Learning A Language? Here's Why You Need To Read More

avatarMille Larsen
6 mins read

In my last post, I promised to summarize the methods that have proven to work best for me in learning a new language. As I wrote that post, the one thing that stood out most strongly in my mind was actually quite simple:


Read a lot.

Read everything you can find.

Don't worry that you won't understand everything because of course you won't understand everything! But you already have the tools to figure out what you don't know... you don't need me to tell you what those are or how they work.

An example - il buio

I remember when I was learning Italian and I discovered a popular Italian rapper named Caparezza, who's biggest hit song was called Vieni a ballare in Puglia — a very political song about an area of Italy called Puglia.

The first time I listened to the song, I didn't understand all the words, and I certainly didn't pick up on all of the overtones in which it was written, but I remember hearing this refrain the first time through and feeling that there was something "dark" about it:

Vieni a ballare in Puglia Puglia Puglia

dove la notte è buia buia buia...

You see, as I worked to learn Italian, one of the things that improved my understanding the most was reading Pinocchio from cover-to-cover in Italian. As I read, I didn't understand everything early on. In early chapters I had to look up a lot of words just to get the point of the story.

But as I read on, I saw the same words over and over, and I remembered their meaning and their context... and in a later chapter, when I was reading more comfortably without searching out definitions all the time, the story brought Pinocchio through a dark and scary forest. I understood the somber tone of the story, but I encountered a word I had not seen before: il buio.

Now, when I'm missing a lot of context and things don't make sense, I look things up — sometimes even send whole sentences to Google Translate so I can just understand the point — but when I'm understanding most of what I read (or hear) and only miss a word here and there, I try to figure out that word's meaning from the context. It's more natural. This is, after all, how we learn our native language, isn't it?

So as I read this chapter about Pinocchio walking through this scary forest, I kept seeing how intimidating il buio was, and wondering to myself, "is il buio a spectre? is il buio a demon?" I kept reading and trying to figure it out, but eventually after several pages I realized that this question was starting to take away from my ability to enjoy the story, so I paused and looked up a translation.

Il buio is "the darkness".

Context is everything in language learning

When I heard that Caparezza song for the first time, I didn't understand all of the implications of his lyrics, but I knew that there was something scary about what happens in Puglia after dark. I heard "la notte è buia" (the nights are dark) and I remembered scared little Pinocchio walking fearfully through that forest. There is context behind this word that makes it mean something completely different to me in Italian than it ever would in English. (And I couldn't have gotten that from a flashcard!)

All of language works that way. We choose our words not just for the meanings defined in dictionaries, but also for the connotations they carry. It would take years of sterile memorization to ever get the same language skill that you could easily acquire just from spending time reading in your target language, seeing how words are chosen, and forcing yourself to infer their connotations.

Why reading in foreign 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.

Aaron Posehn 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 that 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 Busan, Korea.

What other tricks have you discovered from only learning only to read a language? Leave a comment below.