Maria Holland

The Disadvantages of Reading to Learn Languages

In Uncategorized on January 4, 2013 at 1:24 am

I have a lot of thoughts about reading as a way to improve and maintain languages, so I’m going to continue on where I left off in the last post.  There are a few disadvantages to this method, which I think I should acknowledge.  


“Useless” words

My biggest concern when starting Harry Potter in Chinese was all of the “useless” words that I was going to have to learn.  In most languages, proper nouns stick out and don’t really require “learning”, but it’s a different story in Chinese.  (Can you pick out the name in this sentence?  “罗恩打不起精神来,天气实在太热了“)  

But actually, it didn’t end up being too bad.  Yes, I learned about 20 proper nouns (Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Draco Malfoy, the entire Weasley family, Neville Longbottom, Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hagrid, Snape, Quirrell, Voldemort, Hogwarts, all four houses, and Quidditch), and had to be familiar with a few others at least well enough to recognize when they were being used.  

But the great thing about reading a 191-page book about the same people is that those proper nouns were almost a one-off deal, an upfront investment I had to make to facilitate the rest of it.  And in the rest of it, I got to learn some really useful things – expel, coma, lion, referee, invisible, peel, Ireland, hatch, sniffle, bow and arrow, intestines, pitch-black, armchair, ankle, chess, flame, and rare are just some examples.  

And the very non-Muggle words like wand, flying broomstick, alchemy, and wizard are really great for impressing people :)


Written vs. spoken language

When I got to see a good Chinese friend of mine over break, I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak Chinese with her for several hours.  As we spoke, I caught myself several times speaking in a way typical to written Chinese, or 书面语.  I guess this is a potential pitfall for this method, which could vary with language and your choice in material.  Harry Potter is not a very formal book, but in Chinese there is a fairly noticeable difference between written and spoken language.  

As I said, I don’t think this is a good way to learn a language from the beginning, and I also don’t think it can or should be the only method used to maintain or advance a language.  It would be most beneficial paired with increased speaking.  In hindsight, I wish I had sought out opportunities to talk to Chinese friends about the book, which would have given me a chance to talk about a subject in whose vocabulary I am well-versed!  


Despite these drawbacks, I made a new resolution this year: this time, to finish my first full book in Spanish!  I have chosen Vida de Pi (Life of Pi) from our family’s quite extensive Spanish library.  I plan to apply the skills I learned last year (though not the vocabulary, haha!) in this endeavor.  I’m interested to see if this tactic works well with my Spanish, despite the linguistic differences (aaah! cognates!  how I’ve missed you!  Conjugations, not so much . . .) and my lower language level.  Stay tuned for future posts!

I’m also using some tools to track my progress, namely Beeminder to keep me on a steady pace of about a page a day.  (A page a day.  Now doesn’t that sound manageable!  Imagine my dismay when, in the depths of my frantic reading over break, I realized that I could have read the entirety of Harry Potter in one year by reading only half a page per day!)

We’ll see how this year goes, but I have tentative plans already.  I was given a copy of 最风筝的人  (Kite Runner, one of my favorite books) in Chinese for my birthday in 2010, and I would love to read that.  XuLei has offered to send me a book in Chinese every year for my birthday present, even making some recommendations.  Adrian, my Mexican lab mate, is also full of suggestions of books written in Spanish.  It would be interesting to read a book written originally in a foreign language, and to read a book that I have never read in English.  These are all future challenges that I hope to tackle soon!


Lastly, I want to share an anecdote from my Harry Potter reading.  While looking up new words after finishing, I came across a few that really surprised me.  Unlike English, Chinese has a finite number of possible syllables, as each syllable is made up exactly of an initial and a final sound, and there are 21 initial sounds and 35 final sounds.  But there are even less than 21*35 = 735 syllables, because not all of the finals can go with all of the initials.  Thus bǔ is not a valid sound, or quen, or xong, or ruai.  After learning around 2000 characters and hearing many more, I have a pretty good feel for what is and what isn’t a valid Chinese syllable.  But there are still some surprises . . . in Harry Potter, I came across four syllables that I had never heard before!  If you had asked me, I would have said that they weren’t even Chinese, but the dictionary says otherwise!  

After looking into it a bit, I suppose it’s not too surprising that I’d never come across them before.  There are only 8 characters that sound like “zei”, 8 “zuan”s, 13 “pie”s, and 30 “kua”s.  This is in comparison to, say, the syllable “shi”, for which my dictionary offers a staggering 276 possible characters.  Crazy.  

PS- looking through the rest of the possible syllables listed on this site, I was surprised by a few others: cen, chuai, chuo, cuan, den, jiong, kei, keng, miu, mou, nang, nen, nou, nǔe, pou, rua, seng, shuan, weng, and zhuai.  Well, that was humbling.

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