How to Start Reading in a New Language

To start off, this is how I’m doing this right now, with Dutch in particular. I plan on tweaking this as necessary when I do other languages, and I’ll update when I do!

repetitio est mater studiorum.

repetition is the mother of learning.

I’m highly influenced by both Hungarian linguist Kató Lomb and AJATT’s Khatzumoto, both of whom steer away from overuse of dictionaries when reading, even when first starting a language. I think this is a good practice– I only look up words when they appear multiple times or when my curiosity gets the best of me. My reading time is relaxing and meant to give myself a feel of the language, not a vocabulary learning tool in and of itself. Reading serves to cement vocabulary and grammar learned in other contexts, and also to provide context for future learning.

What do I mean by this? I’ll use my tried and true example: I often start reading in a target language with one of the first three Harry Potter books, which I know in English very, very well 😀 I’ll probably start reading one of these books either after I’ve done a few preliminary lessons in some textbook, or even alongside with the lessons (again, go with your curiosity! If you can’t wait to start, start. You’ll figure it out).

As Lomb has suggested in her book, a new language is almost like a puzzle to be riddled out. When you have some context (like already knowing the book you’re reading quite well), you can use your memory to latch onto bits of dialogue you recognize. At first, these bits might be heavy with proper nouns and character names (that’s what you recognize, of course), but you’ll remember vocabulary from your textbooks, flashcards, or radio, and you’ll start to pick out words. Those words will be connected to other words in a sentence, and sure enough, you’ll start to guess the meaning.

I think it’s important to plough through the text– ignore what you don’t know, and enjoy reading in your new language. Believe me, if it’s a simple book that you know, you’ll start pick out more and more. And later, when you sit down to SRS or learn more vocabulary, you’ll recognize words from your reading!

To do this, you must be okay with ignoring blocks of text. I regularly skim entire paragraphs, and it’s only pages later that I find myself afloat again. Let your dignity go, and realize it’ll be a while before you can blow through books effortlessly.

Here are a couple of concrete examples. I’m currently working through the first Harry Potter book in Dutch, and I’m committed to half a chapter a day. I rarely look up words in a dictionary while I’m reading, but I’ve noticed that words have stuck in my head even after putting the book down. Sometimes I’ll look those words up later, especially if they present themselves to me in another context, like reading the news or listening to radio. But I had an exciting breakthrough as I was working through a word list of common vocabulary– I recognized a huge amount of the words. Because of my lazy-ish style of reading and numerous encounters with the vocabulary many times before, each word and it’s definition kind of clicked in my head, and it made memorization a breeze. And considering that these words are common, I keep running into them over and over. It creates an environment in which you regularly review certain concepts, like organic spaced-repetition.

Now, what if the language isn’t as close to your native language, like Dutch is to English? I’ve done similar reading in both Polish and Japanese, and I was surprised at the progress I made, even with my still-lazy dictionary usage. I worked through my copy of Roald Dahl’s Matilda (also a middle-grade children’s book) in Polish over several months. Polish has way fewer words that are intelligible to speakers of Western European languages and a more complex grammar. I don’t know Matilda as well as I do Harry Potter. Nevertheless, I riddled out a good portion of basic vocabulary from the book, and the grammar began to seem natural to me. As for Japanese, I’ve read through several volumes of a manga I loved as a kid, Kodomo no Omocha (seriously, that series shaped me like no other…. That there is reason alone for me to get good at Japanese). Again, with lazy dictionary use, basic Japanese knowledge, and with the story nearly memorized in the background, I learned more vocabulary and grammar than I had with textbooks, and the new concepts stuck with me better. It was satisfying and fun.

I still think this method might work a tad better with either basic language knowledge or with a language that is closely related to one you already know. Those things make the reading less like staring at a wall of foreign text 🙂 Still, I’m excited about this method I’ve stumbled upon, and I think it could be applicable to other languages I’m interested in, and it might be more sustainable for me than SRS, which I find a little boring (and I know many other people sympathize with this).

I’m always interested in new ways to learn– how do you start reading in a new language?


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