Why I’m learning to read Russian and NOT speak it.

How reading improves our chances of second language acquisition.

I got in a bit of an argument the other day with one of my advanced ESL students when I told him that I was learning to read Russian.

“What?!” He exclaimed, “ But that goes against everything you say about learning English!”

“How so?”’ I asked, getting a little defensive.

“Well” he said “You always say how important it is to “Think like a baby”, but you are READING Russian!? How is that thinking like a baby? You are breaking your own rules!”

He had me stumped, I couldn’t answer. Well I tried to, but we were running out of time as I had another lesson after him, so we left the lesson on a bit of a down note. I have a feeling he felt a bit disappointed by me. It was an interesting question though. He caught me out, or rather he caught me right at the end of the lesson and I didn’t have time to explain. I figured my explanation might be worth sharing, so here it is.

The explanation
I’ve not had much time to interpret into writing what I’ve been reading recently about language acquisition. Yes I’ve written my short e-book: 5 steps for Easier English which my students adhere to religiously, but, I’m reading and researching more and I have more to add, much more!

I’ve recently been reading up on how polyglots acquire so many languages. One thing that is common among them is how much they receive language rather than produce it. (Receiving means listening and reading. Producing means speaking and writing.) Many famous polyglots use reading as the main way to learn a new language. The famous Kato Lomb said in her book:

“We should read because it is books that provide knowledge in the most interesting way, and it is a fundamental truth of human nature to seek the pleasant and avoid the unpleasant. The traditional way of learning a language (cramming 20–30 words a day and digesting the grammar supplied by a teacher or course book) may satisfy at most one’s sense of duty, but it can hardly serve as a source of joy. Nor will it likely be successful.”
Polyglot: How I learn languages
http://www.tesl-ej.org/books/lomb-2nd-Ed.pdf

Wikipedia explains how she used novels to learn new language.

“ …she was bored with the fabricated dialogues of coursebooks, so her favourite method was to obtain an original novel in a language completely unknown to her, whose topic she personally found interesting (a detective story, a love story, or even a technical description would do), and that was how she deciphered, unravelled the basics of the language: the essence of the grammar and the most important words.”
Wikipedia
 
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kat%C3%B3_Lomb

Steve Kauffman; Polyglot and co-founder of LingQ insists that reading and listening are THE most important skills in acquiring language as he explains in this blog post:

http://blog.thelinguist.com/effective-language-learning-listening-and-reading

Just as Stephen Krashen, world renowned linguist says:

“We acquire language when we understand what we hear and read, when we understand what people are saying to us, not how they say it.”
“People acquiring a second language have the best chance for success through reading.”

And:

“Reading is the most powerful tool we have in language education.”

Here’s a video of the amazing Steven Krashen explaining his theories on language acquisition and reading.

http://ed.ted.com/on/Qc4uzO6n

So I decided to learn ONLY to read Russian, for two reasons:

1. Because at the moment reading Russian is all I have time for. It actually only took me 8 hours to learn to the Russian alphabet and phonemes using this amazing free resource.

http://www.russianforfree.com/lessons-how-to-read-in-russian-01.php

So now my task it to keep reading to build vocabulary, and so I don’t forget the sounds the letters make. A lot of the time, due to my existing knowledge of French, I can figure out what the word means, or I can use google translate. Google translate is great because it plays back the word so I can see if I figured out how to pronounce it.

2. Because I admire the theories of Stephen Krashen. I’m already using them in my teaching to great effect and I’d like to bring them to my own learning. Stephen Krashen talks avidly about the need for students to understand the language they are receiving. If I can read Russian, watching movies with Russian subtitles will be easier, the faux immersion process will be easier and I’m also guessing that if I had Russian lessons they would be easier too.

My false beginner students, who are Chinese and Russian, can already read basic words and sentences in English. So teaching them is a whole lot easier because they already have that knowledge. Comprehensible input techniques are much easier to teach using words and images. I can write down all their new vocabulary without having to teach them how to read it first! They can then take away my notes and do whatever they want with them.

I have Russian language learning plan…
 
I’ve created a Russian learning plan. It’s not set in stone and I expect it so span several years.

  1. Learn to read the Russian alphabet (already achieved)
  2. Learn to read simple words and sentences (currently working on)
  3. Understand sentences and even paragraphs of text.
  4. Start listening to Russian (in 1 years time).
  5. Start speaking Russian (in 2 years time).

I have no plan to actually start speaking Russian until two years time (if ever)! Once I feel confident with my reading I’ll take a step back and start thinking like a baby, but as an adult I can utilise extra INPUT. Where we lack in natural ability we gain in input skills.

So why is reading so important? And how does it work with “thinking like a baby.”
Babies learn everything they need to know through listening and watching their parents. As adults, not only can we watch and listen to people but we can also read. We have an extra receptive skill: reading.

Babies, are more receptive by nature so they don’t need this skill. I could argue that adults, in some situations, don’t need to be able to read their target language either. It depends on their goals. But to acquire language we do need to understand messages. Babies understand the messages by listening to the tone in our voices, the expression on our faces and watching our actions. As adults we are not so lucky. We don’t have a target language mum or dad talking to us in simple talk all day. So, if reading helps us to understand the messages then surely it’s a skill not to be ignored?

This doesn’t mean you should rely on reading all the time.
There’s nothing wrong with using L2 subtitles to understand a movie better, but you have to mix it up. IF speaking is your main goal you need to be listening to your target language too. You can’t rely on reading along with listening because the real world doesn’t have subtitles.

If reading is your only goal, then do it! Read read read! One day if you ever decided to learn to speak it, you’ll have a huge basic knowledge and vocabulary, then you can change your main input to listening. Once you start listening, the speaking will come easier.

Listening or reading without understanding gets you nowhere.
I remember I had a weeks worth of French immersion lessons, and I learnt nothing. All the teacher did was talk AT me in French at an advanced level (I was a false beginner at the time). She didn’t use any flash cards, imagery or mime. I came away after that week and the ONLY thing I had learnt was how to say “Parce que.” I remembered it so well because a student who was sitting next to me said it all the time, and I figured it out from the context.

As much as it’s not much fun sitting in a language class not being able to understand anything, it’s not much fun reading a book without understanding it, and the same goes for movies or podcasts. Yes listening passively is important to get a feel for the language, to understand the tones, rhythms and help with accent. But what really helps us to learn is to actively listen, understand or at least pay attention to what we are hearing. Transcripts are perfect when you are in that stage where all the words run into one another. They help you to “hear” the words. Transcripts are also great if the language you are learning uses the same alphabet as your native language. But when it doesn’t? Well that’s when it’s pretty important to learn to read the new alphabet.

I improved my French level tremendously by listening to “News In Slow French”, where they speak slow enough for me to be able to decipher each word and they give a transcript to help me follow the conversation. This method of reading and listening at the same time helped me to understand French more than if I had just listened passively. So in this situation my ability to read is what really gave me the advantage I needed. Imagine if I couldn’t read English? How much harder would it have been to learn French?

Modern linguists like Krashen are saying that production of language (ie speaking) doesn’t really help you LEARN the language. It’s the input that helps you learn and the output that proves what you have learnt. A good teacher will teach in such a way that she/he is giving you input and helping you understand the message without taking you out of your immersion experience. The lesson should be a good mix of producing and receiving language, with an emphasis on production. Your spare time should be spent receiving language. The more language you receive the more you can produce.

Final note:
I love language methods that emphasise speaking. There’s nothing worse than a lesson where the teacher does all the talking then makes you read something and fill in a gap fill questionnaire. I’m absolutely not suggesting you spend valuable lesson time reading. What I am suggesting is the more language you can receive, the better, so when you’re not in class with your great teacher who gets you talking effortlessly, you should be listening AND reading.

This article can be listened to in more detail over at soundcloud.com.

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Originally published at lovelearningenglish.com on May 27, 2016.