If you asked me to choose the one language-learning activity that I think provides the greatest increase in knowledge and ability, for the smallest investment of energy, I would always say the same thing: learning to read.
For those of you who don't know Aaron Posehn, check out his new language blog, "For the Love of Languages". He recently wrote a piece entitled The Advantages of Knowing How to Read Foreign Languages, making several points that I agree with, and also pointing out a few great tips that I had never thought of before.
This works with any phonetic writing system, with the exception of a handful of Asian languages that are character-based and have no alphabet. The advantage is obvious when you consider languages like Russian, or Hindi, which use completely different alphabets, but it's also useful for languages using Latin-based alphabets.
The most obvious and immediate advantage is, of course, that once you learn to read the language you can start to recognize names and places, as well as the wealth of cognates present in almost every language. For example, learning to read the Lithuanian writing system allows me to recognize that Ĉikaga is the name of my city (Chicago), or žurnalas means "magazine" (journal). Similarly, learning the Macedonian writing system makes it possible for me to recognize that word Фудбал means I'm probably reading about soccer (football), and the word Скопје is a reference to the capital city (Skopje).
Being able to perform such simple tasks in another language may sound small, but it enables you to read basic signage, find directions, and (with some creativity) even make some assumptions about things you see in headlines, or tweets, or whatever else you see in that language.
Also, most notably, it empowers you to learn basic vocabulary. Once you know how to read, you can learn basic words (for example, from your phrasebook) and you'll be able to find things like restrooms, exits, airports, etc.
One really exciting idea which I hadn't previously thought of, though, is a trick Aaron mentioned in his post. After being able to read the alphabet, and not much more than just that, he was able to use the words printed next to pictures in order to purchase the exact breakfast meal he wanted while in a restaurant in Pusan, Korea.
What other tricks have you discovered from only learning only to read a language? Leave a comment below! And don't forget to go check out Aaron's blog!
Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.