intensive and extensive reading

Yesterday I was reading some fantastic posts on the How To Learn Any Language forums by a fellow named Iverson, who is well known on those forums as he has apparently learned many languages to a high degree of skill (with 11 that he knows well, and several others that are in progress). Here are the links to his five posts, entitled “Guide to learning languages”: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.

One concept that I had an intuition of on my own, but never really explicitly thought about, was the difference between “intensive” and “extensive” reading, as Iverson calls them.

Extensive is when you try to cover vast amounts of materials, but just skip over the parts you don’t know and try to get the general gist of things. It’s all about context and the big picture. Once you get awesome, you can just sit down and read a book and understand everything, and you’re doing an extensive exercise still.

Intensive is about studying minute details and trying to wring absolutely every drop of information out of a section of text. The easy way to compare these two types is reading the same paragraph 100 times (intensive) vs. reading 100 different paragraphs (extensive).

These two aspects of reading can play off each other. Extensive reading gives you a sense of familiarity, and can help you get curious about the language. You see things many times in different places, and start to wonder about how they work, and you get a mild sense of how they work. You slowly pick up the meanings of hundreds of words in parallel. When you then do some intensive work, you can connect each new word to a lot of dots already from your experience. There’s an existing web in which to place that new word.

Alternately, when you’ve done some intensive work and have a very precise meaning for certain words, but not much connection in the web, then extensive reading will provide a place for that intensive word to live, and will also help you understand the rest of the context when you see it out in the field.

One problem that can come up for a lot of people, is that they read extensively but have stopped making progress on a number of fronts. They make the same grammatical mistakes all the time, or get certain words wrong. This can be remedied by reading more intensively. Pay attention to each of the words, and how they fit together. Compare the patterns to others that you’ve seen. Play some mental word games. Just keep doing anything you can to deepen your exposure, in order to break yourself out of the false patterns that have developed.

Another problem that is common to those who do language classes at school is that all of their reading is intensive. This results in a sloooowww reading speed, and an obsession with always knowing the precise meaning of every single word. This leads a lot of people to spend too much time looking up things in dictionaries, and living too much in their native language rather than the new language. This is the land of perfectionism, and it will keep you from advancing. You need to practice letting go, and letting the language flow over you so you can develop more of an automatic feel for it. You need to practice picking up more words from the context (which may feel impossible at the start, but it’s not).

The way that I usually put these two forms into practice is by doing my extensive reading with a highlighter beside me. Whenever a sentence is somehow interesting or difficult, then I highlight it for later intensive work. When I flip back through and look at all the sentences I highlighted, then I add them to my Anki flashcard deck and I make sure I fully understand the full meaning of the sentence. Then I let Anki reinforce it for me over the coming days and weeks.


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