Why Reading Books is One of the Best Ways to Learn a Foreign Language

Books do not only teach grammar but also provide the most painless means of obtaining vocabulary.

Kató Lomb, Interpreter in 9 Languages

We have been focused on bringing interesting books to the language learners’ arsenal at Interlinear Books. We believe there is a good reason for that: reading books is a great way to learn languages. In this post, we tell you some of the reasons for that.

1. Reading helps you learn and reinforce words.

Reading books is a great way to learn new words. Why? Well, the idea behind this is that you incidentally pick up word meanings from context (or from the translation, if it’s an Interlinear book). Moreover, you are likely to get exposed to the same word multiple times, thus you reinforce that word and remember it much better.

This is particularly important because studies suggest that people need to encounter a word many times to learn it. While the exact number of times depends on many factors and is not entirely clear, it is not a small one. Some interesting statistics emerge when we try to play with it. If we assume we need at least 20 repetitions to learn the word, we would need to read around 80,000 words to learn the most frequent 500 words in English, and 2.6 million words to learn the most frequent 5000 English words (see Rob Waring in The inescapable case for extensive reading). With such large numbers, it is hard to imagine anything but extensive reading that can consistently deliver results.

But does the power of reading actually work? There are some interesting studies that affirm it does. For example, Japanese students learning English whose median reading amount was 1,800,000 words had the same English test scores as fellow students who had studied for a couple of years and then spent 10 months living in an English-speaking country (see Nishizawa, H., Yoshioka, T., & Fukada, M. (2010). The impact of a 4-year extensive reading program. In A. M. Stoke (Ed.), JALT2009 Conference Proceedings, page 635). Students who had read at least 300,000 words in their target language had shown significant improvements in their test scores (see page 638). While there still is a lot of study to be done in this field, all of this is promising.

2. Reading lets you learn words in context.

If we are talking solely about learning new words, the case for reading is at first sight not very clear. After all, some studies show that intentional learning of vocabulary can be much more efficient than learning it through reading (see Rob Waring in The inescapable case for extensive reading, quoting 2007 studies by Nozaki and explaining that “words met with word cards were learnt not only 16 times faster (words per hour of study), but were also retained longer than words learnt incidentally from reading.”) So why is reading still important?

The strength of reading lies in one thing: context. After all, words in a language are not “single units of meaning.” Every word has a baggage. For example, knowing the word “pal” is one thing, but knowing whom to call “a pal” requires also knowing about the kinds of formal and informal relationships people may have (so your professor may be your friend, but they probably are unlikely to be your pal). Moreover, the same words can have different meanings in different situations. “So far” can mean that something is very distant (“that shop is so far…”), that something is limited (“my knowledge goes so far”) or it can also refer to time up to the present moment (“things are going well so far”). Words and their meanings have many nuances, they are more commonly used in different situations (formal/informal, speaking/writing, etc.), together with other words, etc. In all of these things, intentional learning is not effective. Reading is, because it exposes you to words in many different contexts and together with related words, and it shows you in what kinds of situations the word can be used.

3. Reading helps you pick up what’s important.

Some language learners use word frequency lists to find which words they should focus on. Well, reading books is the ultimate word frequency list. This is so because reading provides exposure to natural language. This makes sure that you meet the most commonly used words and phrases multiple times, so you to remember them.

This is an important point. If you are learning the Portuguese verb ver (to see) from a conjugation table, you might not know that some of its forms (for example, the one for vós vedes) are very rarely used nowadays. You may also not know to focus on the past rather than on the subjunctive, because these forms look of the same importance in your conjugation table. The result of that is that you are losing your time learning forms that are not completely useful. To give another example, it might never occur to you to pay special attention to the German word for “cloudy” (trübe) when you are learning the word for weather (das Wetter). And yet, you will be missing the fact that these words come together very often, and this will hinder your language learning. Reading helps you address all of these problems.

So, in summary, reading is great because it allows you to learn and to reinforce vocabulary. You learn the vocabulary in its context, together with other relevant vocabulary, and you also get the most frequently used and useful words. Moreover, perhaps even more importantly, reading is fun – and that keeps you going! That is why reading books is such a good way to learn languages.

Did you like this post? This comes from Interlinear Books – we make Interlinear translations for language learners, where each word and expression has a translation right below. Be sure to check out this blog for news and short translations, and our website for our purchasable Interlinear book translations. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter and subscribe to our newsletter.

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