How to use Reading to Master Learning a New Language

One of the most under-utilized ways to master a language is through active reading. For most language learners reading is a simple way to learn new vocabulary and master grammar.

Whenever you expose your mind to meaningful language content, your brain is recognizing patterns of grammar and style and more. As you come across new words and phrases, your brain is using context to reinforce what is known and making new connections to expand your knowledge. 

This is why if you are facing the choice of memorizing grammar charts and vocabulary flashcards, or reading meaningful texts, the answer of which one is superior for learning is clear. 

However, there are better and worse ways to engage in the act of reading, especially when you are at the beginning of your language learning journey. In this article we’ll to share some techniques for turning the act of reading into an enjoyable and beneficial learning experience. 

How Humans Learn to Read

But first, let’s first address how humans come to read their first language(s). 

Learning to read is not a natural skill. For the hundreds of thousands of years of our species’ existence (homo sapiens), we didn’t learn how to read. It’s only in recent modern times that the general assumption exists that every individual should learn how to read (and write!).

The reality is that it takes years of instruction to learn how to read in general. Just ask any primary school teacher if fluent speakers instantly become fluency readers! (Hint: the answer is a resounding NO!).

So, if you are someone reading this article, that means you’ve already learned all the steps that go into reading an alphabetic language (= that is, a language that is written using an alphabet). You learned the individual letters. You learned how letters can form meaningful chunks like words, and how words can be put together to form sentences, and so on. 

And if you are reading this article, then you have trained your brain to recognize patterns from context and understand the unfamiliar on the basis of the familiar. This is why now that you have learned to read, you are able to read to learn.

In fact, this process is so entrenched that according to a now famous study by the cognitive neuroscientist Matt Davis from Cambridge University, it’s evident that our brains don’t read every letter by itself, but words as a whole, focusing on the first and last letters especially (at least when it come to alphabetic languages). For example, trying reading this sentence: “The huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.” A

According to one study the mixing of middle letters only slows down a fluent reader by 11 percent (!). In fact, neuroscientists are even able to detect brain signals which indicate that your brain is making sense of words called N400

Reading a New Language

Let’s get back to learning new languages. When it comes to reading a new language, the issue is that your brain hasn’t yet internalized these complex levels of “chunks” of letters and words. The reality is beginner learners can’t easily make connections from context (both the immediate literary context and also broader cultural context) and often need to read every letter to understand a word. 

However, the good news is that if you’ve already learned the skill of reading another language, then you can start to learn anything from reading. This is because the “literacy skills” from your first language(s) are transferable to learning new languages. So, take advantage of this! Here are some ways to do this.

  1. Start with simple, conversational texts.

From day one of learning a language you should focus on listening and then speaking. So, starting to read with conversational texts will be the easiest and most natural way to move from the spoken to the written word.

  1. Read texts that are meaningful to you.

If you know “your unique why”, that is, the personal reason you are studying a language, then read texts that are meaningful to you and fulfill your why. For example, I first started to read Latin because I was interested in Roman history and culture. So, I read Latin texts that had to do with Roman history like Caesar’s Gallic War. 

  1. Engage in question and answer with the text.

Assuming you are at least an A2 level learner and know how to ask and answer simple questions, don’t just read what’s written but also engage in Q&A with the text. This will allow your brain to more easily form connections and reinforce patterns. For example, if a sentence reads: “After school the children walked to the cafe to get a snack.” ask: “Who walked to the cafe?” The children. “When did they walk?” After school. “Where did they walk?” To the coffee. “Why did they walk?” To get a snack. You might be surprised how enjoyable it can be to talk to yourself!

  1. Buy or Print Physical Copies and personalize them.

If possible, purchase a physical copy or print out the text you want to read and personalize it. Make notes, highlights, or whatever markings help you read and understand. Our human minds easily interact with the world in a spatial way, and the more senses we can employ the better we remember. The reality is you will learn better from interacting with a physical text that you can make notes on, highlight, or whatever you want than only looking at a text on a screen. 

  1. Use reference tools as sparingly as needed.

If you use context to figure out the meaning of an unknown word, you’re going to remember it and understand it better than if you look it up in a dictionary. And exposing yourself to 10 or more uses of a given grammar feature will give you a better understanding than simply reading even the best worded grammar summary. This is why you should use vocabulary, grammar, or other resources as little as possible. Nevertheless, sometimes it is necessary to refer to a resource to help you bridge your knowledge gap. 

Start Reading Today

At Immersio we’ve enabled language instructors to provide you with the foundational knowledge you need to start reading, and also incorporate these very reading techniques into courses to help you read texts in a meaningful, conversational way. 

Register now for an Immersio course if you want to master learning a new language, whether your goal is to read or speak. 



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