Reading Your Way to Fluency

This, this, a thousand times this.

That link is to a very long and detailed post by a Canadian living in Korea that details his experiences learning Korean. It’s epic, but definitely worth a read, as it’s the one of the best language learning posts I’ve read in a while.

A few caveats: first off, I don’t believe you can become fluent in a foreign language just by reading. (In this post, I use the word fluent to indicate a very high level of competency in a language, a level at which one can read and understand material that an educated native speaker reads, engage in a conversation with a native speaker without making many grammatical errors or needing lots of repetition to understand what is being said, and communicate effectively with native speakers in writing.) Academics often have what is called “reading knowledge” of a language; that is, they can read scholarly work in the language, but not speak it. Some of the more arrogant academics I’ve met have claimed fluency in a language of which they really only had reading knowledge.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who claim that conversation is all that is needed to acquire fluency. Don’t spend any time on that pesky grammar or vocabulary, they shout, that’s just a waste of time! After all, babies learn their native language just by listening to people speak (and eventually they speak, too), right? Therefore, every language class ever is useless and the best thing you can do for yourself is chat with random native speakers right away, even if you don’t know how to say simple phrases like “My name is” and so on.

The second method may be more fun (or at least more entertaining than spending hours alone with a book that you don’t fully understand), but it is incomplete. As Mithridates (the author of the post I linked to) says in the post:

Reading massive amounts of interesting content in a language is just as necessary to reach fluency as long hours of conversation with native speakers. I would try out some of the new vocabulary I had picked up during the day at night when hanging out with friends or at a bar, and their reaction is what told me whether what I had learned was actually useful in daily life, or just an expression confined to the literary world.

[…]

The idea that a language can be learned solely through fun daily conversation ‘because that’s the way native speakers naturally pick it up’ is not true – native speakers do not pick up their native language that way. Much of our ability to communicate comes from this, but then there are the years spent in elementary school with wobbly hands practicing our handwriting, having our spelling corrected, writing book reports and having them handed back with red ink all over them where corrections have been made, years spent being made to read classics from centuries past, getting a bit of an inkling of archaisms such as ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and ‘methinks’, and everything else we were forced to do. Koreans are made to do the same thing with their language, and they did not just pick it up from conversation either. The seemingly useless literary expressions one encounters in books don’t end up as a part of one’s active daily vocabulary, but they do remain as a kind of extended realm of understanding that is activated upon passive hearing or reading.

Basically, that’s the most important part of that epically long post. Interacting and speaking the language is important, but so is reading. I did not fully master English and begin to have a mature command of it until I was eleven or twelve. That was when I had an excellent English teacher at school who intensively taught us the grammar of the English language (it’s been over ten years and I still remember that table of personal pronouns we had to memorize for a test).

So basically, lots of listening and interacting with people, lots of reading in order to build vocabulary, and lots of writing to cement this vocabulary in your mind are what is necessary to learn a language. I would argue that these steps are necessary both for a native language and a foreign language. It’s what I’ve been saying for a while: there are no shortcuts! Lots of reading, lots of writing, lots of speaking, lots of listening: these are all necessary components to fluency.

Do you speak a foreign language? If so, what did you do to learn it?

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