Recently, professor Stephen Krashen (author of an unbelievable research work over the last 4-5 decades on how languages are actually acquired) has investigated and talked about the importance of reading when it comes to acquiring a language, and specifically about something called “Free Voluntary Reading” that I’ll talk about in a moment, one of the most powerful tools there is to improve our target language skills.
The Power of Reading
Generally speaking, pleasant reading is one of the most powerful tools we have in our daily life: it makes us grow as human beings, it helps us understand reality, it helps us develop our imagination and talents…, and all that while you’re entertained and having fun, mainly because it’s something you’ve chosen to do with no external involvement.
That’s exactly what this “Free Voluntary Reading” in a second language is all about, about selecting what’s interesting to you, what you wouldn’t even hesitate to pick up in your own native language.
I know it’s not that simple because your ultimate goal is to actually learn a language, but the ideal approach is to read material that you’re truly interested in, even forgetting about the fact that you’re trying to learn a new language. This is how language acquisition will really occur.
And if at any point you start getting tired, you lose interest… don’t you even hesitate to stop and rule that particular book, magazine, article or whatever it is out and start all over again, because the key to this process is the fact that you’re selecting whatever you find interesting and pleasant, in order to even get to a point where you forget that particular material is in a different language.
A Second Important Factor
There’s obviously a second factor you need to take into account, and that’s the level you’re at in that particular language as well as the difficulty of the resource itself. If you’ve just found out your passion for Russian, I don’t think reading “Crime and Punishment” in its original version will be of much help, because the message will be totally incomprehensible.
That’s why you need to select resources that are pretty much around your level, which doesn’t mean you have to understand each and every word, but rather that you have to be able to understand the message and follow the storyline. This is the point where you’ll start experiencing progress.
For the same reason you ruled out a particular resource that wasn’t interesting enough, you shouldn’t hesitate to do exactly the same thing with those resources that are beyond your comprehension ability and whose storyline you’re not yet able to follow along. Just stop again and find something easier.
This is essential to the success of the process, if a particular resource is taking up a lot of effort from you because it’s too difficult or not too interesting, you absolutely have to rule it out and find something more suitable, because otherwise acquisition will not occur.
Learning languages by reading follows the same principles as any other class or activity
What I’ve been talking about here is consistent with the idea that input needs to be both comprehensible and interesting (or even compelling) for language acquisition to come about.
If the message is not comprehensible, we’re obviously not going to acquire the language, and if it’s not interesting, there’ll always be a point in which our brain is wandering and we totally lose interest, leading to the acquisition process not happening - think about those language classes based on the traditional grammar approach in which stories had no context and the focus was on form instead of the message, how long were we able to sustain that attention and interest, if they were activated at all? -
This “Free Voluntary Reading” concept is especially interesting and appropriate because of how easy it is to implement in our daily lives from day one and the endless amount of resources we have available no matter what our target language is.
I’ll talk in other articles about books that I consider appropriate for each level and language based on what I’ve experienced and what’s worked out for me, but these are the key principles of the power of reading to learn a language, and if we relate to them, every single individual will find those readings and resources that they believe are more appropriate for their particular case.
The most important thing is that these principles will help us work on our language skills and ultimately acquire the language.
The power of reading was one of the findings that changed my attitude towards languages forever
It was a real pleasure and an eye-opening moment to get to know this reading theory and to confirm the immense power of this activity. I personally find it extremely relaxing and reassuring to know that we can keep working on our language skills with such a pleasant activity, while we learn and discover new ideas about our favorite topics.
It’s just one of the multiple reasons I’ll try to present in my project to challenge the idea that language learning (as any other subject, by the way) is a hard-working, complicated, painful process.
As I’ve said a couple of times before, because language acquisition is a subconscious process, our real progress is not that easy to measure and uncertainty will always be a factor, but we can relax and stay calm because we already know that if the message is comprehensible we’re certainly improving our language skills. It’s important to keep that in mind at all times. And we’ll see how we’re able to understand more and more complex resources, which will help us fight that uncertainty.
The intention of this article
As I’ve said before, my intention with articles like this is not only to share tools and resources to help us work on our language skills, but also to help you understand that the language acquisition journey can actually be extremely pleasant and not the painful, hard-working process that we’ve been told to believe in those traditional grammar classes that unfortunately we’ve all been a part of. And those traditional classes will also make us believe that the problem is actually ours, when that's not the case at all.
That’s why I truly hope that this article has helped you change your attitude towards language learning for the better.