Language Learning Goal 2: Reading Comprehension
This post is a transcript of a video on my YouTube channel.
Studying English? Here’s the transcript as a lesson to study on LingQ.
The first sort of goal that I work towards in learning languages is to acquire words. The second goal is reading and I’ll explain.
In order to learn words, we first of all, have to read them. We can also hear them and eventually learn them, but it’s an awful lot easier in my experience if I can also read them. If I just hear them, it’s difficult for me to remember them. Reading gives them form.It’s easier for me to remember the word. I identify the written word with the word that I hear.
Reading is easier than listening. I can work my way through a text at LingQ, look up every word. Let’s say I’m in sentence mode, it’s a brand new language and if there’s seven words in that sentence, I can look up each word and I can kind of figure out what the sentence means. Fuzzy, maybe not totally clear, but I have a sense of what that sentence means. I have a sense of which words correspond to the verb, to the noun and so forth. So the reading is easy. If I just heard those words, I wouldn’t be able to do that. So reading is a sort of a step towards being able to understand what you hear.
This is interesting because of course, historically, and from an evolutionary perspective, as human beings we weren’t designed to read. It’s only in the last 5,000 years that writing has existed and for most of that period, a very small percentage of the population read. Books were very expensive. It was very expensive to print. This more widespread with the development of different methods of printing initially in China and then in Europe with Gutenberg, but even after that, it was a small percentage of people who read.
So for the human brain to be able to decipher, to convert written lines or drawings in a text into meaning and also into sound is an amazing achievement. So for us, when we learn to write even in our own language, that’s a major process in terms of getting our brains to adapt to something that they weren’t used to doing.
Many people have difficulty reading. To make reading easier I’ve always felt that it’s important to combine the audio with the reading. It’s like if you’re playing a musical instrument, if you have heard the tune, it’s easier to play that tune on the piano or on the guitar, whatever it might be, because you have an idea of what it is. Similarly with reading if you can hear what it is you’re trying to read, you have a little bit of momentum going into the reading. So I always combine audio with text. Certainly in an early stage in my learning. I want to be able to do both listen and read, but I know that in order to get good at the language, I have to read a lot.
If I look at my statistics in LingQ, even in Arabic and Persian, which are the two most recent languages, I’ve read about 500,000 words in each of them. LingQ measures not only when you read something for the first time, but also when you read it for a second and the third time, which I do, and I’ll get into this sort of strategy of reading. Even when I feel that I’m struggling to make progress, I know that every time I’m doing either something new, which therefore would have a lot of unknown words that I’m looking up, blue words, or if I’m rereading something that I’ve read before, because there’s still lots of words that are now yellow words that I have looked up, but I still don’t know those words. It’s just a process of reading again, reading something that I’ve read. I’m consuming those words. My brain is slowly, slowly getting used to reading in that language.
This is particularly true if the writing system is different. And even though say the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used for Russian and Ukrainian, Tajik other languages, is not that different from our Latin alphabet but if I’m reading in Arabic,Persian, Korean, Japanese or Chinese, every time I’m reading, I’m helping the brain get used to this new writing system. Even if I know theoretically what the letters represent, I continue to confuse them because I’m still fighting to decipher them. Whereas if I’m reading them in my own language or my own writing system, it’s instant, the meaning of those letters is instant. I think this might be similar to the situation of people who struggle with dyslexia. They’re fighting to decipher each word whereas a fluent reader just immediately converts the word to meaning.
When we’re reading in a foreign language, I find that we’re always sub vocalizing, so that the sound of the word is very important to us. When we read it in our own language, I think it’s just an instant meaning. How did we get that way? Because ever since childhood, we’ve been reading in that writing system in that language and so it’s just, it’s just a matter of the brain is so used to it. So therefore we have to read a lot in order to get better at the language that we’re learning.
If I say I’m at 500,000 words in Arabic or Persian, I had a million and a half words read at least according to statistics on LingQ in languages like Czech or Russian, this doesn’t account for the reading that I do away from the computer. Again, I read on my iPad or in LingQ in order to look up words because I find it frustrating to be reading and having a lot of words that I don’t know. But once I get good enough in a language, I like to read on paper because you have no help. There’s no audio, there’s no text to speech. You can’t look up words. You just have to fight your way through this text on paper. And I’ve always felt that when I am first able to read a whole book from cover to cover paper book, conventional book in a language, that’s a major achievement, a major milestone.
I’m not there in Arabic and Persian. There are just far too many words that I don’t know, but I continue reading. Every day I read some and either I’m looking up words because there are a lot of blue words, unknown words, or it’s material that I’ve read before, perhaps moving some of the yellow words along and status moving them perhaps to known. So I spend a lot of time reading and because it’s so often the case in language learning once we get past that first stage where we suddenly discover this language and we understand a few things and we can say a few things and we’re very happy, then we hit that long period where we’re slowly acquiring these lower frequency words, which we know. So during that period, it’s very important to have a reinforcement, to convince yourself that you’re actually doing something and I’m getting somewhere.
I’ve always felt that we need measures of our activity level because if we are active, we will be learning. And in that regard to the number of words read, which we track at LingQ, even the number of words that you have looked up, in other words, the LingQs create. These are all indicators of how active you are. And so the reading is a big activity at LingQ. It’s one that’s helping your brain get used to the language and it’s a measure of how active you are with the language. I will get onto the other goals like listening, which is easier to do because I can do it while I’m doing other tasks, but reading does require actually being in front of the text, either reading from the book or on the iPad or computer or using LingQ or you’re using some other method. It’s something that is dedicated. You cannot be reading and driving at the same time. I don’t recommend that.
If we look at reading aside from language, literacy, people who read well by and large do better. That’s not to say that people who don’t read well are bad people, many people who don’t read well are very successful in a variety of fields. Over all people who read well do better academically, professionally, socially, and so forth. So reading is very important and people who read well, read a lot and the same with language learning. If you want to learn the language well, you need to read a lot. And the reading can be either rereading easy material, which I still find myself doing with some of the learner books in Persian, I still read through to reinforce certain structures of the language. I’ll read the mini stories again because there’s still words there that I can’t remember, but I vary that with reading new material that has more blue words in it.
And of course the feeling we have when we see that the pages become clear. Even if I bring in a newspaper article in Persian and I see that the pages there’s fewer and fewer blue words, there are more and more white words that are known. So you have that sense of the pages on LingQ becoming lighter and lighter in colour and that’s an indication that you are getting somewhere, even though at times you may struggle to understand you may struggle to speak. So I guess my message is that in my hierarchy of goals, if the first goal is to acquire more words, the main way of acquiring those new words, passive vocabulary, is reading. Reading in combination with listening, but I can’t do it without the reading. And the amount of reading we do on LingQ is easily measured. So it’s a measure of how active you are. It’s an indication that you are moving forward in the language, even though sometimes you think you aren’t. And even if I’m reading something, that’s relatively uninteresting, something that I’ve read before, I know from personal experience that just being exposed to the writing system, being exposed to this need to read and to decipher what’s written there. And that’s helping me.
I mean, we will do things. I regularly pull down a k20 minute, 25 minute kettlebell routine from YouTube that I’ve done before, but I know that it’s good for me to do it so I’m, I’m content to do it. The same with reading material that I’ve read before and our system at LingQ does keep track of that. But at the same time, I’m motivated, motivated to read new material where I’ll acquire new words and where I’m learning about things that are of interest to me. So you can do both kinds of reading. You can be reading specifically to learn sort of a deliberate learning activity, or you can be reading to acquire more information, to learn about different things that are of interest to you. But again, reading, whether you do it with e-text or whether you do it in a paper book is is a fundamental part of language learning. Now that’s not to say that there aren’t lots of people who learn and don’t read, and I am sure there are, we read about the Amazon jungle, where there’s so many different languages and people managed to learn each other’s languages. I gather in Ethiopia, which is not a country with a high rate of literacy, people nevertheless are quite multilingual because there are so many languages there, so you can learn without reading. However, it’s easier with reading. If you live surrounded by speakers of other languages, you’ll pick up those languages quite comfortably, but most of us aren’t in that situation.
And so reading, which is like a recording, but it’s a written record of what someone’s said, better if you can hear what’s there, because that gives you momentum into the reading, you actually can hear the words that you’re reading, but to have the ability to read in combination with listening is very powerful. In my mind, in terms of the statistics that I follow at LingQ of my reading comes right after my vocabulary.
I hope that was helpful. Stay tuned for goal three in the series.