Reading to learn languages

reading to learn languages

Reading to learn languages is the most powerful way to learn any language anywhere.

Some activities that I do during the summer to improve my language skills and sort of how the whole five-week thing came to be, and this week, I want to talk specifically about reading because it’s something that you could do anywhere. Dr. Stephen Krashen did a study on hyperpolyglots, and he talks all about what these people who speak more than 10 languages a piece do to learn languages. One of the people he studied, they both … Both people talked about the value of input, right, what you listen to and what you read. One in particular stands out, a man who never moved outside of his native Hungary and spoke multiple languages, and he did it all through doing his pleasure reading in different languages.

So, I think it’s really pretty powerful. I also think that what’s really interesting is that you can use reading anywhere, right? You can control reading. You can’t necessarily control communication. Personally, for example, I can’t teletransport to China right now, right? I can get online and talk to somebody, but I can do reading anywhere, right, with time that I have. Reading, if I focus on a lot on reading, then it’s something that I can do that isn’t going to have a major disruption to my life, right? I can probably find half an hour a day to read, which is what I always recommend for a beginner.

So, one of the difficult parts about reading is not just finding the time. So, for me, I do a lot of reading, of listening, of listening to audio books because of my time, particularly in the past few years since I’ve been writing books and speaking more and teaching, which has been amazing, but the time has to come from somewhere. It’s definitely cut into my pleasure reading time. So, summertime is a time to get to make that up.

Reading to learn languages: my experience with French

I’m actually going to share with you some speaking samples that I did some years ago during a five-week reading period, and it was five weeks of pleasure reading. I want to say this was three years ago, and I did it for about half an hour a day at home. I recorded myself once a week, my fluency. I’ll share those files with you, but back to reading, I wanted to share with you also that I was a kindergarten teacher, and I’m a certified reading teacher. So, I’ve gone through the process of that learning how to read with people. I want to share it with you because I think there are some important takeaways for language learners.

Reading to learn languages: the basics

Now, when you’re literate, of course, those skills transfer between languages, right, but at the end of the day, you got to learn to read, and then you can read to learn. When we’re learning how to read, we’re learning what the words we say look like, okay? Then, as you read to learn, you can learn anything, right? Once you’re a proficient reader, you can pick up anything and learn whatever you want because you could read about it. I think those are two really important things, which means that you get to use reading to learn a foreign language. If you’re already literate, then that’s just amplified.

With all of that said, when we’re teaching people how to read, we really pick a certain range of reading for them to be able to do, so we don’t want it to be too easy because they won’t learn anything, and we don’t want it to be too hard because it’ll be too frustrating. Again, they won’t learn anything. It’ll be a terrible experience. So, we want a range really of understanding between sort of around 90%, 89 to 94%. I’m sure there’s different statistics out there, but the point being, we don’t want it to be too easy, and we don’t want it to be too hard. We want them to continue to problem solve until they are proficient and have all those skills to be able to read anything that they need to be able to read on their own.

So, when you’re talking about reading to learn a foreign language, you’re now talking about … We would never expect somebody to have a good reading experience when they only understand 30% of the words when it’s super frustrating and you have to read multiple times. So, please go into it, knowing that, and also know that once you have those literacy skills, these skills transfer. So, those things that good readers do, you skim, you scan, you don’t have to read every word and you can get something, get the gist of something, that’s important, but you can also use that tool to really amplify your language skills, to acquire language in a really natural way, to learn vocabulary and grammar completely in context. It’s a really powerful tool.

So, I wanted to share with you just three simple ways to be able to do that. The first one is with whatever you’re reading, just paper and pencil, right? So, I can’t tell you, or a highlighter, how powerful it is to mark up the text. So, go through and underline, highlight as you’re reading everything you don’t know. Go back and read again, and you’ll probably find that you’ve learned a lot of these things in context. Then go back and look up the words that you didn’t know. Again, write them in the margins, and then go through and read again, really, really, really powerful. Now, you’re reading this multiple times, right? That’s the whole point. You’re not going to read like you do in your own language, but you get to take. Now, that language is all going to be yours. You’re going to be able to really understand it, really deeply understand it.

The second way, if you can’t mark up the text, is to be able to take post-its and do that same thing. Mark up all over the text, or take a piece of paper and fold it in half, and then cut out a little frame, and put it over what you’re reading. You could write all those notes you have in those margins. Now, the last way, Readlang, that browser extension. Again, the tools I talk about it often in that it feeds you great content, and it’ll get to know you, and it’s got great search functions, but you can also use it to underline and highlight and make flashcards. So, again, digging deep into that comprehension.

Reading to learn languages: reading for pleasure

So, pleasure reading is often novels, but for me, I have lots of other pleasure reading that I like to do and some that are really specific to my language learning. You wouldn’t want to read a novel the way that I just described it, but I mean, you could potentially, and it would take you a long time, but it might be really frustrated especially if you’re just a beginner, so I wanted to share some ways when you’re in that sort of A, B, that novice intermediate level, some ideas of things that you can find easily to read.

So, one of my very favorite things to read is realia. What that means is stuff from the target language, so it might be a subway ticket or a restaurant menu or a shopping flyer, right? It’s that real life stuff. It might seem like a silly thing because there’s not a lot of content, but it is an amazing way to really amplify your vocabulary. If you’re learning another script, I would Google McDonald’s menus from those countries, and you will really easily be able to start reading because you’ll recognize if you’ve been to a McDonald’s or you recognize any of those things because even if you don’t eat at McDonald’s, I think a lot of the items are iconic. The Big Mac, for example. You’ll start learning what those are in other languages, and you’ll also start learning a lot about culture because they sort of localize their menus to include maybe not serving breakfast or serving the same kind of meals all day as in what happens in some countries with McDonald’s.

So, I think that’s a really powerful and easy and free way to get reading. I love to read shop flyers. Reading recipes would be the next. If you didn’t think that was a really worthwhile experience, looking at store websites, which is a perfectly valid way to use realia to learn languages. Reading recipes that you’re going to cook, those are abundant online. I love reading blogs. I love reading my horoscope. I love reading social media. I love reading tabloids. I really love things like personality quizzes.

Now, I know some of these things can be really difficult to find online, some of those really niche things like I was talking about the … When I was learning French, I loved the personality quizzes. They were easy. They amplified my vocabulary. They were interesting. They were fun. They covered a lot of different topics. They were easier to read than the news though I do really enjoy reading the news. It was just light and fun, and I really enjoyed them.

I’m going to leave some links to some resources where you can find these sort of easy reading, but the big key I think would be to learn some keywords in your target language because that will then open all of that up, keywords in your target language for things that interest you because that’s going to bring all that up. If you have any resources that you share for reading or finding reading in the target language, please consider sharing them in the comments. I’d love to hear about them, and I hope you have a great week learning languages. Until next time.

Thank you for listening to The 5-Week Linguist Show with Janina Klimas. Join us each week here, and visit us at for more resources for learning and teaching languages.

Fast language for travel: 5 weeks

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