Reading May Be the Secret of My Success in Language Learning
Breaking News –Special Report: A new way of recording and transmitting information has been discovered, even more convenient than mp3 technology. It’s called reading, yes, writing things down for others to read!
Someone commented on one of my recent YouTube videos where I said, in Japanese, that Japanese people who are learning English might want to consider learning Chinese as a way of making their brains more flexible. I suggested that this would eventually make their English learning more efficient because they wouldn’t be fighting the same difficulties. Their minds would be refreshed and expanded.
Someone responded with something like “That’s all well and good, but English is very useful. I can communicate with so many people. It is an international language whereas Chinese is not.” I used Chinese as an example. It doesn’t have to be Chinese, it can be any language. Learning a third language makes the brain more flexible. There are many reasons to learn another language, the opportunity to read in that language is one of the many attractions of learning languages other than English. If the only language we need to learn is the main language of international communication, that would mean English speakers don’t need to learn any other language. Since I have learned 20 languages as an English speaker, I obviously don’t agree.
So why do I learn a language? Why am I working on Persian, Arabic and Turkish? A big part of it is reading. I like to read in the language. I like to learn about those cultures. I like to learn about their history, their language. It’s all part of us being human beings. I have this almost giddy sense of power when I’m reading about these other cultures and histories in their language. I don’t have to find an Arabic speaker in Vancouver to enjoy reading about Arabic history. It broadens my overall perspective in an empowering way.
That, for example, is why I am learning standard Arabic rather than a regional variation. Every native speaker of Arabic reads standard Arabic. Once you have that as a base it’s not difficult to learn the other variants, to become at least able to understand them (we’re going to have content on LingQ that’s going to make that even easier) then it’s easy enough to do if you have that base in standard Arabic. I recognize that Arabic is not everyone’s first choice as a foreign language to learn, given its difficulty. I just want to point out that the ability to read and even to listen to things in that language is a major motivation and source of enjoyment. Being able to speak to people, it’s not the only reason to learn a language.
Reading is a big reason why English speakers find it interesting to learn other languages. People in non-English speaking countries, who typically learn English first, may find it rewarding to learn languages other than English because they’ll be able to read in those languages.
Reading is a great way to acquire knowledge. It’s also a great way to acquire words, words that are necessary in order to have meaningful communication with people, in order to have meaningful conversations. Reading is a necessary companion to my listening activities, which represent 70% of the time I spend learning languages. It is only when I read that I am able to understand what I’m listening to. Reading is enjoyable for me, and it enables me to acquire the words and phrases that I’m going to need in order to better understand the language and eventually communicate.
Reading is not only powerful for language learning, reading is powerful in life. There are so many examples. You can find stories on the internet about how reading ability is the best predictor of professional success, academic success. It’s the fastest way to acquire information. That’s not to say that people who don’t read well can’t do well in life, they do. I’ve worked with people who didn’t read well. Maybe they were dyslexic or they had poor teachers at school. For whatever reason, they didn’t read well and yet they were extremely successful in what they chose to do in life. They learned through experience.
So if you can’t read well that doesn’t exclude you from being successful. The President of the United States doesn’t read well. Probably if he hadn’t been born into a lot of money, his lack of reading wouldn’t have taken him very far, but that’s another subject. Reading is a big equalizer. You don’t have to go to Yale or Harvard to become a good reader. You begin by being a good reader early.
I’ve often complained that where schools teach reading they focus too much on details. They’re trying to teach the kids to think critically. They ask them questions before reading and after reading and to me that is all nonsense. It just takes away the fun of reading. The way you get people to read is to somehow enable them to enjoy reading. If they enjoy reading, they’ll read more and the more they read, the better they get at reading. Therefore, don’t decide for kids what they’re going to read. It’s like when I’m learning a language and I’m told you’re going to do this story on festivals and customs or the names of all the different members of the family or whatever it might be. I’m not interested. Give me something that I’m interested in and, typically, that will be something I’m familiar with.
I think in language learning we should begin with things that we’re familiar with, how people live, hello, good morning, have coffee, go out to the store, whatever. Don’t take it too far away from things that we’re familiar with and that we enjoy. It’s the same with reading, getting young people to read or even older people to read, give them things they’re interested in. Don’t ask them a bunch of questions, comprehension questions, pre-reading questions, post-reading questions. It doesn’t matter if they understand everything they read. What matters is that they continue reading. So if they’re interested in machines or if they’re interested in sports or music, let them read about that and they’ll read more and more.
I’ve often felt that LingQ would be an ideal tool to improve literacy where people are struggling because they have a limited vocabulary for a variety of reasons or they might be dyslexic. It would help them to learn in the LingQ environment of sound combined with reading, combined with saving words to a database. All of the things we do at LingQ I think would be helpful for struggling readers. I’d be happy to make it available free of charge for any kind of literacy program because literacy is such a big part of our success in life.
In prisons the literacy levels are overwhelmingly low. People at the upper end of income, not everyone, but on average, are people who read better. So reading is super powerful. In terms of education, a good 20-30% of the population doesn’t read very well. More should be done at an early age or later in a remedial way to help those people.
Getting back to the first point, I study standard Arabic because I want to read Arabic. I think people whose mother tongue is English should learn other languages, even if they don’t have a lot of people they can speak to. That’s their choice, of course. I shouldn’t say what people should do. I think it’s rewarding. Similarly, for speakers of languages other than English as a native language, there are many good reasons for them to still go and learn third, fourth, fifth languages. It broadens their linguistic flexibility, but also there’s this tremendous reward of learning about these other cultures and a lot of that is acquired through reading.