Learning foreign languages on your own—Part 3: Reading

15 May

This is part of a series on my method for learning foreign languages. See post one here and post two here.

Three months have elapsed. You have a bumbling, if not reasonable, grasp upon speaking. I imagine you’ve also had a reasonable “look” at the language, but still an immature knowledge of its grammar. You still cannot read basic texts but, browsing online articles, you get an idea of what’s going on. You are ready to move onto stage three in Dan’s method of learning foreign languages ™.

Exclaimer: from this point on, things get more difficult and less fun. If you can’t hack it with this method, you might need the help of a private tutor, or at least a very strict schedule. This can be some grueling labor, but it pays off. The thing is, with my method, efficiency rules above all. You have a limited amount of time and you want to use that time to your advantage. That means the time in which you are learning the language will be somewhat exhausting mentally but will pay off—you’ll advance at a rate two to three times as fast as you would in regular (that is to say, passive) learning environments.

Okay, so now it’s time to set down your listening skills and focus on reading. Why do we leapfrog into reading and not study grammar through a textbook? Because reading gives you vocabulary and a natural grasp on grammar at the same time. The most important part of languages is vocabulary acquisition. Grammar you can learn in a couple of months—but you’ll always need words, especially when you’re getting started. A reasonably-sized language has about 100-200,000 words, 5,000 of which are used in regular speech and 20,000 of which are used in most writing. That’s a hell of a lot of words to know. So why waste a month learning the difference between por and para, which doesn’t matter all that much to be understood in Spanish, when you can learn 500 words in that same amount of time and start getting an organic acquaintance with grammar? You can’t hardly talk to anybody if you know all the grammar perfectly and know about 200 words (which is how you end up after most university courses) but, as you can see with people thrown into foreign environments, such as language-washed immigrants, you can make yourself understood if you tumble into the world of words.

Which is exactly why we begin a tour de force jump into reading, which exposes you to words, words and more words.

At the same time, you have to figure out the grammar on your own. This is far more effective than merely being taught it or learning it. It’s works on the same principle that you learn to write by writing, rather than reading theory about writing, or painting by painting, and not taking art history. The latter is important, but that’s the sort of stuff that comes after you have some practical ability, and is more of a confirmation of what you intuitively know.

One more thing. You can’t give listening and speaking all of a sudden. So, now that you’re going to begin reading, you cut your time down from 30 minutes a day on listening to 15 (and now you can just watch movies, if you’ve gotten up to a reasonable level of understanding) and start reading at first for 30 minutes a day.

Alright. So what you need to do for the reading section is get yourself newspapers, articles, children’s books, dual-book short stories and a dictionary and grammar book. You’ll also need notepads, a notebook, flashcards, pencils, pens, highlighters, a study log, coffee, and a quiet room for half an hour a day, preferably at the same time each day.

It’s always best to start simple, but not too simple, so I suggest you start with newspaper articles, a highlighter and a red pen. You’ll realize early on that by missing a single word you an inhibit your whole understanding of an entire passage—but also you can’t spend your whole day looking up words. So highlight words which are essential, which appear three or more times, while at the same time start to circle the grammatical endings of words and speculate on the patterns you see and what they mean—what the case, number and tense might be.

Flashcards are great, as are word lists. When you’re standing on the street corner, waiting for the bus, you can go over the words you’re working on in your story of the week, which you should read until you know very well, and memorize as you wait. Play games. Make drawings of the word.s Do everything in your power to cram words into your mind at this point. Since newspaper articles are usually in the present or the simple past, you shouldn’t have much trouble, as you would with literary texts, and grammar will still remain simple as your vocabulary grows.

As you go along, spending a half an hour a day referencing your grammar book and marking down 5-10 words a day with definitions and flashcards, you’ll find that you feel like you have no idea what you’re doing—and it will be pretty uncomfortable and tedious a lot of the time—but within a week, suddenly, your knowledge will boomed and will continue to grow. Then, as you move on to harder articles you can start to consolidate and systematize your understanding of grammar.

Note: it helps if you have a knowledge of grammatical forms before you go into this method. If you don’t, well, I can assure this will be an even more murky adventure than it seems at first. Most of the listening exercises I recommended will, however, give you a mundane understanding of the grammar of the language, which will nevertheless be invaluable. I’m not going to lie: you’re going to need to do some exercises and run back to your grammar book now and again, more often if you have a harder time with grammar or don’t yet know another foreign language.

You’ll progress with reading until you can begin to read books. The best way to begin is with dual language books that have the translation on the opposite side. This might sound like a step back from article reading, but it’s actually important to work on your grammar more and stop fussing around over simple words all the time. Having the language there will mean that you can look at the words easier (and will therefore be less apt to memorize them) but that you can study the grammatical forms side by side and get an understanding of them.

You’ll need to point out what indicates the future, how you make the plural, who the different persons are, etc. A lot of this will already be known to you, due to your intensive speaking courses, but you’re going to have to deal with gerunds, the subjunctive and a lot of other forms which were not touched upon. You can reference these and begin to use them in your time spent speaking or listening (renting movies with subtitles in the foreign language would be a good idea now).

Your reading should, little by little, lead up to easier novels in the foreign language, but that will take you about six months’ time more to achieve, and even then, you’ll have to start getting to work on the next part of this method, which is where we shall continue next time . . .

1 Comment

Posted by on May 15, 2011 in Education, Language


One response to “Learning foreign languages on your own—Part 3: Reading

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