Getting started

I’ve had a number of personal requests lately about how to get started in a language. In the past week, I’ve been asked about how to study German, Mandarin, and Dutch. Although what I’ve said to these people has been tailored a bit to their experience, there are some common threads, mainly Independence and Curiousity.

A lot of people have this idea that learning comes out of a textbook. The textbooks or classrooms have all the knowledge inside of them, and you are the empty vessel. You pour the knowledge out of the textbook until it fills up your brain and then you know it! Simple, right?

In reality, learning anything, particularly a new language, is more about the habits that you form and the things that you do. You need to continually make contact with the language and try to understand it, and to enjoy it. When your only contact is a boring textbook, it’s hard to keep going back. It usually starts to feel like “work”.

So, what I’ve been recommending to these people is to make a personal habit of trying to read a book in that language, and to listen to real audio content. This usually takes a bit of explaining, because people will start saying “but that’s the end result I want, not the first step!”. Actually, you get good at books by reading books. They have the best content, and they will keep you coming back for more, which is exactly what you need to do over and over again.

My favourite part about starting a new language is that it feels like a mystery. When I started learning Swedish, I couldn’t read it at all, but the first thing I did was to order a copy of The Hobbit in Swedish. While I waited for it to arrive, I prepped myself lightly by reading a bunch of example sentences from a grammar book, just to get a quick overall taste of the language and what it looked like.

When the book arrived, I was in heaven. Here was an interesting book that I liked reading, except now it was all upside down and sideways. I knew the story was in there somewhere, and I had to tease it out. I sat down and started going through it sentence by sentence, looking up words that I didn’t know. To me it was like an Indiana Jones movie, except instead of some ancient language, I could just go to an internet dictionary or google translate and get the answer whenever I wanted! How easy. So much easier than hieroglyphics or something. This sort of detailed investigation is Intensive Reading, wherein you try to understand the meaning of every sentence.

I also alternated this with another task: Extensive Reading. The idea here is to drop your dictionary and not touch it at all. You should just move your eyeballs over all the words, and if you don’t know the word then just skip to the next word. You actually don’t need to look up anything at all. Just keep reading.

When I started back on German last year after a 10 year hiatus, I started with Harry Potter. With the German translation of book 1 in my hands, I hit play on the German audiobook version and started reading. I barely understood anything, since at the time I only had very basic knowledge of German. I definitely wasn’t perfect, or even good. If you wait until you’re good before you start reading, you’ll probably never get there.

So I started reading Harry Potter, and it went something like “blah blah with blah blah in the blah, Harry blah to blah Ron”. Very quickly though, I started noticing patterns. I recognized words that were related to English, and I recognized German words that were related to other German words that I knew. I also started to get clues based on the dramatic reading by the audiobook actor (in this case, German actor Rufus Beck, who is fantastic at reading audiobooks).

For Extensive Reading, you might want to have a goal of the number of words. I had read about some Japanese students who were reading English books, and they had a goal of 1 million (1,000,000) words read (without using the dictionary while reading). They said that if you read 1 million words, there’s no way that you can suck at that language.

They were right! By the time I hit the 1M word mark in German, I could enjoy any novel I picked up. I rarely had to use a dictionary any more, and there were very few words per page that were unfamiliar….I actually had to actively search to find words that I didn’t know. It varies a bit from book to book, so I started to seek out harder novels, but they soon became easy.

Even when they were hard, they were still enjoyable at some level. I might not have gotten every single word, and at the start it was most of the words that I didn’t get, but I could still follow some of the story and try to have fun with it. That kept me coming back for more, and ultimately led me to success.

So, before dismissing it as “impossible” or “too hard”, go find an easy “young adult” novel and give it a shot. Do whatever you like…dictionary, or no dictionary, or a combination of both. Anything that gets you in contact with the language will make you better at that language. Just find ways to have fun with it, and you will win.

Update: related follow-up post here: Extensive reading: what convinced me

12 Responses to Getting started

  1. WC says:

    “Actually, you get good at books by reading books.”

    I can’t agree more.

    1 thing, though. Don’t make the mistake I made. I spent a fair amount of money buying children’s books, thinking they were a good place to start. DON’T! They’re amazingly boring, and the vocab isn’t -that- much easier than young adult novels. Even if you start with a book that’s way over your ability, it’s much better than a children’s book.

  2. doviende says:

    oh, an excellent point that I totally neglected, thanks. I’ll be sure to write more about that soon.

  3. Andrew says:

    Absolutely agreed. You know, I first noticed you on the HTLAL forums, you wrote great quality posts, and I see the same thing on your blog, I just wish you’d post more often!

    I think this is one of the best possible methods to learn a language, and it goes right back to that simple axiom we keep hearing from people in this community: if you want to get good at X, go do X. Don’t mess around with vocab lists and grammars (unless getting good at them is your goal), if you want to get good at reading in the language, then start reading in it…immediately! It doesn’t matter how little you know of the language, just do it! You’ll learn as you go along. If you want to get good at speaking the language, then you need to speak it with a native speaker, now! Find a very patient person and just go for it 😀

    Can I ask you how much this type of reading you described above helps you with actually speaking the language? Do you try pausing and repeating after the speaker with the audio books? If not, what do you do for speaking?

    I think you’d be really interested in a very similar method I wrote about a week or so ago that involves TV shows and movies (especially if you can find scripts for them online, which you often can!), I’d be extremely appreciative if you’d give me your opinion on it: the telenovela method


    • doviende says:

      Thanks Andrew, fantastic post on the “telenovela method”. I’d love to try that. Reading books like I mentioned doesn’t necessarily do much directly for your speaking, but if you listen to audiobooks at the same time, then you gain an incredible sense for how the language should sound. To gain real speaking skills, you actually have to try and speak though. I’m working on an upcoming post about this for later in the week.

      • Andrew says:

        Yup! Totally agreed, like I said you’ve got to practice whatever it is you want to be good at, and I definitely think that there’s something about reading and especially listening that helps you “understand” the language, the structure really, the syntax…you get used to it, even if you haven’t spoken it you’ve got a good idea for how you should sound when you do speak it.

        I need to find a local Spanish-speaker to work with, it shouldn’t be hard but I need to do it. However, I will say that using those language exchange sites to find people to converse with via Skype does probably 95% of what speaking to someone in person will do, it’s excellent practice (it’s just a bit tedious because you have to message 10 people to find 1 you can count on to talk with you on a consistent basis).


  4. Jana says:

    I’ve been following your blog for a while because I’ve always found your posts on the HTLAL forum really helpful. I’d like you to know that you’re someone who inspires me in language learning. =D

    I just have one question about this post: About how long did it take you to read 1 million words in German?

  5. doviende says:

    Thanks Jana, I’m glad I could help. My concentrated effort in reading German was basically from August to December in 2009. According to my records, I read about 200000 words of German every month during that time. I counted by estimation…I’d do a word-count of two pages in the book, and then just multiply the average per-page count by the number of pages in the book to get the total estimated number of words in it.

    If I remember correctly, the earlier Harry Potter books are shorter, around 100000 words, and the later ones are much longer. During that time, I was working a full-time job at 45 hours per week, and I was also spending time watching Star Trek in German (I watched 140 episodes in that time).

    At the start it was much easier if I used audiobooks while reading, because the audio would always keep going and “push” me through the book. This way, I wouldn’t get stuck so much on the words I didn’t know, and I could focus more on just trying to understand and enjoy as much of the story as I could.

    A book doesn’t actually take that long if you go at audiobook speed, where the shorter Harry Potter books are about 10 hours, going up to 20 hours later.

  6. Mithridates says:

    Children’s books are generally boring as the first commenter stated, but note that works of literature that have been toned down a bit for children or youth (often with a few pictures here and there) are very good. When I spent my first three months in Korea I read through a great deal of these books – abridged versions of Hermann Hesse, Dostoyevsky etc. but instead of 1000 pages they were only about 200, and the pictures helped remind me what the story was about.

    • doviende says:

      Ya, those are good if you’re interested in reading them. I found lots of those when I was in China, and they were half English / half Chinese, so I learned a lot from them, but usually I wasn’t too interested in the stories. I find Dickens and a lot of the other English “Classics” to be pretty boring.

      • Mithridates says:

        It feels better if it’s a book that you couldn’t read in its original language anyway. At the time I didn’t know any German so reading an abridged version of Demian was actually the best way to read it. For some reason though Sherlock Holmes feels good in any language, feels more universal than a lot of the classics and I like learning how to describe things in that much detail. Learning how to say things like “so tell me, how many stairs were there?” and then “ah hah! So you see, but you don’t observe!” is great fun, much better than pages and pages of a Dickens classic like you mention describing what London used to look like.

  7. elijah says:

    great advice! what do you think about web interaction in a 2nd language? I teach 1st year arabic at Indiana University while I finish my own coursework in the Linguistics PhD program. My students were scared stiff, but the more we used authentic texts their interest in the text trumped their fears, lack of confidence, etc. I’m thinking of using websites that require interaction with a familiar layout. “Download” “Enter”, etc…
    What do you think about using a dictionary? When I have to learn a language, I have to hide my dictionaries lest I start looking up every word in the text. Needless to say, I struggle to retain vocabulary BECAUSE i flip through the dictionary!

  8. This is a very interesting technique. At the moment I’m quite good at Welsh as my second language, well enough to take it up next year as a first language course in university however I feel that my vocabulary lets me down in part. So I will use what you have shown and read lots of books in order to boost my vocab.

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