Language learning by reading


The most effective way to learn a language is to use it as much as possible. Speaking is preferable. But what if there’s nobody around to talk to in your new language? Or if you simply don’t like the thought of skyping with strangers in order to practice? My primary objective in learning Swedish is being able to read. This may change at some point, but it’s what I’m concentrating on at the moment.


In March I bought a Swedish magazine and – being opimistic – Häxan by Camilla Läckberg. (English translation: The Girl in the Woods)


I had practiced about 20 hours of Swedish when I started trying to read the magazine. Normally I never buy magazines because they are filled with advertisements, most of the articles are too short and rather trivial, and when I’m finished reading, the magazine gets tossed or given to a friend.


But funnily enough, the very reasons I don’t buy them make them a perfect language learning tool!

You can highlight words and phrases and jot notes onto the pages. I don’t do this with books. Ads are a great way to learn important new words like ‘anti-rynkkräm’ (anti-wrinkle cream), fuktighetsgivande (moisturizing) and stiliga stövletter (stylish ankle boots). Short trite phrases and loads of photos make it easy to understand what’s meant.  I literally read the entire magazine, ads and all and I doubt there’s another woman out there who has spent so many hours poring over this particular issue of Femina!  There’s a huge range of subjects to learn vocabulary from because these are frequently used words and phrases, you can see how sentences are structured, and the grammar is fairly simple and up-to-date. (Remember, you should probably not look for the equivalent of The Economist right in the beginning!) Specialty magazines would be fun to use too – sailing, outdoor, equestrian, cooking, and so on, if you are interested in a particular subject and want to learn the related vocabulary.


After I got tired of working with the magazine, I thought I could give the novel a try, just out of curiosity to see how much I’d understand. I guess I’d been working on Swedish for about a total of 40 hours or so at this point. I photocopied the first few pages of Häxan and read through them to see how much I understood. Amazingly enough, quite a bit! Then I read the pages again, this time highlighting the words and phrases I didn’t understand even through the context, looked them up, and wrote them down. I did this for about the first 30 pages of the book, and looking at what I’d highlighted, saw that I was able to understand about 80% of what I was reading, which is enough to follow the storyline and to get fully hooked.


The problem with most language course texts is that they’re boring, so this is a fun way to dive into a language and to make it feel familiar. The trick is, of course, to pick up a so-called “page turner”, a crime novel, thriller, whatever moves along at a fast pace, gets you hooked, and makes you want to find out what happens next. Books like this are generally written in fairly simple language too.  In the beginning it was a bit exhausting, and I read maybe 2-5 pages a day. Now  I am reading 30-40 pages every day and it’s getting extremely difficult to put the book down once I’ve picked it up.


This does NOT mean that I speak Swedish or “know” the language! It only shows that my passive vocabulary is much much much greater than my active vocabulary. Many words are so similar to German or English words that I  recognize what they might mean (every now and then I get tripped up by this though, because some words are almost the same as a German word, but mean something entirely different!)  It’s also astounding how much you understand just from the context. This is something you don’t notice when reading in your native language.


On the other hand, I sometimes stop in wonder and think ‘hey, I’m actually reading a novel in Swedish and understanding what happens’!  I wasn’t able to do that when I started with this Swedish project in February! Kind of makes me feel like a cryptographer when I realize that I’m deciphering unfamiliar letter combinations into meaningful images!


So of course if you get hooked on reading a “real” book (as opposed to a language course reader), the motivation to continue learning the language rises immensely. I suppose that’s because it feels ‘useful’. Lately I have been reading almost only non-fiction books, so reading a novel – even in a foreign language - also feels like great fun.


This experience is leading to thoughts along the lines of “if I can teach myself to read books in Swedish, I can probably teach myself to read in French as well…” But that can wait until 2019!