Use active reading to boost your foreign language skills

By | June 5, 2020

Sometime during my high school years, I remember being shocked to discover that a friend could understand Spanish, and yet barely speak it herself. While I’ve since accepted that passive activities (listening and reading) are quite different from active ones (speaking and writing), even now it’s still a little mysterious to me.

One way to explain this is to say the brain is very good at training to do specific things through practice, but those skills often don’t translate to a wider context. One example is chess, which some people used to think that to be a chess master, you must have a high overall level of intellect that could be applied to different areas; but it turns out that, except for a few things, what makes chess masters great is a handful of very specific skills (or at least that is what I’ve heard research has shown). If you extend this to foreign language learning, and imagine someone who got experience listening to a certain language for many years, but rarely spoke themself, it is reasonable that they could be able to understand but not speak. Another possibility is that they could speak at one point, but after years not using that language the speaking ability gradually disappeared, whereas the listening ability mostly remained intact.

I feel this applies equally to reading, in the sense that things frequently experienced during reading (words, expressions, etc.) are not necessarily easily to use oneself when writing or speaking that language. I think there are a few reasons for this, but perhaps the primary one is that when reading we focus more on the content itself as opposed to the structure of the content. Using English as an example, if I read the sentence “The sky was a neon green”, I might be imagining an unusual scene, or I might be quickly moving onto the next sentence to see what happens next. But I would not likely be spending much time pondering the significance of the “the” article. (By the way, I would also argue that many native speakers, especially those with little schooling, would struggle to describe the purpose of articles, though that is really a different topic.)

After reading books in Japanese for over two decades now, I’ve developed a few different styles of reading that I select depending on the situation. The one I’d like to talk about here I will call “active reading”, and you can think of it as the opposite of speed reading. Rather than focusing on the content, I stop and briefly consider the meaning and nuance of the elements of each sentence. This will probably take much longer than speed reading (or normal reading), but in exchange there is much than can be learned. I’ll be focusing mostly on Japanese for the rest of the post, but I think these techniques can be applied to any foreign language.

The simplest form of active reading is simply looking up words and kanji characters you come across when reading a Japanese text. This on its own can be considered common sense, but you can take it to the next level by spending time looking at example sentences for a word in question, or looking at other words which employ a kanji character in question. You can even make lists of words or characters for later reference.

Another technique is to try pronouncing unfamiliar words (out loud is best) to make sure you know the pronunciation. This is especially important in Japanese where there are various readings for kanji characters, as well as exceptions for certain combinations. If you understand the meaning it’s tempting to keep reading, but without knowing the pronunciation you are less likely to understand it when listening to spoken language, and of course less likely to use it yourself in both writing and speaking. Even just in terms of making the sounds yourself, often the transitions between letter sounds is deemphasized despite being of critical importance for native-level speaking, and getting your mouth to making the right succession of sounds (even if awkward at first) helps you practice this.

Lately I’ve been taking my active reading to a more advanced level and analyzing how the grammar of the sentence is put together. For example, if I see a が particle I think about why this particle was used in that situation, and if another particle was used what nuance it would produce. Since particles are generally not directly translatable to English, it’s easy to just gloss them over and try to guess what is going on from the context. But the better you are at guessing the meaning from context, the harder it is going to be to actually form proper grammar yourself.

When I see an unfamiliar word I also think about its politeness level, and if it has any other nuances. Does it have a gender nuance? Is it a slang or formal term? Is it from a regional dialect? Why was the word written in hiragana, katakana, or kanji? Japanese has a lot of different nuances in these areas, so it’s good to think about these things for a deeper understanding.

I feel that this level of analysis helps also improve my overall understanding of the text I am reading, which is especially important when I am translating. Having said that, when I am doing translation I often end up analyzing things pretty deeply at the sentence level anyway.

If you are reading text that is not professionally edited, there is a larger chance you will find errors, and this level of analysis will help you pick them up. A few years ago when I was reading a literary magazine I found an odd grammar usage and emailed the editor, who gave me an explanation of the phrase in question (it turned out to not be a mistake). But I have found actual mistakes before, and there is a certain satisfaction to that.

You don’t have to limit yourself to what I mentioned above, the sky is the limit for what you want to focus on in your analysis. Compared to a live conversation, or even a recorded movie or audio recording, stopping in the middle of reading a passage is much less inconvenient. For example, if you just learned something about Japanese grammar (say, conjugation of certain verbs), you can keep an eye out for those when you read and make sure they are what you expect. Something that simple is unlikely to be incorrect, but you never know, and the act of running the grammar rules through your head will help you remember them.

One great thing about active reading is that it will help you learn to pick up new words, expressions, and other grammar elements, and eventually use them yourself without having them ever taught to you explicitly––one of the most important goals of long-term language learning.

Though I wasn’t exactly thinking in these terms when I recorded them, the videos in this series of mine involve my analysis of various aspects of Japanese texts, and may give you some inspiration for your active reading.

On a final note, I would recommend not doing this level of analysis all the time, but rather choose times when you go deep, and times when you just focus on content.

Happy active reading!

(Note: photograph of a book taken from

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