Reading in a Foreign Language: 3 Neuroscience Hacks to Better Learning

Reading in a foreign language is more effective these these brain tricks

Author and founder

Reading in a foreign language is not that simple as it sounds. On initial stages, your target language literally stands between you and the book, making it hard, boring and incomrehensible. But there’s a way to make your reading task easier and actually more effective.

That’s exactly what I’m going to share with you today: three neuroscience tricks that will help you to improve your language skills by reading foreign books.

Trick #1: Multisensory learning and reading in a foreign language

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Should you have read Brain Rules, you would discover that your brain adores having more than one input type. When learning something new, your brain relies on every single sense available: from visual information to audible input, to smells. And the more senses are involved in recording information, the more effective your learning would be.

Moreover, according to visual dominance hypophysis, you actually remember pictures better than text. And if you wonder why, here’s the explanation: for your brain, a text is just a sequence of pictures with every single letter representing one. And things get even worse when you’re reading in a foreign language, as now your brain has to do an extra effort to reconstruct words out of all these new letterforms. To put it all together, to facilitate text comprehension and vocabulary learning you need to add an additional input type. For example, support text with correlating pictures or get an audio track of your book.

Do you see, where am I leaning?

How to implement multisensory learning:

1. Read comic books or manga

As you can guess, even if you don’t know a single word in your new comic book, you’re still fine. Why? Because you’ll be able to guess what’s going on in the story by scrutinizing pictures on each page. Second, comics contain a far lesser amount of words than a book that makes them better material for beginners. Even if you have to translate half of the words on a page, it still a manageable task which is not the case for books.

And if you’re learning Japanese, the opportunity of reading manga in the original Japanese version was probably one of your initial (and major) drivers for learning this language. So do it and have fun.

2. Listen to bilingual audiobooks with Beelinguapp

If you didn’t hear about Beelinguapp I highly recommend you to check it and get it on your phone because you won’t find a better language learning tool for beginners. Plus, it’s probably the only case when you can fearlessly immerse yourself in reading in foreign language from the day one.

Beelinguapp offers short (or not really short: it depends on the difficulty level you choose) text+audio stories in your target language with your native language subtitles. So you have a translation for every sentence you read which obviously helps to follow the story without consulting Le Petit Robert or Diccionario de la Lengua Espanola every minute. Plus, with a single click, you can listen to a given sentence, so you actually acquire the basics of pronunciation in the meantime.

Trick #2: Repeated Reading in a foreign language

Repeated reading…hmmm… that sounds boring, doesn’t it?

Well, yeah. If it’s your 6th time of going through a newspaper article about global warming or another tweet of our beloved American president. However, if you’re rereading your favorite novel, it’s far from being the case.

Moreover, your gains from applying this strategy are indisputable. The more times you reread the same material, the more vocabulary you learn. Every portion of new words serves as a fundament for learning the next one. You actually end up spending less and less energy on recognizing already familiar words and come to the point when it happens automatically. And this automaticity here is the synonym for fluency. That’s exactly what distinguishes reading in a foreign language from reading in your native tongue.

And… yeah! There’s a boatload of new vocabulary in any book, should you read it for the first or for the tenth time.

How to implement repeated reading in your language learning plan:

3. Read a book you have already read in your native language

That’s actually my favorite approach to reading since my “to reread” list is ever-expanding.

Getting hands on my favorite books in my [currently] target language is like killing two birds with one stone. First of all, I obviously enjoy each line since I already like the novel. Second, even if I don’t know a certain word the prior knowledge of the plot helps me to guess it without addressing a dictionary. Third, if I reread a non-fiction, well, it lets me refresh all this potentially useful stuff in my head.

Even if you don’t remember all the details, prior knowledge can be a huge asset when reading in a foreign language. It triggers your intuition and helps you to build on the context. And learning vocabulary in the context is probably the most brain-friendly approach to gainining vocabulary base in general.

4. Reread the same book twice in your target language

This is actually exactly what Kato Lomb used to do to learn a language.

Once you are done reading your book in a foreign language, you close it, turn it around – and start over, from the page one. As it’s been already said, you want to choose a really interesting literature to make the task less boring.

Consider grabbing Agatha Christi’s books, stories of Sherlock Holmes or recent bestsellers: you really need a page-turner.

Trick #3: Narrow reading in a foreign language

You must be familiar with the usual classroom approach to learning a language. They provide you with a huge variety of topics and make you jump from “buying groceries“, to “asking directions“, to “in a restaurant“. The goal is to expose you to the widest vocabulary range possible.

And, apparently, it doesn’t really work well.

With this kind of reading in a foreign language, your brain simply doesn’t have enough time to build a strong vocabulary core for each of these domains. As a consequence, you end up knowing close nothing since you can’t recall a word when need it.

Narrow reading represents the reversive strategy. Instead of jumping from one subject to another you read books on the same topic, or the books of the same author, or the books of the same genre. This approach allows you to work not only on the width of your vocabulary but also on its depth.

How to do narrow reading in a foreign language:

5. Read children’s books series

Have you ever considered the idea of learning a language by reading Harry Potter?

It was actually a whole new perspective for me, when I learned it from Olivier Roland. And there are several reasons why Harry Potter can be awesome for your language learning:

  • It’s a huge serial, that’s one thing. Eight books will offer you a plenty of long and enjoyable hours of reading.
  • These books are interesting (there’s a reason why half of the world is crazy about Harry Potter).
  • The difficulty of vocabulary increases as the hero grows up: so you start with easy words and consequently develop your vocabulary with each new book.

I wouldn’t stop on Harry Potter, though. You can pick up literally any children book series whether its Percy Jackson, or Hunger Games, or The Chronicles of Narnia, and it will help you to achieve the same results as the J.K.Rowling’s masterpiece. And since these books are so popular among children around the world, they are translated in a whole bunch of languages.

6. Read your favorite author

Here, you can actually combine repeated reading in a foreign language with narrow reading.

For example, let’s say you’re into reading detective novels. Something like Red Dragon and its sequel The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harriss, eh? By default, you’ll learn a lot of crime-related stuff, there’s no questions about it. However, a thriller novel is not a just general service list of the 2000-must-known-words for serial killers. It’s a story, above all, so there’s a huge amount of vocabulary for your daily needs. Moreover, since both books were written by one hand, you’ll quickly learn Harriss’s writing style and will get used to his word choice.

As a consequence, again, it will offer you a larger context for guessing new words in his subsequent novels and plenty of opportunities to repeat the words you’ve already discovered.

7. Read about your hobby or interest

This is where all the heavy-lifting actually starts.

When you achieve a high proficiency level in your target language, consider moving towards more serious literature: non-fiction. It will not help you to gain a richer vocabulary as with reading novels. But this is a good way to develop your competence in one or more fields of knowledge while still working on your language skills.

The more one reads in one area, the more one learns about the area, and the easier one finds subsequent reading in the area (and the more one acquires of the language).

S.Krashen, The Case for Narrow Reading

For example, I turned French in a source language for everything-business-and-finance-related. I’ve read books by Olivier Seban, Robert Kiyosaki, Olivier Roland in French and it helped to enlarge my vocab and go more in depth in this area of knowledge.

The easiest way of applying this strategy would be subscribing to a specific magazine: Extreme Sports Magazine, Real Fishing, Bike Mag… But you need to do some good background research to come up with a long and yummy “to read” list because many good resources may simply be not translated in your target language.

I hope these three brain-friendly techniques will help you to find your personal way of how to make reading in a foreign language more enjoyable. And whether you’ve decided to read a comic book or go with a non-fiction, remember two golden rules: put down the book if it’s too hard or boring and find something interesting instead. And, oh, yeah, you don’t have to read 8 books of Harry Potter if you’re not particularly excited about it :)

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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