Learn by reading, personal example: Swedish

First I want to share this tweet with you:

Lately I’ve been trying hard to revive my Swedish skills, which I’ve somewhat neglected since coming to Germany. I’m trying now to make a concerted push to improve my Swedish literacy before the end of the year, but it’s been difficult. I really want to be able to read Stieg Larsson’s books in the original Swedish, but they’re over my level right now. I’m used to being able to read effortlessly in German, but with a difficult Swedish book like this it’s the opposite.

It’s taken a lot of effort, but I know that I just have to keep going and it’ll get easier. Literacy in another language follows the Pareto (aka 80/20) principle: 80% of the results are gained with just 20% of the effort. To get to that place of seemingly effortless reading, however, you have to be somewhere around 95% recognition, and that extra 15% takes at least as long as the first 80%.

When you keep on putting in the time, however, it actually will feel like you got there sooner than expected. Sometimes in the middle, you might feel down, but just keep on going. So, here’s what’s been going on for me lately…maybe some of you can relate.

I picked up Män som hatar kvinnor again some time last week (my first time reading Swedish since early september), turned on the audiobook, and promptly realized that I understood nothing at all. This worried me, because I had thought I had made some decent progress in Swedish. I decided that instead of the audiobook, I should spend some intensive time reviewing the vocab…by reading, of course.

So, with renewed enthusiasm, I grabbed the English version of the book, “The girl with the dragon tattoo”, and started working back and forth with the Swedish. I had to do a lot of work to figure out the Swedish sentences, and tried things like reading 1 chapter of English first, and then tried to read that chapter in Swedish, but it took too long. So I switched to 1 page of English, and then reading the equivalent page in Swedish, but it also took too long, so I moved down to paragraphs and sentences.

Slowly, my memory of some of the words started to come back, and I learned a lot of new ones. I remembered, though, that part of the slooowww speed was caused by my need to know absolutely every word precisely. This is unnecessary and harmful at the beginning, because you’re avoiding the benefits of the 80/20 rule! You’re trying to get all 100% of the words, which takes enormous time. Try instead to just worry about the more frequent words, or at least spend less time on the harder words. If you get the general idea, that’s enough for now, and you’ll quickly race up to the 80% level. From there, you can get more of the harder words.

My progress has been ramping up. Now I’m able to read more fluidly, and faster. Speed is important, because you have to read at a reasonable speed in order to enjoy the story. If you go too slowly, it gets really boring and you get tempted to give up. You should sacrifice accuracy for speed until you reach the pace that keeps the story enjoyable. Accuracy will catch up after that.

Remember that it often only takes just a little bit more effort to make that breakthrough you’ve been waiting for. Sometimes you might feel down because it’s taking too long, but you need to somehow make up some reasons to keep going for one more week, one more day, one more hour. All that matters is that you keep trying again. Keep starting over, try one more time. All that time adds up, and at some point it’ll “click”.

For extra fun, go back to one of your easier books after you’ve tried a hard one for a while. You’ll see that it’s actually gotten much easier due to your efforts. Any way that you can demonstrate your progress to yourself is helpful. Another way is to keep a hard book around, and every once in a while do a “test” where you pick a random page from the middle and count up what percentage of the words you recognize. You could even do this every day and make yourself a graph, if you like. You’ll see that the amount you recognize goes steadily upward over time, as long as you keep on trying to read.

Keep starting, keep trying, keep going, keep reading. It works.

3 Responses to Learn by reading, personal example: Swedish

  1. Aaron says:

    Here is a quote from Greg Thompson’s “Kick Starting Your Language Learning”:

    If we ignore a whole bunch of problems we can say that a language learner faces two main problems. The first is to get started. The second is to keep from stopping.

    Keep going everyone!

  2. Andrew says:

    Absolutely, consistence and persistence, man, that’s what it’s all about, that’s what breeds success in EVERYTHING and that is why so few people see it😉

    Don’t give up.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  3. Bridget says:

    ” Any way that you can demonstrate your progress to yourself is helpful.”

    I liked your whole post, but the above line is what prompted me to post a comment. That is definitely a HUGE key in both continuing to learn and for motivation for continuing to learn. I do the same thing. Another thing I do is try and teach back out as soon as I learn something. Even if there is no one around, I literally teach the wall. Its perhaps a little more embarrassing than talking to one’s self, but it gets the job done. Thanks for your insightful post. Im “Ubik” on HTLAL and of course I have a blog here too, but not nearly as cool as yours.

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