The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #6 November / December 2013
Cracking the Code
by Hidson Guimarães
November / December 2013 | 

Reading is usually the first skill you manage to acquire satisfactorily in a foreign language. Even though you might have memorized some key sentences and their expected answers from a phrasebook or from your beginner's textbook, it is much more likely that you will find yourself able to decipher a text in your study language earlier than talking freely to native speakers. This is specially true when you are an aspiring polyglot who learns languages on your own while still living at your native country.

Through whichever angle you may look at the issue, you will find yourself more exposed to the stand-as-is, non-interactive written word than to any other possible communicative contexts. This is still valid for the social networking age, with its videos, webcams and VoIP conversations.

All this to say that being able to read in a foreign language is usually the first joy, the first epiphany, the first feeling of accomplishment you have. 'How do people usually get there', you may ask?

The course prepared me for real situations in Germany, but the inventory of words it covered was still limited.

'It depends' is an automatic answer. In this case, though, it really depends on a main factor: the similarity between the vocabulary of this new language and the one of the language(s) you already know (be it your native languages or others you have learned more or less successfully - every new root that can be associated to a familiar one counts). If this language belongs to your own native language's family, it may take you only a couple of months of study focused on grammatical words - like adverbs, pronouns and irregular verbs, false cognates and different grammar structures for you to read a text in that language with an occasional visit to a dictionary. At least that was my case with Spanish, then French, followed by Italian, as I am a native speaker of Brazilian Portuguese. Sometimes it can even be frustrating that you can understand a text at first sight, but you lack the active skills - that is, I can recognize the word for an ox - buey in Spanish, which is boi in Portuguese, but I would not be able to use this word in context if I had not come across it before.

On the other hand, just move slightly away from your language family's comfort zone where you take 70%-80% of the vocabulary for granted due to lexical similarity and you will face a challenge typical of the masters of cryptography during Cold War times.

Some well-known polyglot online celebrities think that ideally you should start this challenge with native materials - that is, novels, essays, newspapers, magazines written for native speakers with no intention in making it easy for the learners of that language - right from the beginning. I personally find it time-consuming and discouraging to do so. Imagine attempting to read a text in a foreign language you have no previous knowledge of. You have no idea of how the grammar works, and you know barely a word. Even if you have a translation to follow, how are you going to associate one word with the other?

I tend to start with a textbook, and the further the language is to my previous languages, the longer I stick to it. Textbooks, at the least, teach you where to focus, where to start from when there is nearly everything to be learned in a language. You get to learn first things first, and it is usually daily conversational vocabulary. Even if that vocabulary alone - like greetings, asking for directions, talking about the weather - doesn't allow you to read the text, it is nonetheless necessary and it helps you use the language while you still can't understand it. Does it sound contradictory? Well, not really, though there is a period in time when you will have to make choices if your goal is to keep on increasing your vocabulary until you manage to read in the language with little effort.

I will tell you my story with the German language. I started with the course Deutsch:Warum Nicht?, by Deutsche Welle. I became exposed to several hours of audio in the German language. After that course, I thought I would be able to read German newspapers with little difficulty, but that was not the case. The course prepared me for real situations in Germany, but the inventory of words it covered was still limited. I had to find a way to learn vocabulary such as Regierung (government) and Bundesland (state), which is cognate among English and the Romance languages - the linguistic background I am familiar with. So, my German would work well for a tourist, but I would still be somewhat... illiterate.

That is exactly the time when you should proceed to native materials. You already understand the grammar, and you are familiarized with an important core vocabulary. It is a pity when such important abstract words aren't cognates, but you still have to learn them. The good news is that they show up so often that it won't take much time for them to stick. Now, more than ever, it's all a matter of starting.

A woman attempting to read a magazine in another language.

So, if my focus after finishing that course was reading the news, I should have proceeded to trying to read the news. At first, it would be tiresome. Having to look up more than half of the words in a sentence is something that gives the creeps to many language learners. What about knowing each word individually but still being unable to figure out the sentence's meaning, due to lack of practice on topics such as word order? Take it easy then. Start with bilingual sources. Deutsche Welle's website could be a source on its own. Take a story from your native language's page - in my case, Portuguese, and the same story from the German page. Try to read the German page with an eye at translation. In the beginning, you will have trouble. Then you will look up less and less words.

As for German, necessity made me keep studying it. I had to use an outstanding grammar of the Georgian language which was written in German. It was either learning to read German or giving up on my beloved Georgian language studies. I chose the former. The first lessons were nightmarish. I already knew the Georgian subjects from other books, so, I was basically studying German. I had to translate lots of words, sometimes I had to type out full sentences. Then it became easier and easier. Now I'm halfway through the book and I see myself reading whole pages of it focusing completely on the Georgian, without having to worry about unknown German words.

Speaking of Georgian, I took a slightly different approach for it, which I regret. I didn't have many beginner's or even intermediate textbooks, so I had to go for native materials sooner than expected. I chose The Little Prince, to be read alongside with the original French text. The problem is that the book is not as easy as it seems, linguistically wise. Don't be deceived by the pictures, it is not a children's book, as it deals with several abstract concepts. This means long words and unusual word order, both in the French text and in the Georgian one, as Georgian is an "alien", non-Indo-European language anyway.

So, the reading process was slow and made me more than less motivated. I couldn't follow the story properly, because I got stuck at every paragraph. Every time I would alternate tabs to look up a word, I would come back to the text and miss the line I was reading. Now imagine yourself doing this about 50 times each page, or 15 times a paragraph. Now I know that I should have started with a short news story, a Wikipedia article, whichever source would make me learn some core abstract words which aren't cognate to the English ones. Fortunately I learned from my mistakes, and decided to pick a magazine next. I got its issues in Georgian, Portuguese and even Papiamento, which is a Spanish-based creole and thus poses no difficulties for my reading. After having finished this magazine, I am finally confident about trying another novel in Georgian, alongside with a translation, of course. I even chose a book which has plenty of dialogues, so that it will also help me become exposed to a bit more of conversational Georgian. As you see, 'killing two birds with one stone' is almost a life motto for me.

I still remember the first time I realized I could read a French text. It came sooner than expected, but that is because French is close to my native language. The experience with German and later on with Georgian taught me not to expect too much, not to believe things will be so easy and automatic. As realistic as I became, I also acquired experience. Now I know that breaking the code that represents a text in a foreign language requires patience, diversity of study methods and regular, daily work.

Cracking the Code
Writer: Hidson Guimarães
dumbledad / Tim Regan: Translation choice (title)
pedrosimoes7 / Pedro Ribeiro Simões: Magazine reading

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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