Extensive reading: what convinced me

Some time in the spring of 2009 I was considering getting back into learning German after a long hiatus. I had taken German in high school, but learned very little. I couldn’t read books, I couldn’t understand TV, and I couldn’t have even a basic conversation.

Nine years before this, I had gone on a couple of business trips to Germany, and at some point I picked up a German copy of Tad William’s “The Stone of Farewell”, a high fantasy novel that I had read already in English. My idea was that when I got home from the business trip I’d sit down and try to read it in German, since I had an intuitive idea that reading should be a good way to improve my language skills.

I got back to Vancouver and sat down with this fantasy novel and a German-English dictionary, and started working on it. It seemed impossibly hard, and most of the words were unknown to me. I tried to look up every single unknown word in the dictionary in order to figure out what was going on. I wasn’t getting any sense of the story, and after a long time I was still stuck on the 2nd page. I eventually gave up, thinking that it was a horrible idea.

Fast-forward 9 years to 2009, and I was once again starting to work on German again. I had been reading AJATT and Steve Kaufmann, who were both saying “just read”. I then heard about Japanese students who were trying to read 1 million words of English without using a dictionary, which sounded sort of absurd.

So, I decided to give this crazy idea a shot. I would pick up this book that had caused me so many problems before, and I would just move my eyeballs over all the words. Whenever I encountered a word that I didn’t know, I’d just skip right over it and keep on moving. I would try my best to imagine whatever parts of the story I could figure out, piecing it together from my past knowledge of the English version of the book and the understandable words in German in front of me.

What happened was an epiphany for me. By ignoring the hard words and continuing to move my eyes, I started to get a sense for the story. It was only a vague sense, because there were lots of words I didn’t know, but it still seemed like what it really was: a story. I could pick out the main characters, and I knew when they were doing something with someone else, and a few basic words like Drachen (= dragon), and Wald (= forest), etc.

I kept going until I had read 50 pages without using a dictionary, and I had felt it getting better and better, so I decided to go back to the start and see if I had learned anything. Miraculously, I understood a lot more! The beginning of the story made a lot more sense now. Although it was hard to point to any particular things that I had learned beyond a couple words I knew I had figured out, I just knew that something had changed and I was understanding much more.

This catapulted me forward, and I began pursuing German wholeheartedly. It set me on the path to reading dozens of books in German, and eventually moving here to Berlin. Now I can go out for a beer with some Germans in a noisy bar and talk about feminism or geohashing or whatever I want, and it all started with learning to move my eyeballs over some foreign looking words.

Some further points I should mention one more time:

  • Bootstrapping yourself by learning some basic vocab is helpful, but don’t use vocab as an excuse not to read. Exposure comes before knowledge, not after.
  • The further the language is from your native language, the longer it will take to absorb the meanings…but don’t give up, it still works. (I’ve done it in Chinese too)
  • Audiobooks are phenomenally helpful. I highly recommend using them whenever possible while you read.
  • Another way to go about it is to keep the English version of the book beside you so that you can look at it as a reference when you get really stuck. Reading 2 paragraphs of English every few pages will resynchronize you…just don’t get too distracted with the English when your main task should be the new language. (for something like Chinese, it’s definitely handy to have a parallel text…I didn’t find it necessary for Swedish and German)

Anyone who hasn’t tried this should go pick up the nearest book in your target language and move your eyeballs over the first 50 pages, and then I dare you to tell me that you haven’t learned anything and that reading isn’t easier!

12 Responses to Extensive reading: what convinced me

  1. Max says:

    Thanks for the article! I’m really enjoying what you’re writing about extensive reading. All the more since I’m right in the middle of my first Chinese novel 🙂

  2. WC says:

    While I’m not quite brave enough to let go of my trusty dictionary, I had a similar experience in Japanese. The more I read, the easier it was… Even for words I barely knew. And of course, I learned many words without even using a dictionary.

    My rule was to only use the dictionary when I was sure a word was stopping me from understanding what was going on. That’s more seldom than you’d think, and it helped me keep a good reading flow so I wouldn’t get frustrated.

  3. Andrew says:

    Having that English text is also better than a dictionary because if you want to look up a word having a contextual translation will give you a much better idea of what it means in that particular context than a strict dictionary definition will.

    I usually use Spanish-language web content since it’s free, but I really do enjoy reading so perhaps I should try to find a book I like in Spanish and see what happens (I’ve got one of those “Spanish Readers” that’s designed for beginners learning the language that contains a bunch of short stories, it’s not bad, but not all the stories are interesting).

    Keep up the good work.


  4. Yuzuru says:

    How would one go about counting 1,000,000 words? Wouldn’t that distract from reading? And, isn’t counting to 1,000,000 supposed to take a really long time? Do you just estimate? Or?

    • doviende says:

      You count the number of words in the first page or two, and use that as an average. Then you multiply by the number of pages in the book. It’s a rough estimate, just so that you don’t have to count by book. Some books are big, some books have really small fonts. You just want a rough estimate to help you count. The exact number isn’t important.

  5. […] while ago I read a post on Language Fixation about learning German through reading novels. It seemed like a good idea, but I was busy at the […]

  6. Shandra says:

    Hi! I’d like to “move my eyeballs over all the words” in a novel, but I am a total beginner in Chinese, so I fear it could be frustrating to recognize only 1% of the characters. What about you and Chinese?

    • doviende says:

      Ya, with chinese you’re going to have to put in some extra effort, but in some ways it’s similar. You’ll need to spend time learning some characters so that the general system becomes familiar to you, and you’ll need to learn basic vocabulary. Chinese is mainly hard because the vocabulary is completely different from English, with no opportunity to guess words.

      However, once you have some of the basic ideas and basic vocabulary, you really should start trying to read. In this case, reading on a computer is best, because then you can use mouseover popup dictionaries to figure out the word (as seen in several popular firefox plugins for the web). If you’re completely unfamiliar with the way Chinese characters work, then it will be hard to learn any of them from this, but if you’re at least somewhat familiar then you’ll be able to absorb a lot by trying to read.

  7. Chris says:

    Hi Doviende

    Thanks for this post. I’ve joined the Dutch library and they have many audio books – I’ve listened to Roald Dahl’s ‘Danny, the World Champion’ and am now on a second listen. It’s surprisingly easy to follow the story and on the second listen, a lot more detail comes out.


    More on my experience of using audio books


  8. Scott says:

    Generally like the idea here. I’d just recommend finding interesting materials written at a level that is not far from your current ability. You’ll learn just as much and find the experience more pleasurable. I tried reading Harry Potter in Korean and didn’t get far. However, I found some books written for the 5th-6th grade Korean students, and the difference in enjoyment and learning were easy to recognize. Yes, Harry Potter would have more new vocabulary, but after a certain point, your brain is overwhelmed and you don’t come away with much.

  9. steveridout says:

    Hi, I’m a big fan of this system of learning. So much so that I’m currently working on a website to make it easier:


    It lets you read articles, translate words you don’t know, and then work on memorising them with spaced repetition flashcards. It’s still an early beta but I use it every day and it’s helping a lot, if you try it out I’d love to get some feedback.

  10. mel boiko says:

    Suggestion from a friendly linguist: If you’re a beginner in a new language, start with graded readers. See Paul Nation (2013) for research and justification.

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