How can I learn a language quickly from novels?

I thought I’d elaborate a bit today on how to use novels effectively to study a language. I was inspired to try this mainly by three people: Khatsumoto from AJATT, Steve Kaufmann (who says he learned most of his 11 languages just by reading and listening), and the late great Hungarian polyglot Kato Lomb (who worked professionally in 16 languages).

The key to acquiring a language is comprehensible input. Your task as the learner is to find ways to make some text or audio at least minimally understandable, and to consume as much of it as you can. Your brain will pretty much unconsciously do the rest of it. For this reason, some people like to use that term “acquire” rather than “learn”, with regard to languages.

Here’s something I found on wikipedia, about Kato Lomb’s methods of learning from novels:

She attributed her success to massive amounts of comprehensible input, mostly through recreational reading. She was personally very interested in grammar and linguistics, but felt it played a small role in language acquisition, loved dictionaries but looked up words when she read only if the word re-appeared several times and she still did not understand it

I agree wholeheartedly with this idea. As I’ve said previously, using the dictionary while reading will kill your flow and slow you down. It’ll prevent you from absorbing as much as you might have. Use a highlighter while you read, and then do your dictionary work after you’re done your reading session (and sometimes you’ll discover that the dictionary merely confirms what you already suspected).

So, if you’re starting a new language, or even continuing to learn after having learned a lot already, how can you make new harder books more comprehensible? In general, I’d say that grammar is not the answer. Grammar is acquired naturally from reading, although I’ve found that it can sometimes be useful spending a tiny tiny fraction of your time just taking a quick skim over some grammar example sentences that illustrate a certain concept.

There is one textbooky thing that actually can help significantly though, and that is vocabulary work. Firstly, don’t think that you can learn all about each word and all its various meanings and uses just by memorizing lists. You can only learn this stuff from context, i.e. reading books and listening. What you can get from lists though, is a sort of outline or general meaning of a word…a sort of sense for it, devoid of context. This is helpful as a way to bootstrap yourself…to get started, with a bit of a sense for common words, which will let you more easily dive into real content where you’ll really learn things. However, I only find this helpful at the very start, perhaps by blasting through the 500 most common words in the language in a day or two.

So, vocab lists can be pretty boring. What I generally find more interesting is to move straight to real books by getting two copies: one in English and one in my target language (“L2″, as they say). Besides being less boring, you actually learn much more this way. I’ll give a quick outline of what I do.

Firstly, one of my current projects is Swedish. I’m fighting a bit of personal disappointment at the moment, because I can read advanced German novels very easily, but not in Swedish….currently I’m reading the German translation of Brandon Sanderson’s first “Mistborn” book, a rather good novel of what some might call “high fantasy”. I’d love to be able to read effortlessly in Swedish too, but so far I’m finding my copies of Stieg Larsson’s books to be a bit tough.

So, I’m working on this in two ways: Intensive Reading and Extensive Reading. For the Extensive part, wherein I try to just read as much as I can without interruptions, I’ve chosen two easier books: “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho (which is quite good!), and “The boy in the striped pyjamas” by John Boyne. They both have very few infrequent technical words, and lots of dialogue, so they’re perfect to just listen to in Swedish while I read the Swedish book.

For the Intensive part, I focus on learning as many new words as I can, in context. For this, I pick any book I want, as long as I have both the Swedish and English versions. The reason for this is that it saves me a ton of time on dictionary lookups if I can just glance over at the English edition to figure out what’s going on. For this task, I’m using the first Stieg Larsson book, known in English as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, although the Swedish title is “Män som hatar kvinnor” (“men who hate women”).

In this book, there are many words I already know, but still quite a few that I don’t. I work through each sentence, and try to understand every single word in it, and the whole idea of the overall sentence (and the paragraph). I keep the English book on the same page, with my finger on the current paragraph so I can find it easily. I focus on the Swedish book, and try to figure out each sentence in my mind, and then if I have any questions I go to the English book.

Once I’ve read the English, I go back and read the entire Swedish paragraph again and try to understand all the details without looking at the English. I try to keep the words in my head, and really “feel” their meaning in that context. I don’t just want to repeat the English translations for each of them in sequence…I want to really feel what those words themselves mean in that sentence.

The purpose of the English is to give you comprehension of everything. You don’t need to memorize corresponding words, and actually the words don’t typically match exactly anyway. They only mostly match in this particular context. You want to extract the ideas of the story, and use that to understand the particular words in the L2 book. All you have to do is understand the L2 text as you read it, and this is enough.

Working slowly through the text this way can give you a lot of vocabulary very quickly. You don’t have to look up each individual word, and you can potentially learn several new words in each sentence, with very little effort. Also, once you’ve worked through a whole page, you can go back and read that page in the L2 all at once, and feel the satisfaction of understanding every single thing you saw.

I recently heard about another way to increase your feelings of satisfaction while doing this. Someone named “Teango” on HTLAL says that he uses a “clicker” to track all the new words he figures out. This is one of those small counting devices commonly used by officials in sports events. You hit a button or turn a dial so that it “clicks” up to a higher number.

Teango uses one of these to “click” every new word that he figures out that he hadn’t previously known. He might read part of the English text, and then come back to his L2 and see some word that he didn’t know before, but now he has a moment of epiphany as he realizes what it means, and then he clicks the clicker. At the end of his reading session, he writes down how many hours he spent, and how many clicks he had, so that he can track how many new words he’s learned overall. As he goes, he gets the satisfaction of watching that number go higher and higher. Apparently after a while, just the sound of the click itself makes him feel happy, as a sort of pavlovian response. There’s a more detailed description of his reading method here. You’ll see it if you scroll down to the bottom of that page.

So, coming back to my Stieg Larsson book, I’m going to work through the whole thing trying to understand every single word in it. I imagine that by the time I get only partway through, I’ll know almost every word there. By that point, I’ll just stop to check the English when a certain single word is causing me trouble, and then my Intensive work will slowly be transforming itself into Extensive. By the end of the year I plan to be effortlessly reading any Swedish book I like.

Overall, to acquire a language quickly, you just need entertaining materials that you’ll keep coming back to, and some way to make them at least a tiny bit comprehensible. If you just keep sticking a book in front of your eyeballs enough, you will learn a lot from it, even if it seems really really hard at the start. Working with a translation to help you along is a way to make that feel easier and to wring every last drop of knowledge out of it.

Good luck, and let me know if you have any questions :)

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11 Responses to How can I learn a language quickly from novels?

  1. Hey I just wanted to thank you for these past few posts in which you’ve detailed the techniques you are using for language acquisition. I’m finding that I really like your method of reading along with the audiobook in addition to watching tv shows / movies, and how you make it sound very possible to accomplish.

    One question I do have is where do you end up getting your tv shows in your target language? I’m studying Spanish and I find it very easy to find movies since about 1/3 of the movies I can find locally in the States also have a Spanish audio track. TV Shows on the other hand almost never have a foreign audio track. Do you buy the shows from an online retailer in the country that speaks the language or do you have to resort to other means online to get your shows?

  2. doviende says:

    It differs depending on the language, but ya, I’m almost always have to buy the TV shows on DVD. For instance, for German I bought the UK/Europe version of Star Trek: Deep Space 9, which has 5 audio tracks – English, Spanish, Italian, German, and French. Other stuff I found on had only English and German audio tracks.

    For Swedish there’s nothing dubbed…they just subtitle everything. I did, however, find a web site that had various native Swedish TV shows, which was straight from the broadcaster, so things like that exist sometimes.

  3. Bakunin says:

    Hi Peter, I’m learning Thai, and for that language there are several video-on-demand service providers on the internet. I use which is a London based company that basically uploads the Thai TV program for streaming on demand, usually with a delay of a few hours to a few days. The monthly fee is GBP 5, which I find very affordable. I would assume that there are similar services for Spanish TV.

    Doviende, that’s another very interesting article. You are lucky that you have access to audio books in your language! The last time (summer 2010) I checked the bookshops in Bangkok there was not a single audio book available in Thai. Can you imagine? :) I was thinking of commissioning some myself, but that will cost a few bucks. I wonder though whether your approach is likely to be more suitable for languages that are closely related to languages you already know, as are German and Swedish to English. I remember that you mentioned having applied this technique to Chinese. Did it work equally well as for German?

    • doviende says:

      Well, I’m hoping to find out in the coming year. I’m considering some languages that won’t have any audiobooks, so I’ll have to adjust things a bit.

      When I was working on Chinese, I didn’t have that much experience yet, and only figured out at the end how valuable books were…before that, I avoided them as “too hard”, but once I figured it out I started to make my biggest gains.

      Choosing some closely related languages was intentional, so that I could quickly close in on the effective strategies, but I plan to branch out again soon. And at some point I’ll return to Chinese as well. For now I’ll just put the ideas out there as much as possible, and see what other people make of them.

  4. Aaron says:

    Great Post. Two things. First, I think we can get comprehensible input from any source if exposed long enough – even grammar books and explicit grammar instruction based classes. The issue is effectiveness and efficiency though. Kato Lomb gave herself the opportunity to maximize comprehensible input in an enjoyable way. She packed more into less time. Explicit grammar instruction classes work – they’re just boring and slow. As far as reading in Swedish, I wonder if you might start with some light reading as a bridge to novels and such. Start with comic books or series like Narnia or Goosebumps or some other such children’s series. Krashen speaks of this Just a thought. I am on my second round of the Narnia books in Turkish.

  5. bolingua says:

    Nice one! I like the idea of learning from novels without dictionaries!!! I have read many books in foreign languages and can confirm that it really helps to understand BUT speaking becomes even more difficult without practicing.

  6. Andrew says:

    I really like the clicker idea, I always wondered how many new vocabulary words I was learning every day, I think seeing the number on that clicker go up with each word would actually be quite motivating.

    Also, I have a question, something I’ve always wondered about when reading things by you and Iversen where you advocate starting out with passive reading first: how do you know how to pronounce the words in your head? I mean, when you’re reading, if you don’t know how the word’s supposed to sound, then how can you read it at all? Do you at least learn some basic pronunciation and then, if you encounter a word you don’t know how to pronounce, you look it up? I can’t understand how you’re supposed to read something when you don’t know what the words actually sound like.


    • doviende says:

      That’s an important point, Andrew. It’s absolutely vital that you work on pronunciation and prosody early on, as I’ve mentioned. I usually do this with audiobooks, combined with reading. This is especially effective with extensive reading…just try to read a whole book with the audiobook playing while you follow along, even if you understand nothing. For a short 200 page book like Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, this is just 5 hours of work, but at the end you’ll have an excellent sense for how things are supposed to be pronounced.

      The more you do, the better you get. Check out Teango’s description of his method, and you’ll see that he’s using audiobooks for this too, and he pauses the audiobook after each sentence in the beginning, as he tries to understand the meaning. All the way through he’s using audio.

      • Andrew says:

        Ahhh ok, so you’re doing something really similar to Arguelles’ Scriptorium Method, got it. That makes sense. And you’re right, too, 4 or 5 hours to get excellent pronunciation is really impressive, that’s a very small amount of time relatively speaking. Most people require a few months of practice in a language before they sound decent. Thanks.


  7. doviende says:

    Wait, scriptorium? that’s where he writes and speaks out loud simultaneously? I thought we were just discussing how to get the sounds into your head.

    You get the sounds into your head by listening. You learn how the words are supposed to be pronounced by listening while reading. Later, you can then read, and you know how the words should sound, in your head. None of this involves speaking, really.

    That said, you can still learn a lot about actually pronouncing things properly out loud in a short amount of time. It’s going to differ depending on how much you know about what sounds exist in the language, how good you are at noticing them, and how good you are at getting your speech organs to do the right thing (all of which get better the more languages you’ve learned).

    • Andrew says:

      He listens to an audiobook and repeats after the speaker real-time, without pausing, just doing his best to replicate the sounds without worrying about the pronunciation.

      Agghh! Wait, no, that’s what he calls “shadowing”, not Scriptorium, ok yeah, you’re right the Scriptorium thing involves writing, “shadowing” is what I’m talking about. Ok, well what you’re advocating is very similar to shadowing then. Here he is explaining it: here, and here he is demonstrating it (notice the earbud in his ear, he’s listening to an audiobook).


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