How important is reading for learning a foreign language? Here’s my take. I’ve also made a video on the same topic (link at the bottom of this post).
If your main goal is to learn as efficiently as possible to converse in a language, you may well wonder why you should bother with reading.
Reasons to doubt the value of reading to learn a language
After all, most language, for most of human history, has been speaking and listening. Reading and writing came very late on the scene. Even today, there are millions of illiterate or semi-literate adults who speak one or multiple languages perfectly.
Just look at the children, too. They lie there listening. Then they start practising sounds, all gurgles and babbles. Then they get talking. All without reading or writing a word. For several years after birth, they can’t read and don’t even have the motor skills to write. Yet it doesn’t seem to hold them back.
They’re already fluent speakers when they rock up at school aged four, five or – in Germany and Scandinavia – fourteen or fifteen.* Then it takes them years of schooling to learn to read and write well in their first language (and some of them never get beyond an elementary level in either skill).
(* J O K E: I’m really a fan of starting formal schooling later – it’s generally six or seven in those countries 🙂 ).
Why would be put ourselves through that right at the start? It seems like it just ain’t natural.
Shouldn’t we simulate nature?
Start with an audio course, maybe get help with pronunciation and then get speaking, as early and as much as possible.
More than this.
Couldn’t reading actually get in the way?
First, it hogs time we could be spending speaking and listening. We all have limited time and energy to spend on langauge learning and, if you’re an introvert (like me), isn’t there a real risk that keeping your head buried in a book be an excuse to avoid face-to-face communication?
Shouldn’t we be out there in the thick of things?
Second, reading could get in the way of good pronunciation.
Even with languages that use our Latin alphabet, the differences in sound value ascribed to familiar letters could easily lead us astray. When we start looking at the written word in our new language, we have to put aside the “ingrained sounds” that we already associate with each symbol.
It’s not helpful for an English speaker to start from our “o” when approaching the German sound represented ö [ø]. Ö, if we’re in the rough approximation game, is closer to the “e” in “her” or the “i” in “bird”.
It’s not quite the same as either our feminine “e” or avian “i”, though. Doesn’t it just make more sense, then, to learn the real German sound first without the letter getting in the way? Why risk of privileging the eye and rather than the ear and forming and consolidating bad habits from day one?
This is before we get to the whole question of languages with a different alphabet (like Greek or Georgian) or even an entirely unfamiliar writing system (like Amharic or Chinese).
These anti-reading arguments do have things going for them
It is good advice to make a lot of use pure audio courses or work with a teacher work hard on the sound of a language at the beginning. That way you can avoid bad habits taking root. You’ll be more readily understood and understand better.
Speaking as much as you can early is also great for a sense of early achievement (and hence more motivation). After all, you get good at what you do and if you want to speak, you have to speak. You probably want to function in places where your language is spoken and form those face-to-face relationships that are so important for the long game.
There’s a particularly strong argument for holding back on the reading if your language doesn’t just use a different alphabet but has another, challenging writing system. That’s a subject for another day but, when you do start reading and writing Javanese, Arabic, Chinese or Japanese, what I have to say below will kick in just as much).
And yet, and yet, just speaking is not the whole picture. Even if you want primarily to speak, reading has an important role to play.
Why reading you should read a lot to learn a foreign language
Even if taking the “babe-in-arms” route was practical for a busy adult, it would simply take too long.
Small children hear words and phrases in context with repetition over years.
Four or five years into learning their first language, kids have an impressive but, in the grand scheme of things, pretty limited vocabulary. They can only discuss a limited number of topics. Nevertheless, they are generally astonishingly good at using that vocab to discuss those topics in a natural, idiomatic way, true to the spirit of their language.
A good teacher or textbook will focus on core vocab and structures and there’s some similarity there with the way children learn. A good teacher will help you practise them and build in repetition. But they can never do enough of it.
Reading a lot can ensure that you get the repeat exposure yourself. Until words and phrases are sufficiently familiar, you’re probably not going to be confident enough to use them. The great Hungarian polyglot Kató Lomb said (granted in the pre-digital era): “It is only books that provide an unlimited amount of repetition. It is only reading that can be returned to again and again without being an ordeal”.
It’s best to learn language in chunks, including “collocations” (words that go naturally together in a language by convention: we “sit and exam” in English, but in Welsh we “stand an exam” – sefyll arholiad).
Reading can give you a huge exposure to chunks of correct language which can both prepare the ground for, and reinforce, your speaking practice.
Don’t go to scientific literature or poetry for this, of course. Go for realistic dialogues in plays or dialogue-heavy novels (or adapted “graded” readers at your own level or, when you want to push on, just above).
You don’t want to sound like a child. You want to sound like an educated adult. Educated adults in modern societies have gone through a written-word based education system. The way they speak is heavily influenced by the interaction of the spoken word with the written. You should be aiming for such interaction too.
I’m not saying that the only way of reaching high levels of sophistication. In pre-literate cultures, language was cultivated through epic poetry and tales and wordsmiths often committed to memory. The oral tradition is a wonderful thing and lives on. I’ve experienced it myself with contemporary Basque improvised sung poetry or improvised Amharic praise poetry sung at weddings or funerals.
Yet we are where we are. As we move from beginner level to intermediate and advanced, we need to be exposed to a more dense and sophisticated form of communication than you can get striking up a conversation at a bar. You could wait to eavesdrop on a passing Ethiopian wedding party but, for most of us, most of the time, reading is a practical and efficient place to turn, along with good quality audio sources, including audiobooks.
As soon as possible read anything that interests you.
Don’t always strain yourself. Sometimes you’ll be reading for quantity, driving on for the overall story or message even if you guess some words or skip bits entirely. That’s extensive reading, best done with material at your level or below (which will mean adapted texts for beginner and lower-intermediates). It will mainly consolidate the structures and vocab you already know.
Sometimes you’ll be full on focussed, pulling text apart, trying to understand everything, maybe stretching yourself by working with texts just above your comfort zone to exposure you to new structures, registers and styles and widen your vocab (intensive reading).
If you’re hard-core, read things about topics that don’t interest you as well as those that do.
After all, you’re not in this just to enjoy yourself. You’re here to get fluent 😉
You may find there’s more to a topic than you thought. You’ll certainly find it’ll give you more to talk about. That means you’ll be able sustain better conversations. The vocab you thought you would never need outside that article about pigeon racing, fracking or Tuvan throat singing may just turn out to pop up in all sorts of other, unexpected contexts.
Talking about the discipline of language learning: if you want to use exams as a tool and a target in your language learning – or you need to pass them for your schooling or citizenship qualification – you’ll have to read and write. End of.
Ditto if you want to use your new language professionally.
Here’s another thing: when you start your language journey you think you’re, erm, learning a language.
Then it turns out that in actual fact you’re appropriating a culture.
Reading could well teach you about your target culture more efficiently than any other medium can. You’ll learn about the history, society, conventions, enthusiasms and hangups of the speech community.
True, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Without a broader cultural knowledge – out and about away from the books – you may not have the context to understand all of what’s being said.
Read enough though and it helps you to enter the imaginative world of the people you want to speak to. It’s a world full of unspoken assumptions and cultural references. Familiarity with it can help you make sense of how they think. Even (maybe especially) the uneducated ones.
Forget your interaction with your new world for a moment. For purely individualistic reasons, embrace the riches of reading in your target language for its own sake.
You may delight in the discovery of completely alien forms such as Welsh strict-meter poetry (cynhanedd) or Japanese manga or become ecstatic before superlative examples of familiar ones, such as the great Russian or French novels.
I love film and TV as much as the next man but reading a novel is potentially a much more enduring experience than either.
Why? Because when you make the effort to read a work of imaginative literature you have to create the experience in your head. It stays vivid, as if you’d been there. You’re enriched in a way nobody can take away from you.
Back to making it in as a wannabe member of your target real life, oh-so-chatty language community.
You get it. You’re reading a lot. You have more words and know how to use them. You are a veritable wellspring of topics of conversation. You are aware of the cultural heritage and delight in it (or, at least, you know where those foreign blighters are mentally coming from).
One more thing.
You’re also showing your new conversation partners that you’re really buying into their past, present and future.
They’re going to love you for it….
Steady on, Gareth, don’t let’s get carried away.
Ok, ok. Let’s put it this way: you’ll be paying them a massive compliment and they’re likely to appreciate that.
They’ll take you more seriously.
It’s not a binary choice. Nobody’s asking you to take a vow of silence.
Just remember: read early, read often.
Get your nose down.
Even if your main goal is to speak.
(This kicks off a new series of articles on reading. All part of one of my aims for 2017, which is to get more on “Howtogetfluent” about, erm, how to get fluent. It’ll still be business as usual with updates on my own stumbling efforts with my languages, reviews, interviews and vlogs as well.
I’ve made a video covering the same ground as this post. Check it out here and – if you like the video approach – don’t forget to hit “like” and subscribe to the YouTube channel:
What do you think about reading? Any particular sticking points or wins you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below or drop me an email (address under the “About” tab)).
Later posts in this series: