Learning Languages and Reading Techniques

Reading is one of the biggest pleasures for me, and often when I learn a new language, I relish the chance to read in it. It’s also a great way to expose yourself more to the language and to make it part of your life. People often assume that “studying a language” means sitting down with a grammar book and doing exercises or spending time in the classroom, but that’s not enough. You have to surround yourself with the language by filling every free moment with it. Listen to music, watch YouTube clips about a subject you like, read.

And so today I will focus on reading and share a few tips. These are classical approaches, but they’ve been invaluable to me. In general, I start reading as soon as possible, even when I know that the text is too difficult. The most important part is to want to read the story, not to want to read in Arabic/French/Italian, etc. If you’re learning French and you long to read 19th-century novels, go for it. I don’t like texts especially written for language learners or children’s stories, but I have a soft spot for traditional fairy tales.

Of course, reading as a learning aid has a number of limitations. The main one is that you start reading a text, discover it to be too hard and give up. Even if you have decent speaking ability, reading requires a much larger vocabulary. Unless you’re a particularly diligent type, it’s then better to read simple texts that won’t require you to look up every other word in the dictionary. Yet, what if you still want to read Proust? Then I recommend the so-called parallel reading technique.

The idea is very simple–you read a line or a paragraph and then read it in your native language (or in a language you know well). The key is to keep yourself from giving up, to be engaged with the story and to want to read further.

I explain the method in some detail in my recent video, using the example of Erich Maria Remarque’s Heaven Has No Favorites. That sentimental novel has been my Rosetta Stone; I’ve read it in half a dozen of languages. At this point, I know it by heart, and I don’t even need to look at the original when I read it in another language.

The other technique I often use, especially in the beginner-intermediate stage, is the summary method–I read a paragraph and then summarize it out loud in the language I’m studying. It makes reading more engaging and less passive. While this method is much more meticulous and takes more time, it’s an effective way to boost your vocabulary. I’ve already described it in another article, How to Learn Languages by Reading and Listening.

Of course, I read a lot in the traditional way, with a dictionary and a notebook by my side. Sometimes I write down interesting words and make vocabulary lists out of them. Sometimes I note whole sentences. Having said all of that, I advise reading. Simply reading. Without a dictionary. Some words will float past you, others will hint at their meaning, and yet others will elucidate it. An approach that works well in other aspects of life is to embrace the unknown and the vague. With time it will become familiar and comfortable.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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16 Comments

  • Martine: Thank you for this helpful article. The tips you’ve shared really helped me. I’m working on my Spanish. This article motivates me to do more reading. September 11, 2020 at 8:18am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for letting me know! I’m very glad to hear it. September 11, 2020 at 2:55pm Reply

  • Tourmaline: Dear Victoria,

    Thank you for another interesting and helpful post and video on learning languages. Last year, when I was looking for the September issue of American Vogue, I came across the 125th Issue of Paris Vogue – a celebratory issue, so I bought that instead. (I eventually found the other one, as well.) I enjoy improving my French by reading articles from that. I could also buy the original, French version of a book that I liked about a girl who became a perfumer – “The Orange Trees of Versailles” by Annie Pietri (which I’ve mentioned before). Furthermore, I have long harboured a wish to read Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” in its original French. I must confess that Rick Wakeman’s musical take on the novel was an inspiration, here!

    With kind regards,
    Tourmaline September 11, 2020 at 8:53am Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve read almost all of Jules Verne’s novels as a child (in Russian). There used to be a whole collection of them at my great- grandparents’s house. I was also thinking of rereading at last one of them in French. September 11, 2020 at 3:00pm Reply

      • Tourmaline: That sounds like a lovely memory of reading the books in Russian. September 11, 2020 at 7:50pm Reply

        • Victoria: Jules Verne used to be popular when I was a child. I doubt that it hold up on rereading, but who knows… September 13, 2020 at 12:51pm Reply

  • CherieW: Thank you, Victoria. Your blog is an elegant companion in many ways during this difficult time. I share your love of language learning and appreciate the tips. I have been enjoying italki since you recommended it. September 11, 2020 at 10:55am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Cherie! 🙂
      Italki has opened up so many possibilities for me, and I’ve met many interesting people there. September 11, 2020 at 3:02pm Reply

  • rainboweyes: I’ve been using the parallel reading technique for a while now… Recently I‘ve switched to working with an audiobook and a printed version which makes the whole thing even more fun! September 11, 2020 at 3:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s an excellent technique, especially useful to improve listening comprehension and pronunciation. September 13, 2020 at 2:16pm Reply

  • Karen A: Great timing! I’m stumbling with my Turkish and it’s difficult to keep up my motivation at times…. Thinking that new fall fragrance might be a good incentive! September 11, 2020 at 5:24pm Reply

    • Victoria: Learning a language is sometimes two steps forward, one step back, so it’s normal to feel like you’re stumbling.
      Have you tried watching videos in Turkish on weaving, for instance? I imagine that there must be lots on YouTube. September 13, 2020 at 2:18pm Reply

      • Karen A: Will give it a try! I think I’m in the one step forward two steps back part right now…..

        Hopefully now that it’s fall I’ll get back in to my learning mind-set. September 14, 2020 at 7:06am Reply

        • Victoria: The key is to use the language somehow, listening to music, watching a movie you like, reading. This feeling of yours is normal, but don’t let it get to you. You’ll progress further. September 14, 2020 at 9:50am Reply

          • Karen A: Thank you for the encouragement! It’s actually amazing when you think of it how many resources we have access to. September 14, 2020 at 10:22am Reply

  • Trudy: Thank you so much for this. This is very timely for me as I am currently learning Spanish. In addition to traditional study, I have been listening to Spanish music, watching movies in Spanish and even following Spanish blogs and Instagram posts so I can translate the comments. I just love the feeling I get when I understand what is being said or I’m able to structure an actual sentence! My next step will be incorporating reading as you suggest. I am determined not to give up! You are an inspiration. September 17, 2020 at 1:32pm Reply

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