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Tonight Only: Ancient Language Learning Method Finally Revealed


You’ve been given fool-proof methods, total immersion package holidays, smartphone apps and programmed interval revisions. You’ve signed on crash courses and dragged your laptop through endless language-learning hangouts. Tonight I’m sharing a secret method with you – old, forgotten, and bang-on effective.

1. The secret: Read More Books.

Yeah, you heard me right. On World Book Night, there’s no other advice I could have given you. And on any other night – answer this one honestly: how many books do you read in your own language? How about the foreign language you’re currently learning?
If you need to get sold on how learning books can help you, there are many ways to get started. Tonight I’ll just focus on what I believe to be crucial for students of foreign languages. As always, feel free to add to the list.

2. Books vs. vocabulary

There’s only 140 characters in a tweet. Probably no more than 20 words in a status update. Cool emails should be 5 sentences long. That’s great for making sure that a message gets through, but not so good for anyone who’s looking for material for their language study.
Books need more, much more words. It’s not just about the numbers – but range. You need to meet new words regularly. You also need to meet old words in new contexts (PDF). This is what makes your lexicon more flexible, and enables you to understand, remember and use words effectively.
Emails won’t give you that – but a book will.

3. Books vs. attention span

Probably connected to a previous point: when was the last time you managed to read anything longer than a “knock-knock” joke without drifting away and back again, scanning up and down the page, looking for shortcuts?
And that’s if you’re lucky enough to actually use these reading-savvy strategies. Without them, readers are likely to just give up. “Tl;dr” didn’t appear out of nowhere – it’s a reflection of collective frustration of readers who can’t cope with long texts.
The more you read, the better you get at tolerating longer texts, waiting for the punchline, following the story patiently. This in turn leads to more focus and better memory. Both useful, when learning a foreign language.

4. Books vs. learning cost

If you’re on a language course, you go through coursebooks quickly – and when one level is done, you buy another one. No point coming back too often, and most of the coursebook works within a teacher-student-other-media context anyway: there’s little use for a language learning coursebook in everyday situations.
A good book may still not last as long as a coursebook – but it bears repeated readings. You can come back to it, picking up more advanced words or phrases as your language proficiency increases. It works on its own and needs no extra resources. And if you’re lucky enough to have a foreign language library – it’s free, or very inexpensive at least. And the activities? You can create them yourself (see this guide or read more here).

5. Books vs. challenge

“But,” I hear you say, “I’ve barely got enough time for reading in my native language. Are you expecting me to find the time for foreign language books? And how do I deal with this daunting task? Aren’t we supposed to be speaking anyway – who needs reading?”
Yes, I expect you to read lots if you’re a keen language learner. And I expect you to appreciate how challenging – and rewarding – this is.
It’s probably like learning to talk again – something you regarded as second nature is suddenly agonizingly hard. Every word resists. Sentences need to be wrangled together. Through your taste and experience in native language reading, you realize how much you suck at this.
This is why you do it. And this is how – at the other end of a long journey full of books – you become a fluent, native-like language user.
You can trust the new-fangled methods to take you through the basics and help you get by. But for the deep-level work, a book can’t be beat.
Now go read one.

(Photo credit: Andrew Barclay via Compfight)

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One Responseso far.

  1. Marcelo says:

    I totally agree with you Wikto, there’s no question about the power of reading! Obviously we can’t diminish the importance of listening to English podcasts or even watching movies or American series, but the practice of reading is where we can get the most of our language acquisition.