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:
- 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!).
- 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.
- 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!
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