Monday, September 22, 2014

Learning a Foreign Language by Reading a Novel

Reading for Pleasure vs. Reading to Learn

My previous posts on using a Kindle to read in a foreign language outline most of what you need to know to do pure extensive reading--that is, reading just for enjoyment. Sometimes, though, you want to do a bit of intensive reading with the explicit goal of improving your language ability. This week's post talks about how to do that.

Intensive and Extensive Reading

The notion that you can learn a foreign language as a side-effect of reading for pleasure in that language is called extensive reading, as contrasted with intensive reading, which is when you analyse a text until you have understood it thoroughly. Teachers of English as a foreign language have had great success with extensive reading; when properly directed, it's a key part of many if not most ESL programs today.

The #1 principle for a successful extensive reading program is that "the reading material is easy." For this reason, most extensive reading programs direct students to what are called "graded readers." These are texts that are deliberately written with limited vocabulary and simplified grammar for the purpose of making the reading easier.

My experience has been that using a device like a Kindle makes the reading experience so much easier that you can do extensive reading with authentic texts, which I'll define as being texts written by and for adult native speakers. Richard Day talks about "the rule of hand," which says there should be no more than 5 difficult words per page. For readers using a Kindle, I would amend that to say "no more than five difficult words despite the dictionary look-up."

Scott Thornbury wrote a fascinating account of his attempt to improve his Spanish strictly using extensive reading (never using the dictionary at all). He was already a very advanced Spanish speaker, so it makes some sense that it didn't help him as much, but I think the important takeaway from his experience is that you need to do some of both. Extensive reading is fun and it does improve your ability as a side-effect. Intensive reading is--well, intense--and you can't do a lot of it, but it pushes you ahead faster.

Learning Objectives

There are four things to try to improve in the course of reading:
  • Simple vocabulary. These are words that have easy translations into English. For example, in Spanish "to melt" is derretir. That's a common enough word that if you didn't already know it, you probably want to make an effort to memorize it.
  • Collocations. These are combinations of words whose meanings aren't obvious from the pieces. For example, in Spanish dar is the verb "to give" and por is "for" but dar por is "to consider" as in "I consider him a friend." Lo doy por amigo does not mean "I give him for a friend." These can be tricky because the words don't always come right next to each other.
  • Basic grammar. This is the material covered in a basic college textbook. How to conjugate the verbs, how to decline the adjectives and nouns, when agreement is required, etc. You should have already been exposed to the entire basic grammar before attempting to read a novel, but that doesn't mean you know it by second nature.
  • Complex grammar. Sometimes people are surprised to learn that languages have grammar beyond what they learned in school. When reading a book, you'll find sentences that seem to make no sense at all unless you know one of these extra rules. For example, in French, Spanish, and Italian, the form that you learned as the future tense is also used as a "suppositional" tense. So the Italian sentence Avrà potuto nuotare does not mean "He will have been able to swim" but "He probably managed to swim."

Each of these objectives needs a different method of attack, and you need to arm yourself accordingly.


Ones you buy

Some things are worth paying for. Here are the key ones:
  1. An electronic bilingual dictionary. We've talked about this already, but the speed of doing look-ups on a Kindle is what really transforms the reading experience. This is where you'll find most of the words and collocations.
  2. If you have lost your original college or high-school language textbooks, you'll want to get one of the "Schaum's Outline of [your target language] Grammar" books as a resource for the basic grammar. A quick read through it will tell you what you ought to refresh yourself on before attempting a novel, just in case you've forgotten some of the basic grammar.
  3. A reference grammar. This is a book of 500 to 1,000 pages that explains countless nuances of the grammar. Like an encyclopedia, this is not the sort of book you read straight through, but it is the place to go for complex grammar questions.
  4. An English translation of the novel. This one is debatable. I've read nine foreign novels now, and I've only used English translations for two of them. In both cases, the novels were from the mid 19th century, and I was concerned they might use grammar that wasn't covered in my reference materials. If you do use someone else's translation, the key is to use it sparingly.

Free ones

The Internet is rich in free resources, but I want to list some of the most important ones.
  • WordReference is the ultimate online dictionary for a dozen languages. It has pronunciations, it gives verb conjugations, it has collocations. It also has forums where native speakers can answer questions for you. Note: you will get better results if you can ask your questions in their language.
  • Linguee claims to have the results of over 1,000,000,000 translations, and it's a good place to look for suspected collocations that you couldn't find elsewhere. Paste in a phrase and see how professional translators have translated it in other documents.
  • Duolingo turns language learning into a game. If you're ready to read a novel, Duolingo may be too elementary for you, but it includes a translation section called "Immersion," which is excellent practice for reading. In Immersion, people try collaboratively to translate texts, mostly from Wikipedia. It also has forums for people who are trying to learn English, and those can be a good place to ask language questions--especially if you're willing to write in their language. I have a posting about how to get the most out of Duolingo.
  • Anki is a free flashcard program. It's hard to beat as a way to drill yourself on new vocabulary and collocations. Steer clear of the decks others have constructed, though; write your own flash cards so you're studying just the words that you need to. Otherwise the flashcard task can become so overwhelming that you quit doing it. Adding ten new words per day is a reasonable upper limit. I have a posting about using Anki flashcards for vocabulary drill. Note: The Kindle has a built-in flashcard system called "Vocabulary Builder." Don't turn it on! It gradually makes your Kindle slower and slower until it locks up and you have to reset it.
  • lets people organize groups for (among other things) native speakers and learners to meet regularly to chat informally. If there is a group near you, by all means go and talk about what you're reading. It's also a great place to ask questions about sentences that stumped you.

The Process

So how do you use all of this to read intensively? The general idea is to read some unit (say a paragraph) and make a solid attempt to understand it before resorting to any of the materials above. Then you use the resources in roughly this order:
  1. Use the monolingual dictionary for any words you're not absolutely sure of. Don't feel bad about looking up words you already guessed correctly; there are lots of "false friends" out there. (E.g. embarazada means "pregnant" in Spanish.) Whenever you look up a word, decide whether it's worth memorizing. Common words (e.g. sidewalk) and words the author uses a lot are worth it. Names of plants, animals, foods, etc. are probably not. Highlight anything you think you should memorize and add it to your flashcards later.
  2. If you can't make out the monolingual definition, switch to the bilingual, as I described last week. When you've figured out the word, switch back to the monolingual and see if you can make sense of the definition now. It is is important to get comfortable with the monolingual because it will generally be a far better dictionary than the bilingual and also, the more time you spend immersed in the language, the faster you'll learn.
  3. Sometimes there is no definition in the bilingual. In that case, open the monolingual as a book and then use the bilingual to read the definition. In general you shouldn't have to do this, because dictionary definitions are usually written using simplified vocabulary, but sometimes there is no other way. (I describe this in detail in my review of Sostiene Pereira.)
  4. If that fails, use Wikipedia--especially if the word looks like it might be a proper name. The Kindle will take you to Wikipedia for the language you're reading in--not the English version--so be prepared. Often it's enough just to know that it's a plant, or an animal, or a location. This will only work if you're online, of course. Otherwise, highlight the sentence so you can find it later.
  5. Sometimes the issue is basic grammar. You simply didn't realize that this particular verb had an irregular past-tense form. That would be a good time to consult with the grammar outline (or your old college text book). Maybe even do some exercises. You will have a very hard time reading if there are aspects of the basic grammar that you don't really understand.
  6. Other times the dictionary fails you because it doesn't support compound words or because the inflected word happens to look the same as a different word. A good English example is "carving". If you wanted the definition of "to carve" it won't help much for the dictionary to show you a definition for the noun "carving." In those cases, you open the dictionary as a book and manually look the word up. This is a defect, so consider submitting a complaint to Amazon.
  7. If all the words seem to make sense individually, but you're not sure how they work together, then it's time to consult the reference grammar. The reference grammar is especially useful if you're pretty sure what the sentence has to mean but you're not sure how is can mean that. For example, as mentioned above, you would probably know from context that Avrà potuto nuotare had to refer to a past event, but couldn't figure out how the future tense verb fit in there. A quick look at the future tense section of the reference grammar will explain it clearly.
  8. If none of that worked, try the Bing translate feature. Select the sentence and see what Bing has to say. If you did all the work described above, you'll have most of the sentence figured out, so even if Bing makes some hilarious errors, you have an excellent chance of finding what you need in the parts it gets right. For me, this is especially helpful when I have made some assumption about a word that just isn't correct. For example, you might not have known that esperar can mean "to wait for" not just "to hope," and you didn't even think of looking it up. The Bing translation will likely call your attention to it.
  9. If all else has failed, go ahead and look at the English translation, if you have it. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of doing this only in the last extremity. It is very easy to look at the translation, look back at the original, and say to yourself "Oh, I get it," and keep on reading without realizing that you still don't know how to read that sentence. So if you do resort to using someone else's translation, at least get the most out of it. Now that you know what the sentence means, dig into it and be sure you understand exactly why it means that. Is it a collocation you didn't know about? Or an obscure grammar rule? Was it as simple as misreading a word entirely? Whatever it is, figure it out.
  10. For things that you can't figure out to save your soul, highlight the sentence, bookmark the page, and bring it to a native speaker for help. I really recommend meetups for this, since it gives you a topic to talk about, but there are online forums you can use as well. 
Obviously you don't have to do all these steps all the time. Even when I'm reading extensively, I do steps 1-4. When I'm reading intensively, I sometimes highlight problems for later study rather than doing them on the spot. Remember that extensive reading will improve your language a lot all by itself; only do intensive study when you're in the mood to do it. Don't let it spoil the book for you!

Highlighted words

So what do you do with the things you highlighted? Install the free Kindle application on your PC or laptop and open your book there. (You can have the same book on five or six different Kindles without having to pay extra.) You'll be able to see all your highlights. This makes it easy to use WordReference, Linguee, or other online references to look words up. This is a good time to use Anki to create a few flashcards. If you bought the Kindle version of the reference grammar, the online app is generally a better place to read it than the e-Reader Kindle because reference grammars usually contain big tables.

I usually process highlights backwards from my current place in the book. Don't let it overwhelm you. Do as many as you feel like and then just let the rest of them go.

Final Thoughts

I'm usually motivated to thoroughly understand a problem sentence when I think I've seen the same problem two or three times in a row. For example, when I was reading my first novel in Spanish, I realized I was confused about the clitic pronouns le and les. When I dug into the reference grammar, I realized that I had never understood how to use them properly, and a half-hour's reading clarified things considerably. This made the whole rest of the book much more pleasant to read, so it was well worth the effort. With practice, you'll figure out when it's worth it and when it's not.


Vee (Scratch) said...

It took me a while to be brave enough to utilize a monolingual dictionary. I really wish I did it earlier!

This post provided great motivation and reminders! Thanks!

Greg Hullender said...

It has surprised me too just how quickly the monolingual becomes useful, provided you don't force it. I think it's crucial to not be ashamed to use the bilingual when you really can't figure out the monolingual, provided you take the time to review the monolingual definition afterwards.

Vee (Scratch) said...

I forgot to share a tip. If possible I enjoy reading and listening to a book. There are many children's book apps that have provide read aloud features. Some Spanish adult titles have a kindle version and an audio book.

Currently I'm intensively reading "Cuando era Puertorriqueña" by Esmeralda Santiago. I think this autobio is great for learning Spanish although it was originally written in English. The author wrote the translation and she's narrating the audiobook. I know I'm getting the correct pronunciation and the dialogue is lively because it is her personal story.

Jim said...

Highlights and Notes on the Kindle are excellent learning aids. There’s a free program called DaleyKlippings that formats and displays the “My Kindle” file containing them and allows it to be exported in Excel-readable form (as a CSV file: import into Excel using the UTF-8 character set or umlauts and so forth screw up).

Unknown said...

Hi Greg, I like your take on reading a foreign language. Just like you I have a programming background (I worked with IBM software for 15 years) and my goal is to learn to read languages fluently. I can now read fluently in 7 languages (Dutch, English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish) and I'm ok in 1 (Russian), and I did this with the method you are describing, starting to read as early as possible. I've developed a method combining extensive reading and spaced repetition. I wonder if I can ask you some questions on this topic. Thanks.

Unknown said...

I use when reading a foreign language e book. It will embed translation into uploaded PDF e book , generate a HTML e book that I read in Android browser. It is free and also has text to speech.

Unknown said...

I want to read Italian books on my Kindle app using my iPad. Which monolingual and bi-lingual dictionaries would you recommend?


Greg Hullender said...

I made a list of all the references I use to learn foreign languages. I haven't updated it for a year, but these things don't change very quickly.

HL2.exe said...

Dear Greg, I was going to ask for your preferred French references but I see that you already published that as well :) So the only thing left for me to do is to thank you very much for this series of posts!

I was curious about buying a Kindle and doing some "real" reading (thinking that it would be a lot easier with the help of in-place dictionary, translation, etc.) and your posts convinced me that this is the way to go. Thank you again. Cheers, h.