Expanding on Synergy, this post is about the role that reading plays in the language learning plan. When we talk about the four basic skills, we can say there are two input skills and two output skills. The two input skills, reading and listening, determine what we can output using speaking and writing. So the input skills are where we get all our content. Reading is extremely important because it’s an input skill. One way to look at things - if you don’t read, you input is cut in half. Some people say reading is the skill from which we get most of our vocabulary. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s often more convenient to note new vocabulary while reading than listening. My personal experience with reading As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I didn’t use to read extensively when I learned languages. I thought that extensive reading was less efficient than just memorizing the grammar and vocabulary. My theory was if you memorize the vocabulary and grammar, you’d be able to read. Of course, after doing this I noticed the theory wasn’t really working. But I had another theory that was holding me back. Let me explain. Because of several epiphanies I had in language learning, I came up with the theory that as long as you put in a good initial effort, it didn’t matter how hard you study, it was time that determined your level. And the corollary to this theory – whether you studied of not, the language was going to improve on it’s own. So I felt I could study hard for a year, then do nothing for several months or even years, and my language would have improved significantly. Sure, it was a good idea to get immersed in it occasionally, but I shouldn’t have to do it too often. What were these epiphanies? On several occasions I noticed that my language improved considerably after long breaks. I now suspect I know the cause of this, and you can read about it here. So I thought that if I just gave it enough time, I would be able to read. Having known the vocabulary and grammar was enough; no further practice was necessary. In hindsight, this seems foolish, but at the time it was logical. What changed my mind was the realization after several years that this wasn’t happening. That realization, the success I had when I added listening, and all the stuff in the forums about the benefits of reading made me take the first steps to add it as a component in my learning plan. The language I was experimenting with happened to be Japanese. I won’t go into much detail here about the difficulty of the Japanese writing system; I will just say that it’s possibly the most difficult for a westerner to read. Unlike most languages, it’s often the case that if you don’t have the word memorized, you won’t know the pronunciation. I started out by reading short articles and such that were designed for learners. I was able to read them to a certain extent, but felt like I needed much longer, and more native like material, in order to become a good reader in a reasonable amount of time. So I decided to read a short book, and memorize every unknown word. The book I decided on was Read Real Japanese. It was a 100 page selection of short stories by popular Japanese authors, and had notes and vocabulary lists on the page opposite of the Japanese text. Even though I felt I knew a lot of vocabulary and grammar, this was a hard exercise. But I finished it, and read parts of it every day for several months. That was my Japanese reading practice – rereading a chapter of the same book. Well it took me a while to figure out that I wasn’t progressing. Rereading the same material, I know now, has limited use. Once or twice is ok, especially at the early levels of learning, but what I was doing was ridiculous. I wanted to read signs, menus, subtitles, advertisements and possibly even some news and literature. I could do none of that. My vocabulary was too weak. Ok, I could understand things occasionally, but I found out that it takes more like 10,000 pages of reading to become a good reader. I needed to try something else. I heard about a great new method that was a big hit on the forums. It was called Listening-Reading, or L-R for short. It involved using a bilingual text with bilingual audio. You are supposed to listen to the English while reading the Japanese, and vice versa. By doing this over and over, the theory is that you will eventually be able both read and listen in Japanese without any English translations. I have left out many of the details, but that’s it in a nutshell. I did this for 20 hours, noticed absolutely no improvement, and quit. Looking back on this, I’m glad I tried it, but I’m convinced that “normal” reading and listening are more helpful than the L-R method. I will save that discussion for another post. Frustrated with L-R, I moved on to more traditional reading. The next time I went to Japan, I started looking for Japanese readers. I bought quite a few. I was ravenous for good reading material, so I threw myself into one. I used the same approach as I did with my first book – memorize all unknown vocabulary. It was still very hard, but not as hard. Near the end of the book I was tired of all the new vocabulary, and it was getting harder. I finally finished, and felt a little depressed, because it really seemed I was going to have to do this for 10,000 pages to get good. Except for my little L-R experiment, I read things on paper. I didn’t want to use the computer, because I felt I spent too much time on it already. Between working and surfing I was on the computer the better part of the day. But the disadvantages of paper were really getting to me. Looking words up in a dictionary interrupted my flow. Lists of vocabulary were often not ordered optimally for memorization, and I preferred an SRS anyway, so I often spent a lot of time transferring the words to my computer. If there wasn’t a word list, and I wanted to look up a word, paper dictionaries were really slow, so I mostly resorted to the computer, and defeated the purpose of reading on paper. Japanese grammar was hard enough; if I didn’t know the words I was doomed. I went through a phase where I really didn’t want to learn any new vocabulary, because I hated the interruptions. So I just read over the words I didn’t know, pretending to know the pronunciation. After doing this for some time, I realized my comprehension wasn’t improving, and I was afraid I might be fossilizing incorrect pronunciation. I needed to do something different. I finally decided enough was enough, and gave into the urge to do my reading on the computer. There was a tool available now that was far better than any I’d used before, I could use it for all of my languages, and I wouldn’t have to take reading books with me when I travel anymore. The tool was LingQ. LingQ is a pay site which I chose mostly because of its large library of native material. Free options, which require more computer skills, like Learning With Texts (LWT) and Foreign Language Text Reader (FLTR) are also available. I had used mouse-over dictionaries before, and I liked them, but that was in the days that I didn’t want to read on the computer. Mouse-over dictionaries make a definition of a word pop up when you hold the cursor over it. And many of them will keep a list of the words you looked up, allowing you to download them to an SRS for memorization, for example. LingQ uses mouse over dictionaries, and also keeps track of the words you know. The words are highlighted, which makes the material even more easy to read. As I mentioned, they have a large library, and almost all of the material has audio, which is very convenient. I’ve been using it now for about 2 years. In the future, I will write a review of it in which I will also describe how I use it. I will just mention here that I’m very pleased with it. For example, with Japanese, if I don’t know a word, I can just fly over it to get the correct pronunciation. The interruption is minimal. It’s no longer a requirement to memorize every word. As a summary, here is a ranking; my opinion of which reading techniques or types of material work the best: 1. Computer - Software that uses mouse-over dictionaries, keeps statistics, makes wordlists and shades text (LingQ, LWT, FLTR, etc) 2. Computer - Simple mouse-over dictionaries 3. Computer - Texts with translations/wordlists, L-R 4. Computer - Texts without translations/wordlists 5. Paper - Texts with translations/wordlists 6. Paper - Texts without translations/wordlists Reading has made a big improvement in my learning, and now I read extensively in all my languages. Let’s discuss how this relates to Synergy. In steps 1 and 2 of Synergy, we learn correct pronunciation, and reading is an important aid for this. At this point you are mostly just reading your flashcards. Every time you read, read out loud to ensure that you are pronouncing correctly. Reading out loud also ensures that you don’t cut corners, and just blip over words that are hard to pronounce. If you are reading a lot while you still have poor pronunciation, you will fossilize it, and it will be hard to fix. You need to get your pronunciation right from the beginning before you start heavily reading, then constantly reinforce it by reading out loud. In steps 3 and 4 of Synergy, you will start an extensive reading component. You want material that is somewhat familiar, or i+1, if possible. If you can’t find material that’s i+1, you can soften up more difficult material with translations, bilingual texts, etc. As mentioned above, I have tried these techniques, and I recommend using a program that has mouse-over dictionaries and highlights the words you have looked up before like LingQ, Learning With Texts (LWT) or Foreign Language Text Reader (FLTR). Using one of these lets you look up a large number of words while barely interrupting your reading, so you have the feeling of i+1 reading even when it is more difficult. Another strong recommendation I make at this stage is to try to get material that has audio available. The audio will make the reading easier, and vice versa. Once again, this makes more difficult material feel like i+1, and therefore gives you a wider selection of acceptable reading material. Remember that all skills reinforce each other; use Synergy to your advantage.