contact precedes comprehension

After seeing a recent tweet by Khatsumoto where he says “One can never come to understand native-level material by avoiding it: contact precedes comprehension”, I decided I should weigh in on this. When I’ve suggested reading novels to people, a lot of them are really afraid of the idea. They tell me that they don’t understand enough of the language yet. WELL YA! you haven’t done any reading, of course you don’t understand much yet. I think they have it backwards.

Some people believe that you should have more than 90% understanding of everything before you try to read it, but I think this is nonsense. Even when I barely understand 50% of the words on the page, I’m getting something out of the process of reading and listening to a real novel in whatever language I’m learning. This type of learning cannot be easily counted and quantified; you are learning things not in a clear-cut black-and-white fashion such as “I now know these exact words!”. You are slowly gathering familiarity with many different words.

In the process, you are also seeing many of the most frequent words over and over and over. These really frequent words (usually quite important to the language) are quite easy to get a sense for, even if you understand very few of the other words in the sentences. A lot of the time, if you can just tell whether certain words are probably a noun or probably a verb or probably an adjective, then that can be enough context to learn more about the usage of some other words around them.

After a week of my ongoing experiment in reading lots of Swedish, I’ve found that I know a surprising amount of words already. I had thought that it would benefit me to go through the 2000 word wordlist that I have kicking around, but lately I’m finding that I just already know a lot of it. A few weeks ago, I’d go through one page of it and add almost every example sentence into Anki, but now I really have to search to find new words that I haven’t seen. I’m also able to guess a lot of them more easily now. I’m just becoming much more familiar with Swedish.

This gives me great confidence that I’ll be able to learn a ton just by reading for the next month. Although I saw drastic improvement in German due to reading, somehow I still have this doubt in my mind that I can just learn huge amounts of a language purely by sitting down every day to enjoy a book. I think this is an argument for spending as much time as possible doing it every day, because then the speed of the improvements is much more noticeable, and that helps your motivation.

Anyway, back to the topic. There’s no point in waiting until you already understand most of a language in order to start reading. You need to get used to the idea early that it is greatly beneficial to read native books no matter what level you are at. Maybe you won’t get that much at the start, but keep going and you’ll see that it moves fast. For simple language like small posts on blogs, I can already read Swedish quite well. I was linked to a bike forum called and I found that I could quite easily read along with the articles and comments. Sure, I’m still learning a lot of new vocabulary from them, but actually reading and understanding their meaning is no longer difficult. This is an effect purely from reading difficult books like real Swedish-language novels, because I couldn’t do this a few weeks ago.

Don’t wait! Immerse yourself now! Why are you reading my silly English blog? You could be out getting exposed to some awesome content in your target language!


6 Responses to contact precedes comprehension

  1. Keith says:

    I just felt really compelled to write some silly comment on your English blog instead of getting exposed to some awesome content in my target language!

    I’d could rewrite this article and change “reading books” to “watching TV.” Like this:

    Some people believe that you should have more than 70% understanding of everything before you try to watch TV, but I think this is nonsense. Even when I barely understand 50% of the words in the TV show, I’m getting something out of the process of watching and listening to a real TV show in whatever language I’m learning.

    Pretty cool, huh?! 🙂

  2. Olle Kjellin says:

    Very cool and impressive. I hope noone understood my recent comment on language statistics that you “should have more than 90% understanding of everything before you try to read it”. I just quoted somerone who claimed that if you miss out more that 10% of the meaningful words, you might not grasp the overall meaning of the text. But for learning purposes, I would claim that starting to read natural texts from early on will grant you a very good learning environment. Just as Doviendo illustrates. However, just one word of warning: Beware of the letters! I mean, there is often very, very little correspondence between the spelling and the actual pronunciation. So in my own world, I want to begin learning without written texts until I feel confident in pronouncing in a near-native way the few words I happen to know. This is the baby way of learning/acquiring, evolved through perhaps 100.000 years and obviously yielding “perfect” results in every native language known. Who am I to ignore this wisdom? 🙂

  3. rcy says:

    why is everyone still talking about this?

  4. doviende says:

    rcy: because there are still tons of people around who are asking how to learn languages without “Pimsleur” or “Teach Yourself” books. In fact, I’d say most people have no idea how to learn languages outside a high school classroom.

  5. Rebecka says:

    I agree 100%! 😉 I am currently doing reading-only for German, and I hope it will work out fine.

  6. Amanda says:

    I do find that the more text I understand the happier I am with a book/text. If I only understand 50% I put it down. I prefer to understand a good 85% or greater. But that’s MY comfort level and I say work at whatever that Goldilocks level of just rightness is for you.

    The problem I have with watching TV or movies is that I tend to multitask when I watch in English, so I carry that over to Korean. But I can’t only lend part of my attention to a Korean show if I want to understand and enjoy it. So I don’t get as much out of it. When reading, I focus on just reading. And that’s why it’s so much more powerful to me.

    I’d say most people don’t know how to learn a language inside a high school classroom either–if they did, we’d have a lot more fluent speakers of a second language in America, at least.

    I do find it telling that none of my Spanish teachers (I went through six different ones in high school and college) EVER encouraged us to read just for enjoyment. I’m not sure why since ALL of my elementary school teachers sure did. (I specify elementary because in elementary school you “learn to read to you can eventually read to learn.” I think of learning a language in the same way. You learn to read/understand/listen so you can eventually write/be understood/talk.)

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