Intensive? Extensive? What Kind of Reading Is Right For Me?

With so much talk recently about speaking, listening and writing, my old friend reading was starting to get a complex. Well, if you are a fan of reading (like myself), this is the post for you. I’m going to talk about a few ways to use reading to boost vocabulary, grammar, and even motivation. As usual, I am going to preface this post with a disclaimer that the information contained in this blog is what works for me. One size does not fit all, but I honestly believe that anyone can find something in this post to help them with their language quest.

Intensive Reading

Intensive reading (also called active reading) is when you read a text to understand it in it’s entirety. This involves looking up any unknown words in a dictionary as well as checking any unknown grammatical features in a grammar reference. Intensive reading takes TIME. Lots of time. The idea with intensive reading is to know everything that’s going on in a sentence before moving onto the next one.

When should I start intensive reading?
Intensive reading is best done at a fairly early stage. In fact, it can even be done right away when beginning a language, although it would probably be a bit more fun and slightly more bearable if you had a couple hundred words and a little bit of basic grammar. David Snopek, of actually learned Polish by intensively reading Harry Potter with only a year of classroom polish grammar and almost no vocabulary. There is really no time like the present to get started with intensive reading.

What does intensive reading do for me?

Intensive reading can do several things for you:

1. Vocabulary building. Combining intensive reading with flash cards is a great way to build vocabulary. The key is to not make flash cards for EVERY SINGLE WORD. Use your judgement. Maybe words like “antagonistic” or “dirigible” aren’t the best use of valuable flash card space and review time. If you don’t think you will use a word in conversation, don’t make a card for it.

2. Sentence structure. As you read intensively through a book, you will start to see patterns and structures emerge, especially if you are looking up unfamiliar structures in a grammar reference. These patterns will start to really penetrate into your subconscious and before you know it, reproducing similar structures will start to come naturally. This does require a substantial amount of material to really start to see this kind of benefit in full. Don’t expect to intensively read a couple pages from a novel and all of a sudden feel right at home with grammar patterns. This works, but it takes a lot of effort.

3. Building up idiomatic “chunks”. There will be sentences you come across that just don’t make sense. You look up every word, you find the grammar pattern, but it still just doesn’t make any sense. Chances are you’ve stumbled upon an idiom. Sometimes the only way to make sense of these elusive little buggers is to look them up in Google or to ask a native speaker. They can be very perplexing. At the same time, they are pure gold as far as conversational tools go. Each idiom you absorb is a step closer to sounding like a native speaker (assuming you aren’t taking your idioms from 18th century religious manuscripts or something of the like). One thing you should find out before committing a new idiom to memory is how common (or potentially outdated) it is. Again, Google or a native speaker would be your best ways to figure this out.

Tips for Reading Intensively

Pick materials that interest you. Intensive reading is a slow process by design. If you are reading something that doesn’t really grab your attention and make you want to continue, then you will come to dread the intensive reading portion of your study plan.Pick materials that are above your level. If you know 2000+ words and the most common grammar patterns, don’t pick an “easy reader” kids book. Pick something that will challenge you.

Pick something relevant to your language goals. If your goal is to be conversational and talk about everyday things with natives, don’t intensively read a historical treatise of medieval castle-building. You won’t get much relevant vocabulary out of it. However, if you are studying to be able to give a presentation on medieval castle-building, then you will be right on target. Just remember, even if it interests you, it may not fit in with your overall language goals.

Don’t be afraid to toss in some audio (if you have it). If you have the audio, you can use it even in intensive reading situations. Listen to a paragraph a few times and then dig into the unknown words and grammar. Once you’ve worked it all out, listen to that paragraph again (and again). Anytime is a good time to practice listening.

Extensive Reading

Extensive reading is when you read a text with the goal of not necessarily understanding every word, but to maintain a “flow” or momentum through the text. The ultimate goal of extensive reading is quantity over quality. Pure exposure to as much volume as possible is the goal here. Comprehension is still a factor, but FULL comprehension of every word is not a requirement. Extensive reading is also often accompanied by audio (extensive listening) as well.

When should I start extensive reading?

Extensive reading is typically reserved for the intermediate/advanced stages of language learning. Vocabulary and grammar structures should be built up to a decent level through intensive reading (and other methods) before extensive reading would prove to be of much use. Of course, with graded readers and potentially some children’s books, extensive reading could be done a bit earlier. My rule of thumb for extensive reading is 90%+ comprehension of the material. Any less than that and you are missing (or looking up) more than 1 word in 10. That is not what extensive reading is all about.

What does extensive reading do for me?

Extensive reading is all about one thing: Exposure. Sheer exposure to the language in mass quantity is the goal here. Grammar and vocabulary will be reinforced through repetition. Reading speed will continue to build. It will also develop your ability to identify new words through context (a fancy way of saying you will become a better guesser). If you are using audio as well, then you are doubling your exposure and working on 2 very important skills at once.

Tips for Reading Extensively

(repeat alert!) Pick something interesting. Just like with intensive reading, you need to find something enjoyable to read or you will not make it very long. Extensive reading is basically what you do in your native language for fun. Why should it be any different in your target language?

Pick something slightly above, but very close to your level. If you have less than 90% comprehension, then you are basically doing intensive reading anyway (or you will miss an unacceptable number of details).

Try not to look things up. This can be tough and every once in awhile, you just ay have to check a dictionary to make sure you understand something critical. Remember, one of the skills we are building here is guessing words based on context. We are also more concerned with main ideas and flow than with understanding every detail.

Flow is key. For me, extensive reading is all about pace. My goal is to get into the “reading zone” where I’m not translating, I’m not nit-picking every word, but instead I’m just riding the wave. This is another reason that I like using audio. The reader sets the pace and it’s up to me to match it.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, not all reading was created equal. My Dad always told me “use the right tool for the job” and I think it applies here. I think reading is an important part of every language learning routine, however I caution you to not make it TOO important. Reading is easy because you can do it by yourself, in bed, with less effort than speaking with a partner, listening to pure audio, or writing a journal. Balance is the key. Don’t neglect any aspects of your language learning. Use them together and before you know it, you’ll be right where you want to be.

How do you incorporate reading into your daily routine? Let me know in the comments.

How To Think In Your Target Language – Part 2

What Can I Do To Start Thinking in My Target Language?

You can start using these exercises really at any time. They are probably most beneficial at the A2 level, but even an A1 should see some benefits. Keeping in mind that this is a marathon not a sprint, here are my recommendations for learning to think in your target language:

1. Choose a “language personality”. This may sound weird, but language really can have a subtle effect on how you think and how you view the world. Many multilinguals actually report feeling like a different person depending on the language they are speaking (and thinking in).

I am a firm believer in this step because it is a way for you to start to condition your brain to switch over to another language. The key is to really “feel” the personality that you have established for that language and completely immerse yourself in it. “Become” that personality.

I find it very helpful in the beginning stages of a language to close my eyes and focus on the traits of the personality I chose for my new language. I even choose a “mantra” to repeat either out loud or in my head while I focus on this new personality. This mantra is just a basic phrase from the language that helps me hold the language in my head while I concentrate.

Ultimately, I have found that this conditioning makes it easy (down the road of course) to switch between languages just by switching personalities in my head. These “other personalities” become mental triggers that will signal to your brain what language to think in. It works.

2. Focused practice sessions. Admittedly, this is a very difficult exercise at first, but if you stick with it, it does get easier and is the best way to get used to thinking in another language.

To start, set aside 5-10 minutes 2-3 times a day. During these small practice sessions, you will focus on thinking entirely in your target language (TL). Some things you could do:
Narrate a story in your head entirely in that TL.
Describe how you are feeling (hungry, thirsty, tired, etc).
Make a list of all the things you have to do today.
Describe your surroundings.

The key is to make sure you are focusing entirely on the TL and not translating in your head. If you notice your native language creeping in, blast it out with your TL. You are conditioning your brain here. It is not easy. This can be very mentally taxing which is why the sessions are so short to begin with. As they get easier, you will extend the session times.

Once your session is over, quickly jot down a list of words that you were missing from the exercise and look them up. Make an effort to use them in your next session. As your vocabulary grows, the practice sessions will become much easier (and longer).

3. Free-writing. Get a notebook and set aside 10-20 minutes a day to practice free-writing. With free writing, you just start writing. Don’t pause to get the grammar exact or to check the spelling of a word, just write as quickly as you can think. Yes, you will make mistakes. Yes, your writing may not even make sense. But it will get better with practice.

The purpose of this exercise is to force your mind to start putting the pieces together more quickly. Your mind can rattle off sentences in your native language at a million miles an hour (that is probably not an accurate number, but you get the idea). What we are trying to do here is get your brain used to doing the same thing with your TL. We are trying to build automaticity.

After your free-writing session, take a few minutes to review what you wrote. Make some corrections to the gross errors and make a note of words or phrases that you could not think of while writing and add them to your vocab list (or ANKI, Memrise, etc).

4. The “Minute Self-Talk Exercise”. Stand in front of a mirror or record yourself. Pick a topic. Take a few minutes (15-20) and gather any vocabulary you may be missing. Now, set a timer and start talking. Don’t stop talking. If you hesitate for more than a second or two, stop the timer and start over. The goal is a full minute. Once you get comfortable with that, try two or three minutes. Move to five minutes. Switch topics midway for an extra challenge. The object is more about maintaining a steady flow rather than using big words or odd grammar. In this exercise it’s more important to keep talking than to make sense. With practice, this will get easier.

You may recognize this from my previous post, Tips for developing fluency early. I have reproduced it here because in addition to helping with verbal fluidity, it also helps build automaticity (which is a key to thinking in your TL).

5. Drills, drills, drills. I’m going to admit it. This one can be pretty boring, but nothing produces automaticity like sentence drills. Rather than take up the time and space with what could be a full post in and of itself, I will direct you to the following articles to get an idea of how drills work and what you can do with them:
Structure Drills
Substitution Drills

Drilling is not 100% necessary to learn to think in your TL, but I have found that it helps me get there a bit quicker. If you don’t like drills, by all means don’t do them.

Other Tips And TricksLabel the things in your house with stickers or sticky notes. I know this isn’t new or innovative, but it helps.If you use flashcards, use pictures (Google images is great for this) rather than translations. This methods works best with nouns, but some simple verbs lend themselves to picture flashcards as well.When doing any of the practice methods I mentioned above, don’t sweat grammar as much. It’s more important to stay in the TL than it is to stress about perfect grammar. You don’t think in complete sentences in your native language, who says you have to in your TL? The important thing is to keep thinking, keep moving, and keep practicing.Music, movies, TV, and books in your TL are great for simulating an immersion experience. Even having something on in the background is better than nothing. The more exposure we have to a language, the closer we get to it.

Parting Words

So, there you have it. That sums up about everything I know about learning to think in another language. I have used the techniques above and they work (for me at least). You won’t start thinking in your TL right away, but when you do, it will be effortless, automatic, and a beautiful feeling.

Let me know in the comments if you have any additional techniques that you use to think in your TL. I’m always learning and I love to hear about new ideas!

If you liked this post, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, and/or Google+. Thanks in advance!

How To Think In Your Target Language – Part 1

How to “think” in a foreign language is one of the most asked (and therefore most blogged about) questions in language learning. So, if there’s so much out there, why do I feel the need to write about it here? Do I have anything new to add? I feel like I do.

To prepare for this post, I googled “how to think in a foreign language” and browsed the top 10-15 results. I wanted to make sure I really DID have something fresh and/or different when it came to this important topic. Turns out, most everything I found centered around the same two or three bits of advice. Now, I certainly agree with those bits, but I don’t think anything I read told the whole story. I feel like most of the articles out there are filling space with the same regurgitated (and limited) advice. I think there’s more to the story than what’s out there, and I intend for this to be THE definitive guide to learning to think in your target language.

What is “Thinking in a Foreign Language”?

This is kind of a controversial question. I have seen two different sides of this debate and I will attempt to briefly touch on both:

1. “We don’t technically ‘think’ in any language” – This opinion is more prevalent in academic and scientific circles than in the mainstream language learning community. The argument here is that thoughts aren’t actually in any language, they are merely neural transmissions and firing synapses (forgive my obvious lack of specialized brain cell terminology). Technically, though you may “think” that you are thinking in your native language, you brain is simply making decisions based on all available input (visual, auditory, olfactory, etc) and not relying on language at all. It feels like you are thinking in a language, but in reality you are not.

2. “We do ‘think’ in a language because I can hear words in my head when I think.” – This is the opinion espoused most in the general language learning community. The most common definition I have heard about “thinking in a foreign language” is when people feel like they are finally hearing words in the target language in their heads rather than their native language.

Ok, so who’s right? In my opinion (and the basis of this post) is that they both are. “Technically”, we don’t think in language. There is enough scientific evidence to back this up, that it is pointless to dispute it. After all, babies still “think” before they have a language to “think in”. However, perception is reality, and because we cannot really understand what our brains are doing at a cellular level, our minds perceive this “language in our heads” as a way to explain to ourselves why we made or are about to make certain decisions.

Who cares, right? Well, I think it’s important to establish what exactly this post is going to try to help you do. If we don’t actually “think” in languages, what the heck am I going to fill the rest of this post with? Glad you asked:

For the purpose of this post, I will define “thinking in language X” as:

So, basically, if you can “hear” the target language in your head and you can produce speech in the target language without undue hesitation, then you’ve got it. Now, the speech you produce doesn’t necessarily have to be grammatically correct or even come close to native speech. That would define “fluency”. No, the idea here is that you are able to produce “something” that makes sense in a communicative capacity with automaticity and without translation while keeping your thoughts and inner voice in the target language. This that magic stage where you think of the word “pomme” and you picture an actual apple rather than the English word “apple”.

Why learn to think in your target language?

Now that the really nerdy part is out of the way, we can get to the good stuff, namely the benefits of learning to think in your target language:

1. Conversion of passive vocabulary to active vocabulary. Your inner monologue will, of course, need words. Therefore, you will have to continuously pick your brain for vocabulary that you know passively and it will in turn force you to use it actively. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, passive vocabulary includes those words that you understand when listening or reading, but you do not “actively” use them in your speaking and writing.

2. Quicker vocabulary and grammar acquisition. You will obviously need to look up new words and grammar points as you try to think of something but can’t come up with the word or sentence structure to use. I have found that these words stick much better in my head because of the “need”. When you need a word to express something, it is much more likely to be retained than if you try to learn the word just because you got it from a word list but don’t have any real immediate need for it.

3. Build automaticity in your speech and your listening comprehension. The more you train yourself to think in your target language, the more automatic the language will become for you and the less you will rely on translation. This will help you both in speaking and in processing language spoken to you.

4. Motivation. Thinking in your target language is the “holy grail” of language learning. It is when the switch flips and you finally get that feeling that this is what you’ve been working towards. It’s not the end of the journey, but it’s a beautiful landmark that you will never forget. For me, nothing boosts my motivation like reaching this step. Even in the beginning, when you may be struggling, but you get that glimpse of it even if it is just for a minute or two.

Still with me? Check out Part 2 of How To Think In Your Target Language!

Tips for Developing Fluency Early

I know, I know. I used the F word. Well, for the remainder of this post, I’m defining fluency as fluidity of verbal speech. I am not defining any level of competency or functionality, just the ability to speak at a fluid, even, and unbroken pace. Therefore, the purpose of this post will be to help you develop a natural, easy, and fluent-sounding speech pattern in your target language early in the learning process.

Before I jump into the post, I’d like to share the reason that I feel like this is an important piece of the language learning puzzle. Two and a half years ago, when I started learning German, I hit the books and flashcards hard. Within three months I had memorized over 1000 words and could recite lots of obscure German grammar points. By six months, I was over 2000 words and could write large paragraphs with good speed and accuracy. I could also “kind of” hold a conversation… My speaking was ok. I could say anything I wanted to and get my point across with no problems. I wasn’t lacking vocabulary, grammar or pronunciation. My problem was my “fluency”. I stopped and started and “ummm”ed and stuttered and stammered and basically sounded uncomfortable speaking the language. Fortunately, I was able to overcome these issues in the following months and would say I’m pretty comfortable with my oral abilities these days.

What follows are some tips I’ve picked up that really work for me. Hopefully you find some gems among them:

1. Study sentences rather than words in isolation. Sentences are more interesting to me AND every sentence will give you not only vocabulary, but at least some bit of grammar as well. I find that the more I study sentences, the more quickly I am able to pull out just the right phrase at just the right time.
2. Read out loud in your target language from the beginning. As much as possible. Are you studying words? Read them out loud. Are you drilling sentences? Read them out loud. Are you reading from a grammar textbook? Read all of the target language material out loud. Listening to music? Sing out loud. Listening to Pimsleur or Learn in your Car? Repeat out loud. This helps build muscle memory in your mouth and vocal chords as well as building connections with your brain from repetition. The more used to speaking in a language you are, the easier it is to speak when the time comes.
3. Memorize frequently used “chunks” of language. These chunks are also commonly referred to as “islands”, “canned conversation” or “scripting”. This tip itself could take its own entire blog post (and may in the future) but I will try to give the reader’s digest version. Basically, this technique involves learning a selection of pre-scripted conversations that you can pull out when you need to in order to give yourself time to think or if you need a confidence booster. For example: One of the most common chunks most people should learn right away is the “self-introduction” chunk. This could be something like:

“My name is Bill and I’m from Colorado in the United States. I’m 38 years old, married, and I have 3 children. I work as a Project Manager for a large lighting manufacturer. My hobbies include: Learning languages, playing golf, and camping.”

The idea is that I would drill this paragraph over and over out loud until I could say it without stumbling, hesitating or pausing. Then, when I was out meeting with other speakers, I would have a nice, fluid, accurate, and relaxing self-introduction to fall back on. Picture the confidence boost you’ll get as you notice how impressed everyone is by your casual display of fluent speaking. Now, THAT is the way to start a conversation, right? Now, just imagine if you has 20 or 30 of those chunks available to you for most of your favorite conversation topics. Now you see where I’m going with this, right? And no, this isn’t “cheating”. This is setting the stage for you to showcase your language skills confidently in a comfortable environment that you have helped set up for yourself.
4. The “Minute Self-Talk Exercise”. Stand in front of a mirror or record yourself. Pick a topic. Take a few minutes (15-20) and gather any vocabulary you may be missing. Now, set a timer and start talking. Don’t stop talking. If you hesitate for more than a second or two, stop the timer and start over. The goal is a full minute. Once you get comfortable with that, try two or three minutes. Move to five minutes. Switch topics midway for an extra challenge. The object is more about maintaining a steady flow rather than using big words or odd grammar. In this exercise it’s more important to keep talking than to make sense. With practice, this will get easier.
5. Learn some conversational connectors. Benny Lewis has an excellent blog post here on the value of conversational connectors. I’m going to touch on them here as well. Basically, conversational connectors are the words and mini-phrases that natives so often use to spice up their conversations. They are things like: “That’s an excellent point.”, “on one hand,”, “as far as I’m concerned”, “all joking aside”, “the way I see it”, etc… I think you get the idea. These are very nice to not only spice up a conversation, but also to give you a second extra to think of the next word or phrase you want to say. Kind of a verbal stall tactic. Very handy.
6. Shadowing- A technique coined by Professor Alexander Arguelles. A step-by-step guide can be found here . Basically, you listen to target language audio and talk aloud to it as closely as you can, trying to speak as soon as you register the sound from the audio. This can be done either by reading along, or by “blind shadowing” without any text. This type of exercise gets you used to speaking at native speeds and prosody as well as developing muscle memory.
7. Talk more. This is the obvious one. Get out and speak with natives or at least other intermediate/advanced speakers. The more you do it the more comfortable you will become.

Well, that about does it for this one. Hopefully you found something useful to take from this. Do you have any more tips for fluent speech? Let me know in the comments. Until next time, thanks for reading.