Why Learning To Read In Other Languages Is So Important

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!


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  • I used to read German with LingQ, but since Learning with Texts came out. I've been using that. I agree with you about the advantages of being able to read. It's so fun being able to read my favorite books in another language. One of my favorite memories was reading, 11 Minutes, by Paulo Coehlo. I was halfway through the book and I stopped, looked up and said. "Holy shit... I just understood the last 50 pages, no prob! Cool!!!" :)Do you have any strategies when you read a foreign text? For example: Do you stop and look up each word you don't understand. Or while you read, do you highlight the unknown words and then wait to the end to look them up?

  • Sub-titles with a twist, every-time I mention this I get jumped on and told how stupid it is (then sometimes someone tries it and tells me 'ohh now I get it').Watch something in your own language with sub-titles in the language you are learning. If you already have a basic grasp you can learn loads. Why? I hear the cries. Well for one my wife is not interested in language learning but we enjoy many of the same films and TV series, she is happy to watch them with the foreign sub-titles on that equates to hours and hours when I could not get foreign exposure in a any other way. I am playing a long game to learn Germanic languages and started with serious Afrikaans learning, Dutch shares mostly the same vocab. (and is next on the list anyway), the spelling differs but not hard to pick up the common transitions and we have watched the first four seasons of Supernatural mostly with Dutch subs on (over-time that equates to about 68 hours of me reading subs and lot of vocab. and phrasing that I know didn't come from elsewhere. One series didn't have Dutch so I read the Danish instead (on the list anyway). You can easily keep your-self occupied, spot lazy or poor translations, read and translate what they are going to say before they say it etc. Or just look for anything, for example based on Supernatural the Dutch seem less likely to say "I love you" than South Afrikaans more inclined to say the equivalent of "I like you". Maybe that is not quite true but just adds to my list of things to be observant about. Anyway try it before you knock it, not as a main strategy but an interesting extra dimension. 

  • As a counter comment though if you were completely illiterate (even in your mother  tongue) can you think of an advantage that gives you? I can it is huge! Not that I intend to give up literacy for it.  

  • That's a pretty interesting tip!I especially like the fact that you found a way to get in some language practice without it interrupting the time of others who are not interested.

  • My reading strategy is just to get whatever meaning I can from the context, and don't worry about words that I don't know.Looking up every word tends to slow things down to the point where you can't keep the story in mind.By ignoring words I don't know, I read more - and faster - and it gives me opportunities to recognize when a single word comes up often. When I start to spot such words, I look them up to make sure that I'm not making incorrect assumptions about words that are important to the text.

  • Thanks for the reply. I'll try this out next time I'm reading.

  • That's exactly how I started reading in English years ago! Now I've reached a complete reading fluency and I can read most fiction novels with ease despite not being able to give a precise description to probably 5 - 10% of vocabulary. Just knowing what they mean in the context of that particular piece is enough to enjoy it as if I were reading it in my native language.

  • Hello,
    Wow, your post is really interesting, many linguists emphasise only the importance of the speaking and listening, but the reading can for sure help us quite a lot. Even reading a book can force you to speak, you just have to use the vocabulary learnt and tell the book out loud, either to yourself or to a friend or a foreigner. The tool is only a tool, but the form you use it can make virtually anything.
    Congratulations for your blog, it has a lot of great ideias.
    Best wishes,
    Jimmy Mello

  • Имаш право Ренди!

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