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Language Tip #1: Read

Matt Kaplan is currently a Music Intern in Spain.  This is the second in a series of blog posts he’ll be writing for us while there.  See the first entry here.

As obvious as this may seem, reading in another language has been unbelievably beneficial to me in my journey to learn Spanish.  However, there are a lot of fallacies that are easy to come across without even knowing it.  It took me a long time to catch a rhythm on what works and what doesn’t work when approaching reading in this new light.

If you can develop a reading strategy and identify your realistic level within your studies, reading can affect your language abilities in a very direct way.  I believe that reading alone has boosted my vocabulary more than any other exercise as well as increased my confidence to get out there and speak it.  As we all know, confidence in speaking a language is a HUGE barrier to overcome.

Even if reading is not really your thing ( I personally am a nerd for literature), try and aim for something that interests you.  It could be reading the sports section of the local paper, magazine articles on celebrities, or your favorite novel in a translated version. However, I can’t stress the idea of starting with children’s books and easy reads enough.  It might seem ridiculous, but you’d be surprised how much vocabulary and sentence structures you can benefit from even from a book with a sentence on each page with pictures.  If anything, it is humbling.   If you’re embarrassed to do so, buy a few and read some when you wake up or before you go to sleep.  If you have a good basic knowledge of Spanish grammar and vocabulary I’d recommend The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  It’s a little more advanced than a book for toddlers or something but a great read and it is translated in a ton of languages.

Also, is the comfort of your own room so that people don’t think you are crazy, read aloud.  Reading aloud is a great way to practice pronunciation and getting a strong feel for the rhythm of your language.  Hey, it’s not like you’re going to make a mistake on missing a word or phrase, right?  It’s all there in front of you so you can focus on “speaking without stumbling.”   This has been an amazing tool and I still do it sometimes with advanced literature.  This especially helps with trying your hand at pronouncing harder words.  You are less likely to use advanced words if you can’t pronounce them! Simply understanding them isn’t enough sometimes.

Next, no matter what you read, you need to have a game plan on how to read it.  There are a million schools of thought on how to go about it: some people think you just need to jump in and read and that’s it, while others will look up every single word they don’t understand, etc.  I fall into a mix between the two: I use the latter idea to facilitate the first idea.  When I read I always have a pen ready to take notes.  As I read I tend to box words I don’t know and then re-write them at the top or bottom of the page depending on space, I will underline phrases and conjugations I might not be familiar with, and then put a star next to words that I don’t really know but I’m fairly sure I know the meaning of.  The reason I do the last step is because there are a handful of Spanish words that are easy to figure out if you know the English equivalent (for example la ira = ire), but there are also loads of false cognates and for that reason, I never want to assume (also I’m sure that the idea of false cognates really only applies when trying to translate a handful of languages).

Kaplan 2 copy

I then read and mark as I go along.  After I finish a chapter I will revisit and look up the vocab and phrases and write them down on the individual pages.  If the word I think I know checks, out I will simply write a check next to it.  Finally, I skim back over the chapter in an effort to have a holistic understanding of what I just read in conjunction with my new vocabulary and phrases.

If you are still reading at this point I’m sure you’re probably thinking, “that is ridiculous, who does all of that for one exercise?!”  I know it does take a lot of time and dedication but I can assure you that the juice will be worth the squeeze.  Why?  Because this is a great way to accurately measure your progress.  By your third or fourth book you will be impressed with how little you are needing to write and how much quicker you can get through your favorite novel or magazine.

Also, just a note: if you start with a piece of reading and you are marking words and phrases every other line and it is taking you a week to read a few chapters, the book is probably too advanced and you are not helping yourself in the long run.  I know because I’ve definitely made that mistake quite a bit.

Anyways, this is what has worked for me in the past and I hope this small insight on reading will be of some use to you all.  If anything, this can be an excuse to explore local coffee shops or parks to take a load off and relax in the heart of the culture of your target language.  Right now I am obsessed with the literature of the Colombian author, Gabriel García Márquez.  I have always loved his style of writing and the way he uses language to express emotion.  Now that I am able to read it in Spanish as it was meant to be, it is as if I am reading him for the first time all over again.


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