Mad Flow: become absorbed in your book

When I learned to read foreign languages for enjoyment instead of worrying about the precise definition of every word, it was a big milestone in my language-learning progress. One of the things that makes this so effective is the ability to get lost in the story. You want to build up a sort of flow, a feeling of absorption into the story, where you lose track of the world around you and imagine a new world in your mind.

This sense of flow is important in many human endeavors. Think about a rap song where the performer is constantly missing the beats and stumbling through his words….it’s no good. Think about the musician that plays a wrong note and then has to stop and restart…it kills the whole song. There’s also the direct language analog of “fluency”, the ability to produce a seemingly effortless flow of language to communicate with someone. Flow is important in all of those, and it’s the same while reading.

If you are reading a book in detail, dissecting every word, it can be very hard to stay on task. While doing this, time seems to move slowly, and the outside distractions of the world seem to creep in. Other things start to seem like they’d be easier, so you wander away from your work.

This is the opposite of what people experience when they really enjoy a book. Have you ever read a book that was “a real page-turner”? Something that you couldn’t put down, and had you obsessively trying to read “just one more chapter”? When you get into this sort of mental state, the world around you disappears, time moves more quickly, and you can imagine the happenings in the story much more vividly. You are no longer reading individual words….you’re letting a story seep into your consciousness…and then suddenly it’s 3am and you have to be at work in 5 hours😉

This dreamy state of mind is powerful, and you can use it when you want to learn a new language. Don’t get stuck on each individual word, because that’ll drag you out of the book and back to the real world. Worrying about each word becomes a speed-bump on the road to your imagination. You need to ignore them, skip past them, and develop a smooth flow. No bumps allowed.

It’s ok to not know words. Give yourself permission to not know them. Besides, in your native language, there are still thousands of words that you don’t know. You should expect that in your new language there will be plenty more, but that’s just fine. It’s expected. Once you realize this, then you can try to dig into the actual story and get lost in there. Just get whatever you can, and enjoy it.

When I want to extract some more knowledge out of a book, I make sure that I can do it without ruining my flow. I keep a highlighter beside me so that if there’s a word that keeps coming up and is really bugging me, then I can just swipe the highlighter over it and come back to it later. This lets me remove the bothersome word from my mind, because I know it’ll be taken care of. I won’t lose it now…it’s in bright yellow. Then I can just keep on reading and enjoy the rest of the story. Highlighting more than 1 or 2 words can be detrimental though, because then you end up spending more time “collecting” words than enjoying the story.

Some of those highlighted words will later go into my Anki flashcard deck, with their surrounding sentence or phrase of context. These can be quite valuable to review, because when they come up I remember the surrounding situation in the story, which really helps me remember the meaning of the word. Reviewing the words in Anki also helps solidify words that may not occur again for another 50 pages or more. A couple extra reps in Anki will make them stick for next time, and then they’ll just seem familiar.

But I also just ignore a lot of the highlighted words. Sometimes I go back over them and decide that I actually already know what they mean. Or I just think they’re boring now, so there’s no need to put it into Anki. Another possibility is that I just highlighted too many words and I don’t want to spend the effort to enter them all into Anki, which is fine too. Every word will come up again somewhere else, so I’ll have plenty of opportunities to learn them in the future.

So, Extensive Reading is best done as a sort of meditation. Forget the rest of the world, forget your other thoughts and worries, forget the challenging words. Just keep moving your eyeballs over all the words and try to “fall into” the story. Get lost in it, and just keep reading. You will be rewarded with an uncanny “sense” of the language, and your intuition will become more developed.

Your brain is a neural net, and you are training it with input. Just keep putting more words in front of your eyes, and your brain will do the work of piecing it together in the background. Just hang on and enjoy the ride.

3 Responses to Mad Flow: become absorbed in your book

  1. WC says:

    Another great post!

    For me, ignoring things I don’t know is particularly difficult. I’m obsessive about it.

    But I have been trying the method you outlined above for about a year, and I definitely have benefited from it. I read a lot more, and I enjoy the reading a lot more, when I do it. My rule is that I only look up a word if I’m sure it’s vital to what’s going on and I’m missing something important by not knowing it. And even then, I sometimes don’t look it up, depending on my flow.

  2. Andrew says:

    You put that far better than I could have, that was kind of beautiful😀

    You’re absolutely right that this sort of thing (extensive reading/listening/viewing/whatever) should be part of your language learning system, whether you’re applying it to reading or watching TV shows in the target language or movies or what-have-you. It should be there in addition to intensive work where you do look up every word so that you can concentrate on building up your vocabulary and so that you do it with words that will prove the most useful to you which you determine via whether or not they appear in a normal everyday context such as a book or a movie.

    I’m horrible at explaining abstract stuff like this–I understand it in my own head, but getting someone else to understand it in the same way is another story–so I’m really glad you wrote this, I can refer other people here when I’m trying to explain this concept to them instead of actually having to explain it myself, lol.


  3. Dan Stout says:

    Thanks for the great article!

    A useful tool I’ve found is the “quizzes” on sites such as Le Monde or CNN. The ones which place a time limit on your response are great, since you’re forced to get as much meaning out of them as you are able without having a chance to bog yourself down dissecting every detail.

    It’s not the same feeling as when you get lost in a book, but it’s nice to focus on what you know, rather than all the tiny details you don’t (yet).

    A sample one about video games is here (in French):

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