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What is needed to learn to read any given language?

February 13, 2012


When describing how to learn a language, I’m going to be talking in fairly general terms about wanting to be able to read any of the literature of whatever language one has in mind— without having in mind specific works or types of works. If one does have something specific in mind though, then of course one needs modify the instructions given in this blog to fit one’s particular situation.

The books of the Old Testament, showing their ...

Old Testament & Tanach

A simple example would be if one wishes to learn ancient Hebrew. In practical terms, the only text widely available in ancient Hebrew is what Jews refer to as TN”K (pronounced as Tanakh) and what Christians call the Hebrew Bible. Jews and Christians treat the grammar and vocabulary involved markedly differently. Most secular scholars ether follow whichever religious tradition they or their institution most closely associate with or more rarely try to discuss both traditions. Therefore, a religious Jew or Christian will want to use references for respectively the Jewish or Christian tradition. If one is reading solely out of general interest, personally I would strongly recommend the Jewish sources in this case as they seem to me much more thorough and consistent, but then again I am Jewish myself.

In other words, one does always want to bear in mind one’s own particular motivation when learning a language. When choosing resources for learning, those goals should then be borne in mind. Thus, a person interested in reading scientific articles in French or German will want to learn not only the most common words of French or German overall but also the jargon of the scientific field of interest in that specific language. Adapting what one does to one’s own individual needs will help keep one motivated.

This post describes what one needs to learn in order to learn a language for reading. For practical reasons, one will need to learn the writing system and basic pronunciation first, but then grammar and syntax should be learned simultaneously with vocabulary. Meanwhile, as one learns those, one should read simple sentences and passages until finally building up to attempting to read a light, fun book. Nonetheless one should not hold back from attempting to read because one has not learned enough vocabulary if one feels up to doing so. At worst, the attempt will fail for the moment but one will see that each time one tries, one does better and better.

Each of these categories below warrants its own post, but I plan to go into additional detail on each later. This post serves as an oerview.

Writing system and pronunciation

Every language will have a characteristic way in which it is written, although some languages have more than one. For example, English adapts the Latin alphabet, Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet and Chinese uses ideographic characters. On the other hand, Hindi and Urdu are often regarded as essentially the same language, but Hindi is written with Devanagari script while Urdu employs the Arabic alphabet. Likewise, Turkish of the Ottoman period was written using the Arabic script but since the reforms of Ataturk has been written using a form of the Latin alphabet. To read a language, one has to learn the writing system that language uses clearly. If the language uses more than one writing system, then one needs to learn those systems relevant to what one wishes to read. Thus for example a student of modern Japanese will need learn kanji, katakana, hiragana and romaji.

Literaturnaya character set.

Latin and Cyrillic alphabets

Over and over I have encountered people who convince themselves that if a language uses something other than the Latin alphabet then somehow learning that language must be “hard”. By that criterion, standard Spanish can be easy but Ladino, a form of the exact same language written with the Hebrew alphabet, would be “hard”. The trick is to not be intimidated. A writing system is inherently nothing more than a set of arbitrary symbols used to represent the sounds of a language. Some simple systems can be learned remarkably quickly and more complicated systems just take a little more practice.

As one learns the writing system, one should learn how to pronounce the language as well. No one will sound like a native speaker are only a few attempts, and no one should expect to do so. Yet every language has a characteristic sound and rhythm to it which a reader of that language should be familiar with; otherwise, one misses much of the experience of reading. That is especially true of languages which are tonal or which would sound to the ear of a native speaker of modern English as if the speaker of that language were singing, as is true of Latin, classical Greek and possibly ancient Hebrew. This natural cadence of language is the inherent musical element of poetry, and subconsciously plays a role in the enjoyment of prose. When a text one reads is eloquent, that text employs the musical qualities of its language.

Hence I would go so far as to say that a person who does not understand how a language sounds (even when he cannot pronounce the language himself as a native speaker would) misses much of the meaning in a language, not least plays on words, alliteration, rhyming and homophones. Thus both reading a language in its native script and pronouncing that language in as near an approximation to a native speaker as one can is essential to a full appreciation of the language.

Of course, phonology is its own specialization within linguistics and so one need not seek to become an expert, especially right away. At a minimum, one needs be able to roughly sound out any given word, separate words into syllables and roughly approximate accents and tones. Perfection is not required and focusing on pronunciation until one sounds like a native speaker is self-defeating.

Basis vocabulary

Once one begins to sound words out roughly, one will want to associate meaning with those words. Introductory texts will normally include a vocabulary specifically designed for beginners. Therein lies one of the chief advantages of such texts.

Some languages will have a standardized set of words any normally educated reader is expected to know. The Japanese Ministry of education oversees the standardization of such vocabulary for Japanese, especially the standard set of kanji one is expected to know when reading modern Japanese publications.

Otherwise, I recommend incrementally learning the 500 or  1,000 most common words in the target language. Often a list of these words can be found on-line via a quick search. For example, lists of the thousand most frequently used words in Russian and in Hungarian can respectively be found here and here.

Finally, if one does not have an introductory text (many of which can be found on-line such as the Hungarian course here or the Russian course with which the list of most common Russian words just linked above is associated) and cannot find a list of most common words, then one can construct a vocabulary list using a dictionary. (One will need a good reliable dictionary which also includes relatively infrequent words in any case since no learner’s word-list will include everything.) One could then learn the equivalent in the target language for the most common words in English, but rarely will any but the most simple nouns and verbs have exact equivalents to English in the target language. Moreover, articles, numerals and prepositions deserve special attention. Not all words in the target language will necessarily have analogs in English and vice-versa.



The main word of advice in learning vocabulary is that one should try from the outset to avoid thinking through English. Instead of learning that stuhl means chair in German, so that one associates stuhl with the word chair, one should work to establish the same mental picture or association with the German word stuhl that one has with the English word chair. If successful, eventually one will learn to think in the target language. The way I describe this phenomenon is by saying that my brain as different modes for each language, and when I read in a given language my brain switches over to the appropriate mode. Thus for example, when I am engrossed in a book in German, my mind operates entirely in German– not English. For any language learner, thinking in the target language should be the goal because doing so with maximize the appreciation of reading or otherwise functioning in the target language.

Grammar and syntax

To read and understand in the target language, one then needs recognize how words change with usage (morphology), their functional relationship to other words in context and the patterns that recur in the target language. These latter include word order but also much more. These aspects of language are treated by grammar and syntax. While the two are often indistinguishable in practice, in the ideal grammar deals with the function and form of individual words in context and syntax deals with combinations of words to express a composite meaning. A trend in recent decades in language learning is to avoid grammar but this does a disservice to the learner. While one might not study grammar of the target language to the extent a philologist (such as myself) would, nevertheless a basic understanding of grammar will help one understand both what is being said in the target language and how. Often shades of meaning such as double entendre will pass a reader by who does not know grammar at at least a basic level.

When choosing an introductory text, whether a book or an on-line reference, my strong advice then is to choose one which thoroughly addresses the grammar of the target language. For example, if the target language employs a case system, one should learn the function of the case system as a whole. If cases are only introduced one by one, then instead of learning to operate within the context of a cases system, one will learn the nominative (the case used for a subject) with some exceptions. This is how one makes the mistake in German of answering the question in German “Wie geht’s?” with the ungrammatical response “Gut, und du?” instead of the properly phrased reply, “Gut, und dir?” A text which introduces a case system as a concept but then goes into the usage of each case more specifically later is fine and indeed can be ideal.

The difficulty is that one has to know something of the target language’s grammar already to gauge whether or not the treatment of it is thorough. Nevertheless, often tell-tales sign will help guide one. If chapter heading are things like, “May I see your passport, please?” then this is a book which like avoids as much grammar as possible. If the book has grammar heading like “present tense verbs”, then likely the book focuses on grammar.

If one doe not have an introductory text, then a reference grammar can serve but by their nature these kinds of books go into copious grammatical detail far beyond what the usual learner needs.

The grammar and syntax that most language learners need consists of the morphology (forms of nouns, verb, etc.), basic word order and how to identify clauses and groups of words such as what word any given word modifies, what the subjects and related verbs are and distinguishing primary and secondary clauses, such as subordinate and noun clauses.

Something to read

All along the way, one should be reading simple passages in the target language. again, an introductory text is ideal for finding these, but news articles can serve the same function.

When single sentences are no longer challenging, then one should proceed to short passages and articles or short stories. When one becomes comfortable reading these, one should then proceed to reading a book. For languages sufficiently similar to ones the learner already knows, the stage of short passages or articles can be skipped.

The usual experience in reading one’s first book in a language is that initially one must look up several words on the first few pages; then as one proceeds into the book, one must resort to the dictionary less and less frequently until by the end of the book, one will be comfortably reading with only very occasional references to a dictionary– much like one does in English or did when one was not an experienced reader yet.

For a first book, I recommend reading something one is already familiar with. Translations of a favorite book from English are ideal. That book should be light and fun, not something which requires deep thought.

Finally one should then keep reading in the target language. Learning to speak if one wants will also help, and the two processes go easily hand in hand.

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