October 15

Learning Language Through Reading

It is possible to learn a language in many different ways. One way that appeals to many people is reading. What is important to remember that if you wish to speak, nothing will replace the activity of speaking. However by learning to better use your reading time you may well be able to accelerate your learning of speaking.

Instinctively most people read for meaning. Of course this is the reason we read, so there is nothing surprising about that. However when we learn another language there can be other uses to which we can put reading. There are skilled language learners who undoubtedly read for more than just meaning when they are reading (not all the time of course, but it is a skill many have developed and use as required). They use their awareness to look at parts of the language that many not so skilled language learners may not. Through this they come to better understandings of how the language “works”.

Some of what I suggest may not feel comfortable for you or may appear hard to adapt to. Don’t be put off. Have a look through the suggestions to see if at least one of them may be something you could entertain taking on board.

I will list here a number to alert you to the power that reading has for the skilled learner:

  • Reading to see how the language fits together.
    Let’s say you have an issue with the English articles ( a, an & the). Try reading a piece of text that is an easy comprehension level for you and then find every article. Then go over each one and try to understand why they are the way they are.
  • Reading to see how language flows.
    Sometimes in different cultures people develop arguments in different ways. This is especially true in non-fiction writing. However, sometimes even in the same culture this can happen, especially between the women and men! 
  • Reading for punctuation.
    Every punctuation mark has a different purpose ( sometimes even more than one) By being observant it is possible to find out their uses
  • Reading for vocabulary.
    Many language learners run to a bilingual dictionary as soon as they come across an unfamiliar word. Don’t be so hasty next time and see if you can guess the meaning from context.
  • Reading for style.
    There are many styles of writing, compare the style of a newspaper for example to a magazine, to a textbook. All this can be understood by the reader who pays attention to more than just the meaning.
  • Reading for emotional content.
    Different texts can engender a feeling of warmth, or a sense of sadness, or of apprehension. Read carefully and see what devices are used.
  • Reading to see what differentiates the written language from the spoken language.
    You will need to pay careful attention to see if what you hear/say from other is the same as what you read/write.
  • Reading aloud to yourself, starting with really easy books.
    There are many elements to work at when you are reading: timing, articulation, tones, your breath, etc
Put another way, by focussing your attention and awareness on different elements of the language you are reading you can deepen your understanding of it and hence you may well accelerate your learning.
If you have other ways you have used reading, by all means note them below in the comments.


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  • Yes, I utterly agree with it. It´s important to read out loud several times any piece of writing you choose. It´ll help you gain more confidence while speaking.

  • Great article. I think I need to start reading in other languages more often. I never thought to read for punctuation. I do read aloud though and I think it is really helpful.

  • An excellent idea, it reminds me of the proverb that says the book is the best friend of man. Reading is of a great mental and psychological support; it also can become a tongue support when expressions and items (read before) just come to your mind and help you express your ideas clearly and make you understandable. I tried once to encourage learners to read ( a precious habit that is disappearing unfortunately). I simply gave them nice small Penguin books and asked them to write the summary of the story which they selected by themselves from the 40 small books I showed them. They did write the summary but after a long time of waiting and insisting on that. Finally they brought them and said they only did it to get extra points or marks for the exam. They refused to take for the second time; they said they preferred CD Roms!

  • One problem when first starting to read a foreign language is what may seem to be the overwhelming number of new vocabulary items. Looking everything up in a dictionary is possible, but Google is faster. If you scan the first chapter or so of a book and save the file as html, then you can open the file in Firefox and use the Globefish add-in to get a (Google-based) translation of any highlighted part of the text in a window at the bottom of the page. Once you have the text and the translation in electronic form, making word lists or flashcards is simple. It doesn’t take long before it’s easier to read the text without bothering with the scanning step. (Google’s translations for “languages of lesser diffusion” may not be perfect, and don’t trust them for getting the basic meaning, because words like “not” and pronouns may simply be ignored, but for individual words it can really speed up the process of vocabulary acquisition.) This allows you to read what you’re interested in a lot sooner in the language-learning process than would normally be possible, and since interest grows on what it feeds on, may encourage beginners to stick with the process…

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