Learning a language through reading feels like reading Jabberwocky

To take a rest from reading Harry Potter, I went over to wordpress.com and changed the language to Nederlands. This is a great way to find all sorts of blogs in your target language, which means you can sit back and surf the web to your heart’s content while still learning the language.

After some random surfing, I came upon an article about a painter’s interpretation of scenes from Alice in Wonderland (in Dutch, of course). When describing the scene where Alice finds the poem about the Jabberwock, the poem is repeated in English, and then some links were given to the Dutch translation.

This gave me the opportunity to read Jabberwocky again, but to consider it from the viewpoint of language learning. As I read it in English, it gives me a very similar feeling to what I get from reading books in other languages at an intermediate level. I get a good sense of what is happening in the story, but there are all sorts of words that I don’t fully understand. I can tell whether they’re adjectives or nouns, and I feel like I get some sense of them by recognizing the other words around them.

For instance, when the Jabberwock “Came whiffling through the tulgey wood”, it doesn’t really matter exactly what whiffling and tulgey might mean. You basically understand what’s happening in the scene. You can also come up with some ideas of what “tulgey” might mean, because it’s used to describe a forest through which a monster is walking. The next time you see this word, you’ll have another piece of information about it, and it’ll make even more sense.

This is what it’s like to me when I read Dutch or Swedish or whatever other language I happen to be working on. With an intermediate level of knowledge, there are plenty of words you don’t know, but the story still moves along somehow.

So, go out and find something to read! You don’t need perfect understanding to enjoy it, and in fact you’ll never get perfect understanding without reading a lot of books with only intermediate understanding. Exposure comes before knowledge, not after.

12 Responses to Learning a language through reading feels like reading Jabberwocky

  1. durak says:

    When I was a child, they taught me letters (in L1) and I just took the biggest book in the library and started reading it. It took me two or three weeks to finish it.
    It was the greatest discovery about learning a language I have ever made.

    When I was a teenager, I took a novel in French, it was Les Exilés (Liebe deinen Nächsten) by Remarque, and I just read it. I understood maybe one third of it, but I do remember the joy I felt.

    As to Exposure comes before knowledge, not after.
    Basically, I agree, but I wouldn’t be so sure about it. It is always a good thing to know something about the language: phonemes, correspondence between phonemes and letters, some basic grammar features, word order. I am even inclined to think that it is indispensable to really learn a language quickly and properly.

    On the other hand, with appropriate materials you can understand (almost) everything the first time. That means parallel texts in vertical columns, a good translation and a good reader. And you just LISTEN to L2 and read the L1 text with an occasional look at L2. For me, it worked even with Japanese.
    So, really, why waste your time and read something you only imperfectly understand, when you can maximize your exposure by understanding almost everything the first time you grab a novel?

  2. WC says:

    It depends on exactly how foreign the language is, I think.

    When I started learning Japanese, I knew only the loan-words that English has. It wasn’t enough to read anything and enjoy it at all.

    I studied word lists for quite a long time before I was able to read even the simplest manga, and even then it was really slow and hard.

    Now, I’m up to the ‘Jabberwocky’ stage. I finished reading my first light novel and understood most of what was going on. It was a TON of fun by the end, but the beginning was really painful.

    Now, if I picked up a French book, I might be able to understand enough to enjoy it because French and English are similar enough. Quite a few of the european languages are.

    In fact, when I pick up another language, I plan to do it by reading dual-texts… Sticking to L2 as much as I can and only relying on the English version if I’m lost.

    • doviende says:

      Ya, reading a book as a beginner is a bit different. I was refering to the intermediate stage, which can be reached fairly quickly using parallel texts. I like to start with those right away, because it gives me a sense that everything is doable. When each sentence becomes clear using the English version, then it makes the whole task seem easier.

  3. Andrew says:

    Yup, this is precisely the same thing I’ve noticed: you recognize most of the important stuff because it’s used so frequently that it’s one of the first things you learn, so you recognize the word for “go” and “woods” and “through” but you don’t recognize the word used to describe precisely what type of woods it is (“coniferous” or “gloomy” or whatever obscure adjective they might use to describe it).

    You’re talking again about that last little 5-10% that just takes SSSOOOO damned long to cover, right? You get the first 80-85% very, very quickly, in a couple of weeks, and then the last 10% or so is what requires the next 5 months, right?


    • doviende says:

      Ya, exactly. The 100 most frequent words probably cover 70% of the text on the page. In English, the word “the” alone is something like 5% of the text. Getting up to 80% coverage is not hard, and 85% is A2 or something. I can’t remember the numbers exactly.

      To phrase it in terms of hours instead of percents, it took me about 500 hours of exposure in German (through TV, books, and audiobooks) to get to a high level of understanding, and from then on I felt quite comfortable reading books and understanding most of them without looking anything up (ie, passed the airplane test).

      I hope that Dutch will take me less time due to having done German already, but I still anticipate somewhere around 250-300 hours.

      As Durak says, the time required is drastically lessened with parallel texts, because you always know what’s going on, so the whole text becomes “comprehensible”, and you never have to spend time doing lookups.

  4. Claudie says:

    Reading without completely understanding everything was what I did as a child studying English. Since many words were close enough to French (and the alphabet was the same), that worked well for me. But I also liked covering long lists of words to increase the vocabulary: I could memorize a hundred words in one hour. On the next day, I would be tested, and I’d get 99% of the words correct. (That really helped when I had to take the SATs!)

    On the other hand, for Spanish, I never really studied any words. I would remember them from reading and checking the meaning whenever I needed it. But Spanish was even closer to French, so that was truly easy.

    As for Arabic — I’m still waiting to see what the best method for me is, although I think that for now learning long vocabulary lists is definitely not the way to go. I much more agree with first exposing myself to them as you’ve mentioned above.

    • doviende says:

      I actually think that vocabulary is one aspect of language that can benefit from some list-work, unlike grammar. I try to think of it as the first exposure out of many future ones. I haven’t needed to do this at all with Dutch, but I would definitely make use of this strategy for languages where I don’t have a parallel text. I won’t need to do it for Polish, since I have so many parallel materials, but it might be necessary for Hindi later on.

  5. Judith says:

    There is a point to be made for not looking up “tulgey”. I read a lot of English for pleasure without looking up this kind of word, and that eventually gave me an instinctive understanding of the contexts in which I can use the words. For example, “tulgey” may mean “dark” as in a forest where the tree filters out the light, but not “dark” as in a starless night.

    In my experience, the brain is less likely to notice this kind of issue, the different layers to a word, if it knows the translation, because translation is always a simplification. “tulgey = dark”, okay, got that, so “dark night = tulgey night”, right?

    My brain has a great set of words that could go with “gloomy”, but there’s no such list for “obscure” because that’s something I immediately equated with German “obskur”.

  6. Olle Kjellin says:

    I agree! Jag håller med! 🙂

  7. Robin says:

    And an even better practice, as I’ve had the opportunity of testing it myself with German, Hindi, French and Spanish, is after the reading, to write something, anything, with the help of a dictionary. For example, I wanted to message my friend who knows German a simple sentence that would’ve impressed him and it took a little time for the first sentence (I was a just beginner then, knowing only Guten Tag and Wie heissen Sie?), but once I got the hang of it, it became easy; after the first hurdle,you then just have to look up specific nouns and verbs and it’s a great method to reinforce what you read. But while writing, since we translate from our native language into the target language, we must be wary of the differences in construction because most of the times literal translations are awkward…
    But writing is better if you already know at least the basic 100 words and read a little bit to get an idea of the word order (eg. German: Können Sie mir ein anderes Hotel empfehlen? The second verb is at the end; better still is Latin where word order is so flexible: Haec casa Diana grata est; Diana haec casa est grata, &c.)

  8. A good way to read books in languages you’re learning and get exposure, I would suggest, would be to read bilingual books. I have been especially focused on Interlinear books and I have been trying to promote them on interlinearbooks.com so that is one thing.

    However, it has to be noted that some texts are probably better for learners than others. While Alice in Wonderland indeed is a very interesting text, it has a lot of idioms and puns in it, thus I’m not sure how well translations work. In theory, perhaps they could in Dutch, as that’s a pretty similar language to English.

  9. I strongly agree with the idea of learning the language through reading. That’s why I even started to write and post short stories for English learners to practice reading.

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