by Aggie Chapman
“A room without books is like a body without a soul” – this Cicero quote really resonates with me. I can’t imagine my life without books, most of the time I’m reading at least one and often upset my sleeping routine by not being able to put a book down. I’ve always been an avid reader and reading in foreign languages seemed like a natural part of learning to me.
But, like learning anything new, reading in a language that we haven’t fully mastered naturally has its setbacks. Depending on the book, you may sail through it hardly noticing any new words, or on the contrary, it may be packed with sophisticated vocabulary that will somehow hinder your understanding and make you want to put the book away. I quietly hope that you don’t, though…
Many people are rather apprehensive towards the idea of reading in a foreign language and think that it is something that only learners at the highest levels can do. Nothing is further from the truth. Let me just tell you that there are special versions of books, called “readers” prepared especially for learners. They include many of the classics as well as contemporary fiction and start at level A1! Of course, they will be shorter and a lot simpler at the lower levels, but isn’t the sheer fact that you can read a book after completing the first level of language learning simply amazing? Even better, readers include exercises to help you practise new vocabulary, and often an audio track to practise listening and reading. The downside is, they are not 100% the original text, but you can read that when you get to the higher level.Reading a book that you have read and enjoyed in your own language may also ease your way into reading in a foreign language. The advantage of knowing the storyline makes it easier to follow and you will be less likely to look up every new word because you’ll know what’s happening. I really like to compare different language versions of the books I read, and believe that you get a different experience from each.
Why is reading in a foreign language so beneficial to learning?Apart from the obvious – reading exercises our brain and makes it stronger, develops our imagination, and gives us an escape from the mundane; it also increases our vocabulary range and improves memory. What’s better for learning? Even if we read in our own language, we come across less common words and expressions, different styles and slang. The same, or even more, happens when we read in a foreign language.
In a book the new words are used in the context of the story and that automatically makes them more memorable. You know who said the word, or what it referred to, in what situation – you have the whole background. It can help to anchor the situation in your mind – imagine the character saying the new word, hear the voice, see the face, etc. Try to picture the situation or place in your mind, highlight the new word in it, or hear it said by the narrator. Of course, these tricks can help, but they won’t do the job for you. Reading a book won’t magically make all the new words you find there automatically stick in your mind. You’ll still need to record the words and revise them, like you do with any new vocabulary.It’s not just about the vocabulary, though, books also give you a model of how language is used in a natural way – exactly how people speak in real life. You can see different grammatical structures, spelling and punctuation. Even though you are not actively doing language exercises, your memory is reinforced simply by being exposed to them. And we all know that learning is nothing else than remembering new things, until we are ready to use them.
Books also help us learn about the culture. After all, is it possible to really master the language without getting familiar with its culture? I don’t think so. Just think how many words change meaning in different contexts and how many expressions and jokes are based on cultural references. Books written in a foreign language will be set in the target culture, so they are an in valuable source of different bits of information about it. If you read books in English, by choosing British or American authors you can get to grips with the “different Englishes” as the characters will speak British or American English, or one of the other interesting varieties!
However, as I mentioned earlier – reading helps, but if all you do is read the text, in the best-case scenario you will remember a handful of new words. To learn the vocabulary, you need to treat the book similar to any learning material. Read it first, without stopping to check every new word you find. Stop to check the meaning ONLY when you really can’t understand the fragment. In other cases, guess!I recommend using a pencil for a printed copy, or the highlighter function for e-books. Underline or highlight the new words and come back to them later – translate and organise them into vocabulary lists, put them on Quizlet, make mind-maps, or whatever else works for you. If you don’t want to write in a book, have a separate notepad and quickly write the words down to look up later.
Not checking the meaning of every single words is in fact vital for using the language in general. Why? It goes without saying that you read faster without stopping each time a new word pops up. More importantly it forces you to guess the meaning from the context – a skill that is invaluable for a language learner. Think about talking to people in a foreign language. Will they only use the words you know? Unlikely. So, naturally sometimes you’ll need to listen to someone and guess what they mean from the context of the conversation. And reading without checking the meaning of new words equips you for that perfectly.
Having prepared a list of the new words form the book you should decide whether you really want or need to learn all the words. Many people take the ambitious approach and aim to learn every new word they have found, only to become overwhelmed and demotivated. The old adage about quality and quantity proves right here too. It’s not important to learn all the new words, but a lot better to learn even just a few, but be able to use them correctly.
How to choose which words to learn? It depends, really. First of all, on your goal – why do you want to learn them? If you are learning for yourself, simply choose the ones that appeal and aim to learn them. They may look or sound cool, cute, strange – if there is something in them that works for you, their “oomph” will make it easier for you to remember them.Perhaps some words are repeated in the text? Especially if they are unfamiliar to you, you are more likely to notice them. I’ve published a selection of different words repeated by some of my favourite English-speaking authors on Instagram. If the word comes up repeatedly, it may mean that it is used commonly. Or that the writer simply likes it… But, having seen it a few times you are much more likely to remember it anyway.
If your goal is to increase the range of your vocabulary for a particular exam, I would suggest checking the word against the level of the exam you have in mind. For example, if you want to take Cambridge Advanced, or want to get band 7.0/7.5 in IELTS, you are looking at C1 level. Look the new word up in a dictionary – for instance Cambridge or Oxford and see if the C1 level is listed with the word’s definition. Admittedly, this approach is a lot more painstaking and as such probably more suitable for linguistic nerd, like yours truly.
I’m sure, however, that whatever method you choose, you will reap benefits of reading in the foreign language before you notice!