By Mónica Barnkow
There are four main indicators through which we judge our understanding of a language in the most general of terms: Listening, reading, speaking and writing. Fluency comes from proficiency in all four categories.The truth is that these very important and interdependent areas don’t seem to hold the same pedigree in the collective consciousness. Being able to speak a language is what students consider most important of all. Not by chance we ask, Do you speak Spanish? and never Do you read Spanish?
Not being able to speak fluently seems to be the primary source of stress among students. It is understandable that learners of a new language, as social beings eager to communicate with one another, aim first and foremost at some degree of oral satisfaction in their target language. Students want to speak, and they want to do it pronto.
But, realistically, the opportunities to practice our target language in conversation — or our native language for that matter — are scarce. As a matter of fact, we live in a world that is increasingly reliant on communication through some sort of dynamic between writing and reading, rather than on one of speaking and listening. The average person is reading some stuff on a phone all day long. In addition, that same person communicates with friends through an exchange of written messages.The spoken word does not have the same predominance as before. As it turns out, reading reigns supreme.
Before writing this piece, I asked some of my students if they were reading anything in Spanish. To my dismay, I learned that the majority of them were not reading anything at all. Nada. Well, it is time to do something about that!
I understand that reading in a language we don't have full command of can be the loneliest of activities, painfully slow and unsatisfying. But reading improves our ability to speak well. It is not by chance that strong readers of any language are the most articulate and usually regarded as the brightest of people. What’s more, students that exhibit the most progress in all four categories, are those who read.
Although it seems natural that oral communication is the most desirable goal when learning a new language, speaking fluently only happens after the student has absorbed considerable cognitive load. Written material, which is usually carefully crafted, edited and revised, exposes us to richer vocabulary and more complex sentence structures than the oral message. The more we read, the better we speak.
Because I am convinced that the case in favor of reading is worth making, I want to give you a few suggestions on how to go about it.
This may seem obvious, but you are more likely to finish reading a book or an article if the topic interests you. Even though fairy tales may be useful, for example, to practice the imperfect tense, I don’t recommend going for children’s books if you are not a child. Even to beginner students, I recommend more age-appropriate material. Trust me, Snow White and the seven dwarfs won’t hold your attention for long.
Whether it's Harry Potter or the news, reading in our target language material we already know is easier than reading something totally new. Some journalistic articles are fairly easy to understand, as simple language is used, and the content is usually familiar to the reader, or predictable enough.
If you are a beginner, I recommend to look for simplicity in sentence structure, which usually means shorter sentences. A good idea is to go to your local library and do some browsing in the Spanish section shelf. Pick up a book that is both challenging and accessible. Don’t go for too much, but don’t go for too little either. Find the right balance instead. Don’t get discouraged by the amount of new vocabulary that you have to search up in the first pages. Many of those words will reappear later on and it will be tremendously satisfying to realize that these are words you already learned.
You don’t have to do this in the subway, but you can certainly do this at home. Reading aloud is a good way to tune up your pronunciation so, when the opportunity arises, you are ready to speak more confidently.
A great way to combine listening and reading is to watch movies, series, and television programs, closed captioning in your target language. Telenovelas, the famed Latinoamerican soap operas, are great, provided that you have a penchant for melodrama. The action is slow, the plot is easy to anticipate, and the lines are generally easy to understand.
Another way to combine listening and reading is through music. Songs have been great allies of mine when learning English as a child, and I am sure they can be helpful to you too. Youtube your favorite artists and listen to them while reading their lyrics. Better yet, memorize lyrics and sing along!
I hope you find my suggestions helpful. Now choose your perfect reading material and get to work!
Mónica Barnkow is a Spanish Language Instructor at Berges NYC.