Two modes of foreign language reading: content-focused and language-learning-focused

By | December 10, 2014

When reading in a foreign language we are not yet fluent in, our brain is struggling to do a great deal of things simultaneously. We’re desperately trying to grasp the overall meaning of the passage at hand, while looking up individual word meanings and pronunciations. We are also trying to think in terms of grammar and how words fit together to create higher-level concepts. On top of this, we are probably trying to remember some new phrases and definitions so we can leverage them in our own writings in the future.

After much Japanese reading practice I’ve discovered that it’s helpful to separate some of these items into two different ‘modes’, what I call content-focused and language-learning-focused (which I’ll abbreviate as learning-focused). The mode is something we should tentatively decide as we begin to read the passage, but if needed we can switch partway through.

Content-focused, as you can imagine is where we focus on content – basically what the text is about. This means there are some things like how to write a certain character, or pronounce a certain word, which we can completely ignore. Other things like grammar, while we can’t ignore it completely, we can try to glaze over certain complex constructions and just grasp the main point. In this mode you should also try and minimize your trips to the dictionary, unless it seems like a critical area. One rule I sometimes use is only stop to look up a word if it appears twice in the same passage.

In some ways the content-focused approach is similar to speed reading, and the advantage is not only that we can read faster, but we can actually have a better higher level grasp of what is being said as opposed to if we didn’t read in this ‘mode’.

Content-focused reading is best in several situations, including when you have a lot to read, less time, or are searching for something specific. Another reason would be if you are trying to read something in a foreign language that hasn’t been translated into your native language, like say you were trying to read about the history of a lesser-known Japanese game.

Learning-focused, on the other hand is when your primary goal is to enrich your knowledge of that language, in terms of words, grammar, pronunciation, you name it. The content itself is secondary, though you obviously need to aim for at least a basic understanding of things at the sentence level. After all, it doesn’t make sense to focus on each word to the extreme that you are clueless about what you read.

In this mode, feel free to stop at any time to look up word definitions, sounds, or even the proper stroke order to draw a certain character. When trying to get a deeper understanding of a certain term, you can continue on to read example sentences and even do a Google search or two to see other places the word is used by real people.

To make best use of your ‘study’ time, consider making a list of new terms or phrases. If you want to be really hardcore you can even try to use new terms in sentences you create on the spot, though I’d recommend saving that until after you finish the passage.

With all the stopping and research interruptions, you may actually forget what the beginning of the passage was about when you get to the end, but you’re be a bit more certain about the nuts and bolts of the language words and constructs used, and have a better chance to utilize them in your own writing.

There’s no reason you can’t combine these approaches, for example you may want to try reading through a passage or chapter first in ‘content-focused’ mode, then come back for a re-read in ‘learning-focused’. I think the order here is important since eventually you will be training yourself to read for content without the preparation of learning-focused mode. As you progress in your language study, you’ll gradually be doing more content-focused, and the crutch of learning-focused will gradually fall away. But if read for learning first, then your read for content will be biased and not really simulate what a native would be doing.

For myself, I realized I’ve been doing the ‘learning-focused’ mode almost exclusively, and so have tried to take steps to fit in times where I try to ignore the details of the language and just go for content. It’s hard for me though because I tend towards the ‘language perfectionist’ mindset where I want to understand everything 100% before I proceed.

Try to think about your foreign language reading style and how you want to adjust it.

When listening to speech in a foreign language, for the most part you are forced into content mode since it’s difficult to stop midway, especially if it’s a live person. I do find myself sometimes going into mental tangents as I try to process speech, but this hurts my overall comprehension so I should stick to content-based for listening. I’ve tried listening to a drama and pausing whenever I don’t understand a word to look it up, but I find that not too enjoyable and usually not a good use of time.

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