learning a language by reading books 5 super strategies

Learning a Language by Reading Books: 5 Super Strategies

Wish you were fluent last week?

You’ve seriously got to slow your roll.

But, hey, I get it — most language learners want to hit fluency as fast as possible.

Nobody likes floundering around in basic linguistics like a toddler.

Would you be surprised if I told you that curling up and reading a good book may actually be the fastest way to fluency?

It’s amazing how the methods we use to learn language are often totally in-congruent with our goals.

Here’s how the thinking goes: I need to speak the language fast, so I’m gonna spend every second practicing how to speak. I’m gonna put all my energies into imitating the natives. I’m not gonna go about reading books because they’re just too boring and too slow for me.

Maybe you’ve fallen in love with a native speaker and wanted to knock her socks off with confessions of love in her native tongue. Or perhaps a career promotion or assignment hinges on you being able to converse in a foreign dialect. So you need to learn the language, and fast!

Nothing wrong with that. These are, after all, worthwhile pursuits. And hey, who really has the time to go slow and wait for flowers to bloom these days?

But by sitting down and reading, you’re going to get yourself farther, faster.

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Why You’ve Gotta Start Using Books to Learn Language

Reading a foreign book may sound like a waste of time. It’s too academic, too high-brow, when you only wanted to communicate like a modern day native speaker.

Sounds intuitive, doesn’t it? You just wanted to speak, so you practiced speaking. Unfortunately, common sense works against you in this case. Because, get this: if you want to speak right, you’re gonna have to do a lot of reading in your target language. Language acquisition requires you to connect the dots. “Listening” is just one of the dots. “Getting the context right” is one of the dots. “Imitating the native speakers” is one of the dots. “Reading,” sure enough, is also one of the dots.

So if you really want to learn a new language fast, then you better get on the couch and read! You have no idea how limited the speech-centric approach to learning a language really is. Here are some major reasons why reading books is the best way to go:

  • You need to learn the rules first. You can’t play around with a language (like everyday people do) until you learn the rules of grammar and style. Native speakers understandably take these rules for granted, or aren’t even aware that they exist! You listen to a native and what you hear are the grammar rules mangled in almost every way possible. You hear the richness of the language as exemplified by the exception to the grammar rules. The problem is, you won’t grasp any language just by learning about the exceptions! You first need to look into the underlying language principles that they break. Then you can practice breaking them just like any native speaker. Only then will you truly appreciate the language.
  • The brain is able to remember more when it sees things. Learning is facilitated by visual cues, and reading helps the brain remember by showing it the words and the pictures that the word represents.
  • Books contain a richer language. The speech-centric approach is inscrutably vague. Compared to the written word, the spoken word is very ambiguous. Average speakers don’t spend as much time choosing their words as writers do. So there is very little nuance in the spoken language. A lot of things are BAD in the spoken language. Spoken language eliminates much of the nuanced texture of the language by simply saying, “it was a bad day” or “it was a bad sign.” Meanwhile, in written form, things are more often awful, dreadful, shocking, dire, unpleasant, evil, ruthless, base, poor, inferior, deficient, imperfect, naughty, mischievous, serious, critical, and so much more!
  • Attack the language on all fronts. If you really want to learn a language fast, you need to attack it in every way possible. Confining yourself to a single learning source, you won’t be able to connect the dots and make out the big picture. You need to read, you need to talk to natives, you need to experience the language in all its facets.

The Inherent Advantages of Learning by Reading Books

I’m not even alluding here to the depth and breadth of knowledge that one gains from reading foreign nonfiction or books on specialized topics like economics, politics, philosophy etc. I’m referring to the simplest of books – books that have approximately 1 sentence per page – children’s books!

Imagine. An unassuming 8-pager, targeted to 4-year olds and full of colorful illustrations, has something to offer a 40-year old professional.

Reading Eliminates Limiting Factors from Language Learning

A limiting factor is something that, regardless of the time, energy and money spent on the process, hinders your language learning.

You don’t have to travel to distant lands to learn a language. Learning shouldn’t be encumbered by something like the lack of a plane ticket. You just have to grab a book. Do that and you’ll be able to travel through space and time. Stay in your seat and learn about how other people refer to tables, chairs, apples and other daily items in their own language.

Your books will always be there for you. By reading a book, you remove another limiting factor of language acquisition—that of finding a capable and consistent instructor or mentor. The consistency issue is precluded because the lessons are permanently printed on the book. They’re not dependent on the moods swings or the availability of the instructor. Books never tire or get mad after the 20th repetition. You go at it at your own pace. Your self-esteem won’t take a hit because another person is witnessing your relatively slow progress.

Books help you get more immersed in language. A book paints a picture that an instructor never can – children’s books are especially good at this. You don’t have to worry about having the money for professional instruction. Books are the best alternative. Choose materials from the most reputable sources and you are assured of competent teaching. (Forums abound with reviews that can help decide if a particular book will work for you.) The thing is, reading can bring you at the doorsteps of the most experienced language teachers around – those who have decades of experience. No, you don’t have to meet them personally, and it’s not like their personal coaching is cheap. But you can most certainly get a book that distills their most effective methods.

Reading Reinforces Word-Acquisition

Reading gives the brain much to work on. It actively involves the visual cortex in the learning process and makes the lessons more memorable. So instead of just listening to the Spanish word saltar (jump), you’ll see how the word is spelled and used in a simple sentence. You’ll also see a beautifully colored illustration of a little boy jumping. That’s definitely more memorable than simply listening to a word being spoken, or seeing it written on a white board along with a hundred other words.

Your grasp of the language greatly depends on the words you’re able to make out in the context of a sentence. In short, vocabulary. And a book is very good at making vocabulary lessons memorable enough for them to stick.

As I’ve said before, you need to attack the language in different angles. I’m not saying that reading trumps all the other methods. I’m not saying that listening and speech-centric approaches don’t work. They do! And they all have a role to play. I’m saying that you need all of the approaches to give you different pieces of the puzzle. They all work together to stimulate all the senses and burn the lessons in your head.

Word acquisition will be painfully slow without the help of a good book that makes the words come to life.

Reading Promotes Word Precision

As mentioned before, the written word is more nuanced than the spoken word. Writers consider their words more carefully than a native speaker chit-chatting with friends. When native speakers talk in person, they have the advantage of a shared context. And often, they only have one listener to attend to.

A writer, in addition to the multiplicity of potential readers, needs to consider the different instances that a book will be read. He needs to be thoughtful of the different backgrounds of his audience. So he needs to be very accurate and precise with his writing. He cannot be as vague as the speakers, because he can easily be misunderstood and he won’t be there to defend himself.

So, if you want a more precise grasp of a language, you’ve got to read and see how the nuances slightly change the intent of each sentence. And you won’t get this kind of experience just by talking to the first native speaker you meet. Your book has gone through a lot of edits and rework to make it sound just right.

Learning a Language by Reading Books: 5 Super Strategies

If you’re gonna be reading, then you better be doing it right. You’d save a lot of time and effort doing so. People who swear that reading never works often aren’t doing it right. So here are the 5 super strategies that’ll make reading not only worthwhile but also very effective.

 1. Read Children’s Books

Start with books that have shorter content, basic vocabulary and use simple sentence structures.

The category that meets all these requirements is children’s books. The thing that turns people off with this type of literature is only that it insults their sensibilities. I’m a fully grown man and you want me to read what??

They forget that, for all intents and purposes, they’re really just like kids in the language that they’re trying to learn!

Because they think they know better, they jump right to intermediate level books and then later complain that the language is too hard to learn.

Starting off with the easiest reading material is very crucial to your progress. All the other books assume you have the basics down. Don’t think that by reading the intermediate material, you can learn the basics along the way. No, that doesn’t work that way. You’ll only be hurting yourself when you become overly ambitious with your learning material.

Drop your prejudice against children’s books and start reading early, not when you’re already months into your studies. Have an open mind and you’ll be on the sure path to language acquisition.

 2. Read Parallel Texts

In addition to reading the easy ones first, try reading books that are written in dual language, where the translations are written immediately below the sentence you’re reading. This one-to-one sentence correspondence will save you from reaching for the nearest dictionary to locate the meaning of a word. As a result, you’ll have a smoother reading experience.

You’ll also be able to notice how the grammar rules of your target language compare with your own thanks to this layout. You’ll be able to take advantage of the similarities and be aware of the differences. You might, for example, notice that the language you’re studying predominantly mentions the subject ahead of the verb (e.g. The dog is sleeping.) — just like in English.

 3. Read Extensively

This is about quantity.

Don’t worry too much if you’re not fully absorbing the actual meaning of the material you’re reading. Just read on. Don’t be tempted to grab the dictionary on the first unfamiliar word you meet. Just barrel through the text and read on anyway.

The purpose of this kind of reading is to expose you to as much material as possible. Don’t worry about comprehension. We’re practicing your contextualizing abilities here. Simply guess what you’re reading about. You don’t have to get it right all the time, just make a guess and trust that you’ll be close enough. (In the story you’re reading, for example, try to make out what’s actually happening overall.)

Now I know that there are some types of personalities who’ll be having a difficult time with this. They don’t wanna move ahead without first understanding every word, every phrase and every sentence on the page. Otherwise, they’ll get a nagging feeling that something’s wrong.

I strongly urge you to let go of the burden and just barrel through the text. Don’t worry, nobody’s watching.

4. Read Intensively

This is the direct opposite of the previous method. You’ll need to designate reading time for both of these strategies. Each one has its own merits.

Reading intensively is about quality.

Actively be involved in what you’re reading. Meaning, try to absorb all the lessons presented on one page before moving on to the next.

Have a dictionary close by. Write copious amounts of notes on the margins of the page. Write your mnemonics, insights and examples. Underline, highlight and encircle words. Dog ear the pages.

Your goal isn’t to finish the book or to get the story. Your goal is to learn the language along the way. Don’t busy yourself with the character or the plot. They’re but means to an end.

5. Read Your Hobby

Read about what interests you. Are you into cooking? Read recipes and cookbooks in your target language. Do you love entertainment and celebrity stories? I’m sure there’s a ready publication that caters to that love.

This’ll ensure that you won’t get bored with what you’re setting your eyes on. Because truth be told, reading in a foreign language is no walk in the park at first. You’re facing a page filled with strange writing, punctuation and grammar rules. So reading a subject that naturally engages you will help ease the labor pains.

In addition, the specific vocabulary you develop by reading a specific field will be your stable jumping off point into the language as a whole. A field of interest, like cooking, will have terms and jargons that are often repeated and most commonly associated with it. Try applying these words to the language as a whole. Sure, there’ll be terms that are unique only to the field, but there’ll always be words that are perfectly applicable to the language in general. Use these words to help open up the language for you.

Remember, these 5 strategies are here to make you not only read effectively, but also help you in the larger role of acquiring the language. I hope you stop thinking that reading is only for people who are interested in higher linguistic forms or complicated grammar rules. It’s for everyone who hopes to understand a second language. Reading can make the difference between you speaking the language that you love, and you still knowing only English.

If you want to get the very basics of a tongue, you better sit tight and read!

Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)

And One More Thing…

If you’re digging these strategies, you’ll love using FluentU. FluentU makes it possible to learn languages from music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks.

With FluentU, you learn real languages—the same way that natives speak them. FluentU has a wide variety of videos like movie trailers, funny commercials and web series, as you can see here:

FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.

Didn’t catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover your mouse over the subtitles to instantly view definitions.

You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s “learn mode.” Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.

And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses that vocab to give you a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.

Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store.

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.

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