• Alysa Salzberg

Can you learn a new language just by reading it?


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Many people dream of learning a foreign language – sometimes mainly in order to enjoy reading literature in its original version. For those of us who have become advanced or fluent readers of (a) foreign language(s), it’s often been a long struggle, with years of study, practice, and immersion in various ways. But in a recent article, book blogger Elisabeth Cook suggests that you might be able to learn a language – or at least get better at it – simply by reading books.


This doesn’t mean picking up a novel in the language of your choice and just going for it, of course. Cook recommends learning tools like graded readers, which are adaptations of books that are appropriate for different levels of language learners.


For example, an intermediate French student might read a copy of Le Comte de Monte-Cristo with complex or non-essential parts cut or simplified so that they can understand it. They’ll still get the benefits of reading in a foreign language: new vocabulary and grammar structures in memorable contexts, cultural insights, and so on, but in a way they can truly benefit from. The experience, practice, and of course, confidence, they gain from this will help them strengthen their language skills.


As a speaker of French as a second language and a TEFL teacher, I’m not totally convinced that you can learn a language exclusively by reading books (after all, this is passive, not active learning). But I do agree with Cook that reading can play a major role in acquiring many of the building blocks of a foreign language, as well as advanced or specific vocabulary and grammar knowledge.


Regardless of how you choose to learn a language, reading should certainly be part of it, and Cook’s list of suggestions for how to start reading in a foreign language is a helpful resource. Read on for more of her suggested reading material for anyone venturing into, practicing, or rediscovering a foreign language.



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