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6 ways to read yourself to language mastery

Part 1

By Victor - 01/feb/2021 #Language and Education

The most advanced Brazilian speaker of English I ever taught was an American literature buff. He had read dozens of American novels and his fluency and vocabulary range were astounding.

My father, by reading one French novel per year in the 1970s, kept his language skills in good enough shape to pass an interview that landed him a great job in a French-speaking country, even though he had spent the previous eight years speaking only Portuguese in the Brazilian countryside.

These examples illustrate why reading is both a major goal in language acquisition and an essential means for achieving language mastery for life. To learn the vast amount of vocabulary and the endless nuances of grammatical structures needed to attain a high level of fluency, there is nothing that beats reading in your target language.

Listening, writing, and speaking are all essential skills that you must not ignore, since they work synergistically with reading to advance your overall fluency as quickly and solidly as possible.

But what makes reading itself so important?

Written language tends to be more precise, elegantly constructed, and richly varied than spoken language, especially if you choose your sources well. You can read by yourself, at any time, on the topic of your choice, and eventually with greater speed than is possible with spoken language. This combination of linguistic quality, variety, and sheer volume in reading means that it is hands down the best input for you to absorb the tens of thousands of words and their variegated connotations, the countless lexical combinations, and the complex grammatical patterns that you need for advanced fluency.

Language is far too complex for you to make much progress through memorization or rules-based study. Fortunately, your brain is uniquely equipped to acquire language naturally. All it needs is immersion, and reading is a great way to immerse yourself daily. As the linguist and educational researcher Stephen Krashen states,

reading is good for you. The research supports a stronger conclusion, however. Reading is the only way, the only way we become good readers, develop a good writing style, an adequate vocabulary, advanced grammar, and the only way we become good spellers.[1]

Let’s look at six fantastic ways to learn your desired foreign language by reading, beginning with two of the best.

 

1. Devour literature

Be like my dad and that advanced Brazilian student of English and use literature to master a language for life.

If I had to recommend just one specific approach to language acquisition, it would be to read large amounts of literature, listen to audiobooks, write essays related to what you read, and discuss the literature with a native speaker who corrects your writing and your speech.

High-quality literature is the ultimate expression of a language’s elegant power. It also encapsulates the culture and mindset associated with the language. Having a great book by your bedside is thus like hiring native speakers with the greatest command of the language you are learning to be at your beck and call at practically no cost.

Literature is engaging, engrossing, and enriching. Lose yourself in fine literature for hours at a time and your brain will become a vast repository of vocabulary and polished grammar. You will still need to develop listening comprehension and speaking ability, and learn some contemporary colloquialisms, but having immersed yourself in literature will make these processes incomparably easier.

Obviously, when you are in the beginning stages of acquiring a language, erudite literature is prohibitively difficult. To begin any kind of reading you do need to first learn a few hundred words and the most basic grammatical structures. I will provide you with everything you need to know about this “first semester” of studying a new language in future posts.

But even after this first semester, you will not yet be ready to tackle Victor Hugo, Gabriel García Marquez, Machado de Assis, or Charles Dickens. Here are two great ways to get there.

  • Use graded readers, available in many languages, to gradually develop sufficient vocabulary and reading comprehension to later tackle authentic literature. Graded or structured readers are often adaptations of novels and other original texts using simplified sentence structures and limited vocabulary.
  • Even better: begin with children’s literature. Start with the simplest books for early readers, then progress gradually through more complex picture books, simple chapter books, and finally full-length novels aimed at older children. Children’s literature can be of incredible quality, far more engaging and well-written than graded readers, but just as accessible.

I believe so deeply in this approach that I am developing an entire English course based on children’s literature.

If you want to learn English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese using children’s literature or graded readers, contact me and I’ll help you get started with specific materials.

 

2. Read up on your passions, interests, and goals

The secret to lifelong language mastery is to pursue your passions, interests, and goals in your target language. All of us are short on time. Therefore, if you want to truly master one or more foreign languages, you must learn to kill two birds with one stone.

Simply put, you should substitute much of what you read (and listen to) in your native language with similar content in your target language.

Is there a field you need to understand better to solve a problem at work? Do you have a hobby that you’re always interested in studying up on? Whatever your pursuit, buy or borrow a book, subscribe to a magazine, or just google it in the language you are studying.

You may object that you will take longer and understand less if you read up on your interests in a foreign language rather than your native one. That may be true, and obviously, I’m not saying to never again read in your native language. However, you should keep in mind that this gap will continuously narrow, and in addition to the language acquisition benefits, there are significant advantages to studying topics in a foreign language: research shows that your brain will literally get bigger[2], you will gain fresh insights from another cultural perspective, and you will overcome cognitive biases, thus reasoning better[3].

By reading up on topics you like or need in your target language, you will not only save huge amounts of time; you will also be naturally engaged in what you are reading, thus enhancing concentration and learning.

Do you need help getting started? Tell me about your needs and interests, and I’ll help you choose reading materials in the language you are studying.

And be sure not to miss the next post, in which I’ll describe four additional ways to read yourself to language mastery and answer some frequently asked questions on the topic.


[1] Krashen, S. (1993). The power of reading: Insights from the research. Englewood, Co.: Libraries Unlimited, p. 23.

[2] A study involving students at the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy showed that an intensive language study program caused measurable growth in the hippocampus and three areas of the cerebral cortex, whereas medical and cognitive science students studying intensively in the same time period showed no comparable changes in brain structure. (Johan Mårtensson, Johan Eriksson, Nils Christian Bodammer, Magnus Lindgren, Mikael Johansson, Lars Nyberg, Martin Lövdén. Growth of language-related brain areas after foreign language learning. NeuroImage, 2012; 63 (1): 240 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.06.043)

[3] A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology reveals that bilinguals “are reliably less susceptible to this egocentric bias” and hold an “advantage in false-belief reasoning” (Rubio-Fernández, P., & Glucksberg, S. (2012). Reasoning about other people's beliefs: Bilinguals have an advantage. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 38(1), 211–217. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025162).

Similarly, a study published in the European Journal of Psychology asserts that “[u]sing a foreign language reduces decision-making bias.” (Keysar B, Hayakawa SL, An SG. The foreign-language effect: thinking in a foreign tongue reduces decision biases. Psychol Sci. 2012 Jun;23(6):661-8. doi: 10.1177/0956797611432178. Epub 2012 Apr 18. PMID: 22517192.)


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