Tips for learning to read a new language

1) Proper motivation is key. Ideally there should be something in the language you really want to read. Note I said want, not need. If you just need to read something to satisfy external requirements, that is one thing. If you want to read something, that is another.

2) Do not memorize vocab lists or recycle flash cards. Get used to looking up words as needed. But inasmuch as you need to memorize new words by conscious effort (especially at the very beginning), then the most effective technique is probably to write the word and its definition with some example sentences on a piece of paper, repeat those examples to yourself out loud a few times, and then throw the paper away. Repeat as often as needed. If you compile a vocab list at all, don’t just include the words’ translation. Better to use it as a place to record sentences in context. Never make a vocab list without at least one example usage for every lexical item.

3) Keep in mind that understanding grammatical structure is — in most cases — more crucial to learning than a grasp of all vocabulary. A dictionary can usually tell you what a word means, even if a full sense of its semantic range will only come from repeated encounters in context. But understanding how a sentence is structured is fundamentally a matter of habit.

4) Get comfortable with ambiguity. Learn to read with partial understanding. It’s okay not to get everything right away. As a child learning to read your first language you were probably exposed to a lot of stuff you didn’t fully understand yet. (But never let yourself mistake partial understanding for full understanding, or you will develop bad habits later on.) Reread several times, and think about what you understand and what you don’t. Not all things you don’t understand are equally important. Figure out what things are likely most crucial, and spend your effort puzzling that out. Don’t waste time, especially not as a beginner, trying to figure out why something which you do understand isn’t expressed in precisely the way you expected. If you read “After spending a day in the forest gathering flitterswoggles, they were begroobled by a strange woman”, looking up “begrooble” is a higher priority than looking up the flitterswoggles when you can already guess that it is probably a kind of useful plant or some other inanimate commodity found in nature.

5) Try as early as possible to read at least a little bit of the stuff you REALLY want to read and not just whatever easy exercises are given in the material you are using. Even if you don’t understand everything, even if you get through only a sentence or two, or find no more than an isolated phrase that you understand. The experience of understanding a little of what you want to understand, however partially, can help with motivation a lot. It's a good way to remind yourself that the distance between where you are and where you want to get is not infinite.

6) Bilingual or translated texts can help. Find a text whose content you already know in your own language and see if you can get your hands on a translation of it. This allows you not to worry about figuring out what is being said and to focus on how the saying of it works in your target language. I find Bible translations are ideal for this - for me personally.

7) Remember that learning a language is not an intellectual activity. A language is not a code to be deciphered but a collection of habits to be acquired. Treating every text as a puzzle to be solved rather than a specimen of human communication to be understood as such is not necessarily helpful.

8) Do WHATEVER YOU NEED TO DO in order to make the process fun. Myself I like to come up with silly example sentences like “the elephant asked the soldier for a bag of feet”. I also like to take anodyne sentences from learning materials and see if I can alter them to mean something risqué.

9) Use native speakers wisely. Being a native speaker of a language does not make one a competent language teacher. If your target language has native speakers, and you have access to such speakers, then certain questions may elicit more productive answers than others. "What does this word mean?" may earn you a less revealing answer than "what does this sentence mean?" 


  1. Any plans to learn Japanese? You seem to have many major and minor poetic traditions in your poetry blog with the exception of Japanese. I'd be interested to read your thoughts on their poetic forms.