21 century: Is it still possible to learn a language by reading?

There’s a link between reading and language skills. And this link is so strong that many 20th century polyglots were able to learn a language by reading books, whether they had previous knowledge of their target language or started from the zero.

The problem is that this technique, perfectly working for our kind a hundred year ago, will significantly slow your progress down should you apply it nowadays.

Let’s see why.

How to learn 27 languages by reading: The story of Kato Lomb

Kato Lomb is the inspiration for polyglots all around the world.

Born in Hungary, she learned over 27 languages throughout her life – all by herself. Sixteen of them helped her to earn her living. As a translator, simultaneous interpreter, and journalist, she easily switched between Hungarian, English, French, Russian, and German, could translate Japanese, Mandarin, Italian, Spanish, and Polish after half-an-hour of “brushing up her language skills” and easily dealt with technical texts in Bulgarian, Danish, Hebrew, Latin, Romanian, Slovak, and Ukranian. Other eleven languages, as she mentioned in her book “Polyglot: How I Learn Languages“, simply gave her a pleasure of reading.


Learning languages by reading was the favorite strategy of Kato Lomb. With an eager desire to become an English teacher (while she had a zero knowledge of this language), she attacked English with a single random book and a dictionary:

I started by intensively studying a novel by Galsworthy. Within a week, I was intuiting the text; after a month, I understood it; and after two months, I was having fun with it

Kato Lomb, Polyglot: How I Learn Languages

Later, with the same passion she studied Russian novels: from classics (that she couldn’t tackle at the time), to sentimental love novels, to “Dead Souls” by Gogol. Later, she repeated her book immersion with Romanian, German, Japanese and many other languages from her repertoire.

4 rules of Kato Lomb: how to learn a language by reading a book

That’s insanely inspiring to read about Kato Lomb experience in Polyglot. But what is even more striking, it is her unique approach to reading a book in a foreign language. Books were her teachers from the day one when she didn’t even know a single word. They helped her to improve each of her language skills: from vocabulary acquisition to the understanding of grammar.

She grasped the meaning of new words from the context and figured out the major grammatical construction from the sentences in the book. She never allowed difficult constructions to frighten her – she would simply skip them, assuming that the meaning would become clear sooner or later on the next pages. And after she turned the last one, Kato Lomb immediately returned to the first and started from the beginning again.

In order to learn a language by reading, she needed hours of uninterrupted concentration and a good deal of willpower mixed with self-belief. She could spend months meticulously working through the same book over and over again.

To summarize her rules:

  1. Start reading in your target language from the very beginning
  2. Deal with grammar on the go: figure it out from the text
  3. Avoid checking dictionary too often: it kills interest and motivation
  4. Read multiple times: it allows consolidate new words in long term memory

And it all sounds good and sane but… there’s something in this method that makes it less effective in 21 century.

Photo by Kate Ilina

[21 century update]: Why you can’t learn a language by reading like Kato Lomb

Kato Lomb wasn’t a single advocate of this learning practice. She quotes
Dezső Kosztolányi who followed the same path to learn Portuguese:

It was a strange game. The first week, I sweated blood. The second, I intuited what it was about. The third week, I greeted the birds in Portuguese, who then chatted with me…

Dezső Kosztolányi

The third week? Isn’t it too much for a single book? Let’s start with the obvious:

We don’t have that much time anymore

Time changed. While in the XX century, they could spend a whole summer on reading the same old book over and over again, I think a few of us can handle rereading a book even twice. And can you imagine spending a summer (3 months of the summer!) simply reading, swimming and playing a ball? No, because with the internet, your work will haunt you wherever you go.

How much time do you think it will take to read a book in a language you don’t know? A week? A month? If you’re on vacation – probably, yes. But if you try to juggle your study, career, business, travel, family, and kids – it will take you months. Remember, that the orifinal Kato Lomb’s method was to learn a language by reading – and by reading alone. So you can’t possibly help yourself with other tools.

We have more resources

Let’s return to Deszo.

Deszo was on vacations and this Portuguese book was his only entertainment and only learning material during his summer. And that’s why learning language by reading was probably the best method at that time. In the XXth century, books in foreign languages were like a gold. They were reliques that are hard to get. So both Kato Lomb and Deszo Kosztolanyi valued their books as their only sources for learning the language that interested them. Now we can access a million of resources in our target language in just a few clicks through the Internet and get them delivered home within the next 24 hours with Amazon.

Now, there’s no need to struggle through lines of foreign words and then look for each of them in 2 volume – 2 kg dictionary. With tools like Readlang, you can simply click on a word and get its translation right on the screen. Worst case scenario, you will have to spend a few more seconds to actually type a word in a mobile dictionary to get the full list of translation with examples.

We value these resources less

If you want to learn a language by reading you have to read – not scan through the book.

And yet, that’s another problem of millennials: we don’t read anymore, we scan the text in search of information. Why? Because there’s so much information and so little time. Thousands of things are fighting for our attention every single minute. Just unlock your phone and you’ll see at least five notifications and from 2 to 27 messages of all kinds. Just step into a language section in your local bookstore and you’ll see at least a dozen books that claim to be the best assets for learning your target language. Even worse, Google something like “how to learn a language” and you’ll open a Pandora’s box with billions of posts on the topic.

Learning material is so easily available that you spend more time trying to figure out what book to read rather than reading it.

We have a decreased ability to focus

Highly demanding cognitive tasks such as language learning by reading or by any other way require high levels of concentration. And the ability to focus becomes more and more rare in our hyperconnected world, while we swiping through our feeds in Facebook, Reddit or Twitter.

I can easily imagine someone like Kato Lomb going through a Russian novel for the fifth time while sitting in a bomb shelter. It’s not to say that it was easy that time; it is to say that there were not so many other things to do anyway. The world was destroyed and, what is more important, there was no internet. Now, put any of us in a bomb shelter and we will be watching what’s going on out there in YouTube.

Now, in order to deliberately study through a book in a foreign language, you will have to cut all distractions. All WhatsApp – FB – Twitter – Reddit -YouTube and whatever is you call your favorite time-killer. Otherwise, the common scenario is: you’re reaching for your phone to translate something from the book and start checking notifications instead.

We are addicted to fast progress

When it comes to learning languages, we want to jump on the higher level within a week or a month. That’s why books like How to Speak Language X in 90 days are so popular. We want to achieve stuff and share these achievements. And what you gonna share if, after three months, you learn a language by reading the same old Le Petit Prince for a third time.

Success in language learning (and in learning any other skill) highly depends on willpower and patience, while many language learners simply go on motivation. The problem here is that motivation is limited: it has a tendency to fall with the time passed if there’s no progress. And in language learning, there’re often long periods of no progress.

Polyglots have been rare both 50 years ago and now. But now information is so close to your fingertips that you don’t even have to search to bump into another video of a teenager speaking 16 languages. This knowledge can be really toxic, especially when you feel like hitting a plateau in your own language learning. The obvious question is why they can and I can’t? And it’s very easy to come to the conclusion that you don’t have talent and give it up.

Updated strategy: 4 steps to really learn a language by reading

Let’s return to Kato Lomb rules and go through each of them while keeping in mind our 21 century problems.

Start reading from the day one -> Learn core vocabulary first

Kato Lomb certainly loved reading but there’s a high chance that she considered it the least boring way to learn new vocabulary. In 20th century.

Now we can quickly gain the lexical base by playing with toys like Memrise, Duolingo or MindSnacks.

And the science actually supports this approach. The recent research by Paul Nation, a specialist in vocabulary acquisition, showed that you need to understand at least 85% of the words in a text to read more or less painlessly. And things made worse, you will need to know 98-99% of words to begin guessing new vocabulary from the context (without checking a dictionary).

It means that learning languages by reading will be more effective if you spend more time reading, not checking a dictionary or trying your deductive skills.

Should you first learn the basic vocabulary of 2000 words (3-4 weeks with Memrise) and it will help you to cover 95% of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Thus, you’ll read and understand your first book in your target language. Here’s your fast progress. And, I’m telling you, you’ll have much more confidence after having it read and understood rather than just having it read as Kato Lomb did.

Read the same book multiple times -> read different books by the same author

There are two reason why Kato Lomb preferred to reread the same book over and over again.

  • It helped her to understand and memorize words better.
  • It was hard to get books in Russian or Mandarin in Hungary of 1940-s.

The more times you encounter a word, the higher chances are that you’ll remember it. Researchers are still in disagreement on how many times you need to see a word in a meaningful context to memorize it. Some indicate the number of 10, some prefer to say 16. Most agree that even more times are required for this word to become accessible in speech.

So reading a book again and again actually does make sense since it ensures that new words are repeated on time.

But let’s agree: reading the book for the second time is not as exciting as reading it for the first.

So there’s another strategy: learn a language by reading books of the same author.

Each person has personal vocabulary: a set of words and expressions that they prefer to use in a certain situation. Thus, reading the same writer you familiarize yourself with their writing style and their vocabulary. It increases your chances to encounter the same words and memorize them better.

Plus, we don’t have a problem with resources anymore. Now, if you want to learn a language by reading, you can simply tape your favorite author in Amazon search, adjust language filter and order their full bibliography in your target language. If it’s translated, of course.

Avoid checking dictionary -> check essential words

Kato Lomb considered that the majority of words in a book are noise. Which is true. But this noise is often essential for understanding what’s going on. Not every person will be able to go blindfolded page after page relying solely on their deductive skills and intuition.

Moreover, with online dictionaries, it’s not such a pain anymore to check a meaning. It literally takes a quick second.

Don't avoid dictionaries when trying to learn a language by reading

However, even a quick second can be very disruptive. From personal experience, I know that checking a single word can lead to reading a whole page in Wikipedia and then watching YouTube on the topic for the next half-an-hour.

So I would recommend you to rely on your good sense. If you can survive without knowing that the exact color of princess dress was turquoise, skip the word and keep reading. However, if the word pops up several times  and you feel like you’re missing something important – go ahead and check it.

Don’t forget to mark the word for future. It will help you know that you’ve already seen it before if you come to check it again.

Figure grammar from the text -> know basics before getting a book

That’s the same thing as with vocabulary.

Words in a sentence can play either semantic or functional role. For example, that “a” in the previous sentence means nothing, it’s just an indefinite article. Words “run-runs-ran-running” are not different in their semantic sence, they are different in form.

And the only reason you need to know these forms is that you can ignore them and better concentrate on the meaning. If you don’t know that être and avoir play functional roles in French you’ll waste a lot of time figuring out what they mean. But, come on, you don’t need to know that bien que je fusse épuisé is subjunctive imperfect. You need to know that you can screw the grammar and check the meaning of only one verb: épuiser to understand the sentence.

Recap: Learning a language by reading

Reading is an amazing way to learn a foreign language.

But now it’s so different from what it used to be fifty years ago. You don’t have to struggle with Tolstoy when you don’t even know Cyrillic alphabet, just because Kato Lomb did so. She didn’t have other options.

Use all resources at hand to quickly gain essential vocabulary. Understand how grammar work at least on the basic level. Pick your favorite book instead of random stuff used by other people. Celebrate your achievement and move to the next challenge instead of forcing yourself to reread the same book.

Be smart, and you will learn a language by reading faster than Kato Lomb and Dezho Kosztolanyi altogether – while having fun!

Author Details
Polyglot, Author and Founder of Linguapath
Hey! I am Alina Kuimova, and my long-lasting obsession with learning languages led to the creation of this site. Apart from being a grammar enthusiast, I enjoy reading smart books in any language available, finding easier ways for the brain to learn things and buffing productivity stats by 180%.
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