner) risks completely missing certain words that you might have otherwise recognized.

Note that watching TV or movies with closed-captioning in the native language can sometimes be a decent substitute for this last tip, but be careful: most closed captions fail to mimic the spoken lines word-for-word, which can result in a confusing audiovisual disconnect.  And even in cases where the text and audio are in sync (particularly in slowly-spoken documentaries), remember that the use of pauses and other audio-free visual effects reduces the words-per-minute exposure of screen versus print.  If you want the most efficient word-feed for your brain, audiobooks paired with their original text provide the best practice possible.

Good luck, and feel free to add any of your own foreign-language reading tips in the comments below!



Brainscape is a web & mobile education platform that helps you learn anything faster, using cognitive science. Join the millions of students, teachers, language learners, test-takers, and corporate trainees who are doubling their learning results. Visit brainscape.com or find us on the App Store .

23 comments

Robby Kukurs 8 years ago

I'd definitely encourage reading fiction in the target language rather than learning advanced grammar etc. You'll definitely acquire more vocabulary and enjoy yourself while reading fiction whereas to do grammar exercises you'd have to force yourself into it. Also by reading you'd acquire grammar in the most natural manner as any sentence already contains grammar, it's just not analysed and categorized (which is completely unnecessary unless you're a professional linguist!).

Amanda Moritz 8 years ago

Yup! and if you're like me, you can keep track of what grammar structures you don't know and practice using that structure in different contexts until it's not totally foreign.

Robby Kukurs 8 years ago

That's what I'd do indeed!

Alex Leibowitz 1 year ago

I think it's good to do both -- formal study helps to inform your approach to real-life examples while the real-life examples make the formal concepts more relevant.

Rob Kincaid 6 years ago

I was thinking of trying comic books. It is mostly dialog, and has more visual clues.

Jose Faeti 2 years ago

That's what I'm doing too. It's great because you have less words to read overall, and you can infer a lot of what's going on from the drawings.

Amanda Moritz 6 years ago

That's a good idea!

Olibelula 5 years ago

That's what I do, I've read Harry Potter in 4 languages (all latin) and now I'm trying to read it in German with the accompanying audiobook. I know what each paragraph is about because I know these books by heart, but without any background in German I'm not able to make out individual words and structures.

It appears I still have to go through boring basic exercises to get the gist of it :( . It's only that I don't have the pacience to do this.

nekdo 3 years ago

Well, while I totally agree with the overall importance of reading (and the fact people are too concerned with fancy apps instead these days, thanks for adressing the issue!), I cannot agree with some parts of this post. First of all, tv series are useful exactly because they don't give you enough time to think (compared to slow reading), they work like an immersion environment, the pure amount of sentences per minute is not that relevant. Tv series are not worse than just speaking practice at your level, but I'm interested to read the previous post discussing it, the purposes and strengths of each activity are simply different, from my experience. TV series actually improved my speaking level to high level while speaking practice with people with the adjustable pace and so on was holding me back.

3.book+audio: yes, that is very useful. But it won't get you used to native speed, that is simple nonsense (the tv series will get you used to that). Reading out loud is not normal speed of a native speaker in vast majority of cases.

I agree with points 1 and 2 though. Addition to point one: comic books are an awesome way to start reading in a language. French is the best language for those but there are many in most languages. Then there are easier genres like detective stories, fantasy, sci-fi... each has some value and they tend to use more colloquial and "spoken" up to day language than classics. The classics are however very useful as well, indeed.

I have as well noticed good quality translations are not much worse than originals but they tend to be easier to read at first. I can wholeheartedly recommend books like Harry Potter to any intermediate learner, the translations tend to be of good quality in most languages, from what I've heard. I've tried a few versions and liked them (French, Spanish, Czech)

But I've noticed the most important thing missing in the advice: read what you enjoy. That's what will keep you going, that's the incentive for concentration. I've met many people who had been adviced badly by their teachers and I used to be one of them. They were recommended either classics (too difficult) or just children's books (boring for many people). If you enjoy horrors, grab a horror, the enjoyment will balance out the initial diffculties. The same applies to classics. If you find lower genres stupid, don't torture yourself. If you prefer non-fiction, get started with it (even though some novels might be beneficial to your learning as well) ;-)

However, my experience is limited to european languages only, what is your experience with languages hard to read, such as the east asian ones? Is it more of a help or more of a struggle? I'm curious.

KeesAtBermudaWord 3 years ago

If you are handy with a pc you can speed up the audio to native level. It's handy to start off a bit slower however.

On non-european languages, I read Harry Potter in Urdu and it helped a lot. It's a lot more interesting than the generic (religious) material in Urdu that's available. Same for Russian, I read the Da Vinci Code first. Starting off with a translation helps you get fluent enough to read a real Russian bestseller which often will have much more complex sentences and words than a translation of an English novel.

I think kids stories and classics are fine, as long as you don't have to look up words too much. Even the fun is taken out of reading an interesting bestseller when you need to look up words. I prefer reading e-books with manually entered correct pop-up translation in context and audio and included spaced repetition practice to remember any low frequency words. Although just rereading helps as well because it's much easier and faster because of the immediate mouse-over word look-up.

Morituri Te Salutant 2 years ago

Beginners should not read children's books, unless they already know the story in English. I have translated several in other languages and they are frequently as difficult to read as and adult book because a large percentage of the words are contractions, diminutives and other "cutesy" words not found in a dictionary. They also have many unusual idioms as well as unusual or "clipped" words and phrases. Best to start with books written for beginners.

Jane Hale 3 years ago

I agree with you Andrew!

It is important also to know the importance of reading a foreign language. And thanks for sharing like this. Most readers do not know already the importance of foreign language by reading, speaking, and practicing on it. We must to know from it and be motivated to learn more things. That's why I'm so motivated because motivpark(motivpark.com) teach me more things on the importance of foreign languages. Most of us now searching on the web and it takes the time to find the exact meaning.

Morituri Te Salutant 2 years ago

Foreign comic books are fun to read, but expect the process to be super slooooowwwww. They probably have the highest ratio of unusual and rare idioms per page of any medium other than political or philosophy texts.

jeff 12 months ago

learning to read is so much easier then learning to speak.

Ayxan Mamedoff 10 months ago

I pick a novel which has: 1. rich dialogues 2. correspondence between the main characters 3. the story is mostly told from the first person (I get to learn a lot of phrases like: I woke up, I went to, I called her, I wouldn't think...) 4. is not boring :) (I used Norwegian Wood by Murakami Haruki and The Stranger by Albert Camus for both of these novels had the above features). (Crime, detective stories could be good to not get bored.Yet, it MUST be something you LOVE to read.)

I would never use a dictionary unless it was a language written in Chinese or Japanese. These languages would require you look up for the characters' reading. But, nowadays there are a lot of Chinese and Japanese books that give the reading of the characters above or below the Chinese characters in hiragana (if Japanese) and in pinyin (if Chinese). After reading those books and getting acquainted with the characters it's easy to move to the books for natives.
When you finish a book, you know the grammar structure, phrases and idioms, vocabulary and the feel of the language. You read the book aloud to make sure that you CAN read it properly and record your voice. Read and interpret it to an invisible someone to test if you really know the meaning of the sentence. Be an interpreter between yourself and "yourself". Then try to read it as fast as possible - this helps to start speaking fast. No need for any grammar, flashcards or anything else. Just keep reading, listening to songs and read about the country, the culture and history of the nation you learn the language of. It is important to FEEL and get DROWNED in that culture. Watch their movies and learn their mimics. Watch the movies without subtitles. If you want subtitles let them be in the target language. So you can both hear and see the language written. Turn off the sound and try to guess what they talk about by reading the subtitles fast.
I learned Modern Hebrew this way..within 43 days from zero without any assistance, commuting on the train to office and back home, waiting at light, in the bathroom, in the bed, while eating...

Jovo Krneta 3 years ago

You can use this free application translation-embedder.com which enables you to upload a PDF or a TXT e book and download the same e book but with translations embedded in it. Now you do not need to jump from reading to vocabularies while reading. It also gives you text-to-speech in e books so you can listen to the way the native word is pronounced. I use it for while learning my German.

CourtneyNathan16 3 years ago

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jdc4 3 years ago

Great blog comment. Thanks for updating it.

I am currently trying to develop my consulting practice assisting Asian finance and accounting professionals in doing their work. What I find is that when they have shareholder materials and financial statements translated the executives cannot see whether they are good or bad translations. The problem is that both the translators and executives specialized knowledge is not good enough to see that the material needs considerable improvement. It all relates back to your theme. If they would read the materials in English even if they don't understand it they would see that the translations doesn't feel right! We can improve foreign language skills, I believe, enough to discriminate good from bad without being fluent readers and writers. It's amazing how well our brains can function with just a little help from the "navigator"! Having taught at the university level in Asia and worked albeit with a handful of executives, getting them to read any material is a real challenge.

DMP 3 years ago

This article is amazing. My concern, however, is will we recognize all this new vocabulary that we get from reading during spoken conversations? With French, in particular, words are not pronounced the way they are written. So, one needs practice actually "catching" these phrases out of the air during conversations. In English, even if I've never heard a particular phrase spoken ... if I were to hear it a few days later, I would still recognize it because I have better command of the English language. But had I read the same phrase in French, would I still have been able to recognize it had it been spoken? So, again, when that special moment comes, how can we be sure that we'll recognize all these phrases and expressions during spoken discourse?

Nicole 6 years ago

Ooh, I just found this website http://en.childrenslibrary.... which has childrens books in many languages for free. Off to check out their Spanish collection . . .

Oscar 5 years ago

Nicole, are you learning spanish?

KeesAtBermudaWord 3 years ago

Good article, it expresses my view of language learning. I have developed e-books that do exactly this. They let you read original beginners texts or more advanced short stories in a foreign language, with immediate pop-up translation and integrated spaced repetition practice, and audio. This way my students read themselves to fluency in two months (reading and listening, but it's a great base to build conversational skills on).

TV with subtitles is a "free translation", and even dual language books are, so you'll end up missing the literal meaning of a lot of culturally form sentences / proverbs / sayings that are part of a language. Only reading literature in the foreign language will give you all vocabulary of a language. Yes conversations occur in books so if you are looking for more conversational vocab go look for chatty chick lit, same if you're looking for military, philisophical or whatever vocabulary, just pick a bestseller in that genre. And again it's not the same as conversational skill, but it sure gives you a huge headstart being able to understand 95% of the vocabulary people throw at you. Unless you're only interested in ordering your menu, booking your room, or chatting about the weather or your conversational partner's pretty blue eyes of course.

However, when learning vocab through reading as opposed to for example flash cards (reading gives you context and organic structure of the language, so is much better, but it is also slower) you will either have to look up words or select and click them for google translation, and when you have to read 100,000 words to get fluent, having an immediate (mouse-over) and correct (because manually entered) pop-up translation, and software that reminds you to practice low frequency words, will cut down the time needed to become fluent in reading to up to 10%.

For example check out http://www.learn-to-read-fo... for a free example ;-)

Kendal Knetemann 4 years ago

http://lingohut.com/ is a great FREE resource when learning a new language. It has great online activities, games and lessons which help improve conversational skills. This foreign language learning website available in over 50 different languages! So the learner can learn from their native language. There latest activity is GeoLingo where Geography and language come together http://lingohut.com/en/geoL...

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