How to read for pleasure in another language

Reading can be frightening.

Sounds silly? Think about it. If you’re learning a language, how often do you read in it? How often do you read in your own language? If not often, is it because you think you should read or think you should read certain types of books but can’t force yourself to do it? Often we blame this on lack of time, but I think it has a different root.

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Language learners in particular find it difficult to enjoy reading when they are in the early stages of learning a language. This then puts them at a disadvantage: they keep studying grammar point after grammar point, and talking and talking, and can’t understand why their accuracy doesn’t improve. Something I often say to my classes is this: If you don’t see the language in front of you on a regular basis, how on Earth are you going to know how to use it yourself? I’m not talking about in-class reading here: rather looking at what people often want to do outside of class but feel unable to.

They usually agree with me wholeheartedly. They simply don’t know where to start. Reading for pleasure as part of daily life is something a lot of language learners want to do, but feel unable to. The truth is that reading in another language doesn’t need to be a scary experience if done in the right way. It can be life-enhancing as well as language-enhancing. Here are some tips, both from my experience as a TEFL teacher, and as a language student and a passionate reader for many years myself.

1. Read something you enjoy

To borrow from an old surfing adage, I believe that the best reader is the one enjoying themselves the most. Who cares if you’re reading a trashy romance, a scientific tome, a sci-fi bestseller or a classic? Perhaps you like all of these kinds of books at different times. Whether you finish books doesn’t necessarily matter either – perhaps you get half way through and decide you’re not enjoying it enough. The only important thing about reading is how much pleasure you are deriving from it. This can be difficult when reading for exams or work; though it still holds that you will take much more from the book if you can find a way to do so in a way that you enjoy and makes you feel energised.

2. Use graded readers

There is a lot of snobbery about the use of graded readers, which I used to buy into myself before I started to comprehend the struggles of my students. ‘How can you take a classic and water down the language!’ I used to think. Eventually, though, the need to encourage students to start reading trumped my snobbery. Therefore, at St Giles, I began to bring graded readers into the programme for my pre-intermediate classes. I knew the library there was brilliantly diverse – from Jane Austen to modern thrillers to books about cars – and I thought it was time to make use of it.

Every couple of weeks I would shepherd students to the library and ask them to select a book. Later they were asked to write a report detailing what happened in the book and their opinion on it, which they then had to share in speaking tasks with the other students. Before long, I started to notice the students’ abilities improving more quickly than before; particularly their lexis. They really felt they had ownership of the book. Not only this, but they clearly enjoyed the process and felt empowered by it. Graded readers had opened up a whole world to them and facilitated rapid language improvement.

3. Kindle lookups

Modern technology is incredible, and I owe the speed of my Spanish-learning in part to my Kindle. Once I had quelled my above-mentioned snobbery about graded readers, I embarked upon an intermediate version of El Quixote in Spanish. To read it, I had to hold my finger down on quite a large number of words at the beginning. Thankfully, the wonderful Kindle and its in-built Spanish-English dictionary translated the words for me. I could read the book without having to leaf through a dictionary or make notes. You can imagine my sense of satisfaction when, by the end, I had by default memorised the meaning of most of the vocabulary that was regularly used in the book, and no longer needed to look up words.

4. Find your balance

When it comes to reading a full novel in another language, we are often told by our language teachers to ‘read for gist’ – that is, to read a novel without depending too much on a dictionary. Reading for gist is clearly a good general idea, because you start to understand many different words purely from context as you make your way through the book. There are two main problems with reading for gist. Firstly, you will never enjoy it if you don’t understand what’s going on, because you will get bored. Secondly, you may miss out on a lot of beautiful details and stylistic nuance.

My advice is to find your own balance. I recently started reading a book in Russian. At first I allowed myself to look up a maximum of 10 words per page. The maximum of 10 was a good balance between looking up words and moving through the book at a reasonable pace. My plan was to bring the maximum down each chapter, but in the end it wasn’t necessary. Before long I got so interested in the story that I was happier to march on, looking up fewer words. You need to try out different ways of reading and do it in a way that works for you. Don’t ‘force’ yourself to read in any particular way: do it however you enjoy it.

 

 

‘Writing is thinking.’* Word.

*William Zinsser

‘I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it.’
William Faulkner

Many times have I marked writing assignments in which one or more sentences do not make sense. Assuming the student has put time and attention into their homework, the main problem is usually that they do not know what they want to say. This is not an English-specific problem but a broader skills issue. Writing involves ordering our thoughts, and not all of us are accustomed to doing it even in our native language.

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People who write a great deal also speak with much greater clarity and come across as articulate, rounded citizens. The skill of ordering our thoughts flows over into our speaking skills. This is why, when I teach, I make sure to include writing as often as the other skills. Students whose speaking is less ordered and clear tend to be the ones who don’t like writing and avoid the writing homework. Perhaps this is because they find writing a challenge or mistakenly believe it’s not central to their English-speaking goals.

voltaireWriting is indeed a challenge: one I would argue must be accepted head-on when learning a language. The question of how to motivate students who shy away from writing is a separate one to this post, but I have found that it works best if it is a simple task, with a fixed word limit, but with plenty of scope so that those more comfortable with writing can expand as much as they wish.

Here is a piece I wrote recently about Margaret Thatcher for my Spanish teacher. My task was to summarise Thatcher’s period in power in 200 words. For me, writing in another language presents a three-part challenge: (a) ordering my thoughts about the subject; (b) expressing them at a purely summative level, and (c) putting them in simple but effective language, based on my current abilities for active use of the language. As you can see, only a third of this challenge relates directly to the fact that I’m writing in another language.

Margaret Thatcher fue un personaje que divide la opinión. Sus políticas se concentraron en fomentar el crecimiento económico. La desregulación del sector financiero, por ejemplo, era una de las prioridades de su gobierno. Redujo el apoyo para los servicios sociales, porque sus valores enfatizaron la responsabilidad personal y familiar. Algunas personas piensan que ella restauró la economía: otras dicen que ayudó sólo a los ricos y a las grandes compañías. Hay dos temas actuales principales de conflicto cuando hablamos de Thatcher en Inglaterra: la huelga de mineros y la guerra de las Malvinas. Las políticas del gobierno de Thatcher no apoyaron la industria de minería de carbón. Terminaron los subsidios, y hubo una gran huelga. Todo esto era muy difícil para muchas familias, especialmente en el norte de Inglaterra. Y referente a la guerra, la mayoría de ingleses pensaron que era muy importante emprender una acción militar para defender esta colonia contra las reclamaciones de Argentina, pero había también gente que pensaron que la guerra no era necesaria. Para mí es muy difícil decir lo que deberíamos haber hecho. Pero en estos tipos de situaciones, pienso que lo más importante es respetar la auto-determinación de los isleños.

 

English Spelling? Sorry Not Sāriġ.*

English Spelling? Sorry Not Sāriġ.*

‘Why don’t you write it how you pronounce it?’

*sāriġ is the Old English spelling of ‘sorry’ before the shortening of the root vowel during the Great Vowel Shift

My students often get intrigued, confused, and/or annoyed by English spelling. The reasons are many. I usually chicken out and say: ‘Sorry! I didn’t invent it!’

Most languages have a much more highly phonemic orthography than English. That is to say: in most languages, you can largely tell how to pronounce something from the way that it’s spelled or written – often to the point that there is in fact no word in that language for ‘to spell’. This is why this question is unique to students of English as opposed to other languages.

English, as we know, is different. When I don’t chicken out, I often refer students to the Great Vowel Shift in the Middle Ages. English orthography was being standardised in the same period in which the language was going through a huge multi-generational shift in vowel pronunciation. This resulted in all sorts of different ways to spell similar sounds.

To all students (and natives): This great animated video provides a much fuller answer.

This video is by Arika Orient, who makes videos for Mental Floss. Lots more great videos about language can be found on her YouTube channel.

 

Word Reverence with WordReference

WordReference.com has been improved recently, with broader search functionality. I often recommend it to my students. If I want to translate a single word or multi-word expression, it’s my default app. Here’s what it has that the others don’t. In a nutshell: (1) range of definitions; (2) high interactivity; (3) helpful search functionality.

(1) Range of definitions

There is a huge range of definitions and examples brought up. You can scroll and scroll and find different uses and incarnations of a word. Below these, you can then scroll and scroll through endless collocations that use that word. Delicious.

(2) High interactvity

Kind, wonderful, nerdy people apparently spend their entire day asking and answering questions about words and groups of words. This often provides translations for phrases that can’t be found elsewhere, along with a discussion of the best translation, so you can choose for yourself. It is very up to date with current language use, because forums. 

(3) Helpful search functionality

When you type a word into a dictionary, English-Spanish for example, it detects which language the word is from, and translates accordingly: less clicking needed. You can also search for a verb in any form and it will recognise it and bring up the infinitive. Speaking of which – have you seen the conjugator tool? You can translate a word, and, just as you’re thinking: ‘Great: now, how do I put it into the third person plural future perfect continuous?’, you remember that you can click through to the piece of magic that is conjugator.

 

Question for my students: How many syllables in ‘reference’? (answer in the next post)

Are you prepositioning me?

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As you know, I’m working on my Spanish. Over the years, as I’ve studied various languages, I’ve tried out language exchanges with many different people. I had a relatively good one yesterday, and I realised I have some summative learnings to share about them.

A number of these are quite reminiscent of dating advice. Except number five. Although, when I think about it, there are people who could do with dating lessons.

By the way: Happy Valentines Day!

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  1. It only works over a longer time period if you really connect with the person. Why force yourself to spend time with someone you don’t have anything in common with? If you don’t have anything to say to someone, you aren’t going to learn their language.
  2. Be willing to have lots of different ‘first meetings’ and only repeat with some. It’s not as if this time will be wasted – you’ll be practising the language in every different meeting.
  3. Find an activity to do. Chat comes a lot more easily if you’re doing something together – it could be dinner, a museum, or a walk. A simple coffee might be OK for the first meeting but after that you need to diversify to keep the conversation flowing.
  4. It works with people who articulate themselves at a similar level. Some native speakers speak very simply; others use a wide vocabulary. Choose someone who articulates things in a similar way to you.
  5. Be aware that it doesn’t replace lessons. Lessons have a different function, which is to codify your knowledge of the standardised grammar and use of language and then practise it. Language exchanges are about connecting with people first and foremost; and also of course about developing fluency. A combination of both will help you advance the most quickly.

A Monopoly on History

A couple of years ago, British Pathe, which is now an archive, decided to put all of its stored footage on YouTube. You can see a lot of old videos from British TV on this YouTube channel. I often think about how our lives are captured on screen media. The twentieth century was the first in which human lives could be captured in large quantity on screen, and the majority of the lives documented are white Western lives. This is an example of power leading to a default monopoly on history.

In Black History Month, let’s turn our heads to black history instead. This video is made at an Elementary level of English.