Read for pleasure and super‑fast language acquisition
I found vocabulary to be the most intimidating part of learning a foreign language. I’m an engineer at heart, more at home with math & physics, where you learn a small amount of things, from which everything else can be derived.
The other aspects of Spanish such as pronunciation and grammar seemed to offer a set of rules which could be learned, practiced and internalized given a reasonable amount of studying. (I particularly like Michel Thomas and Duolingo for this.) But I had no handle on how to learn vocabulary. I’ve never been a fan of rote learning, and hence never developed skills to learn vast quantities of unrelated things. It seems to take somewhere in the order of 10,000 words to read comfortably in a foreign language. It may as well have been infinite. How on earth do you approach learning 10,000 of anything?
Word usage falls very rapidly from top ones like “the” to common ones like “house” and then to more esoteric ones like “esoteric” (see Zipf’s law). You’ll often hear statements like “the top 1000 words cover 80% of all texts”. This is motivating, but once you’ve learned the top 1000 words and realize how little you understand, you get jaded and realize that it’s those 20% of rarer words that carry the most meaning. But given you never know which rarer words you may need, it clearly makes sense to focus on learning the most frequent ones first.
We could download a list of the most frequent words with translations and start memorizing. But that would be a bad idea because:
Luckily, there’s a solution… Read interesting content relevant to you. This appears to fix all these problems. You will encounter the most useful words more frequently, and they will be charged with interesting contexts and meaning. But reading is difficult without the necessary vocabulary. Catch 22.
Since reading seems like an effective way to improve vocabulary, but is too difficult, we should make it easier.
What makes reading difficult? Given enough time and a good dictionary, you can normally figure out the meaning of what you’re reading. The real difficulty comes from the slow-down and distraction that this causes.
When reading in your native language you can inhabit the world of the text and focus completely on the characters, descriptions and ideas within. If you start to think about anything else, it can break the spell. Your eyes continue scanning the words, but your mind is elsewhere. If this happens in your first language, imagine how easily it can in another language where you are always distracted by the need to decipher new words and phrases.
If you are more interested in reading purely as a language learning study method, this may not bother you too much. You can lose your way in the story and still pick up a lot of the language. But enjoying what you read is much better. Not only because you are likely to keep doing it longer, but because the ideas and characters and emotions of the story will form connections that help cement the new vocabulary in your memory. So it’s important that reading should be as fast and distraction free as possible so that you can actually enjoy it.
This is where technology comes to the rescue. All ebook readers have built in dictionaries these days. These are less distracting and hence preferable to paper dictionaries. But they often involve multiple clicks, button presses or short delays. This is because they aren’t built solely for language learners, and translations aren’t their main feature. If you want an e-reader designed for language learners, you should try Readlang, where one tap on a word, or one swipe across a phrase, offers an immediate translation. This is frictionless, and a great ally in the battle to stay focused on the story.
While you’re enjoying the story, some magic happens behind the scenes. Every translation is stored, along with its context, for you to drill later.
Some people don’t like flashcards or other rote drilling methods, and that’s fine, you can get by without them. But for people who want to give their vocabulary a boost with minimal study time, there’s a tool that many expert language learners swear by…
Spaced repetition is an effective way to memorize a large quantity of things, and is very suited for learning vocabulary. It’s a long term approach. But it aims to reduce the total time spent studying by scheduling repeat exposure to a word at longer and longer intervals.
I normally prefer more creative methods of practicing, but I’ve come to appreciate the ease and effectiveness of daily spaced repetition flashcards when it comes to vocabulary.
Here’s how a practice session with Readlang looks.
A small deck of the most frequently used words is pulled from your translation history.
You work through the small deck one by one. Each card starts in passive mode. You see the target language word within its context sentence, and you need to guess its meaning in your first language. If you guess correctly, it flips over to active mode. The card is then reinserted back into the deck so and will appear again shortly.
If the card has been flipped to active mode, you see the word’s context as a cloze sentence, plus the translation. You need to guess the original word or phrase. This is more difficult than passive mode. Once you do this successfully, you’ve finished that card for the day and it’s removed from the session deck. If you came close to remembering, the card is placed back in the deck in active mode. If you completely failed, the card is placed back in the deck in passive mode.
Once you’ve finished the deck, you are shown when each word is scheduled for studying next. Those words will not be shown in any practice sessions until that date, allowing you to learn different words in the meantime.
If you use this system daily, it will allow to learn a huge amount useful vocabulary in a systematic and engaging way.
Here are the key ways it optimizes your vocabulary learning:
There are other flashcard apps available, and if you have another favorite, you can export words and their context sentences, using Readlang just for reading and collecting vocab. See this tutorial on exporting from Readlang to Anki.
Learning vocabulary is intimidating. The combination of reading, collecting new vocab, and reviewing with spaced repetition flashcards is a good approach.Tweet Comments
Readlang was originally designed for reading novels, but it was clear early on that I needed a more accessible source of free content for people to read, and what better source than the internet! For this reason, Readlang has a web importer, allowing you to import a plain text version of a web-page, a la Instapaper*. The original importer was a hastily coded affair, which included far too much cruft from the source web page and has long been due for an overhaul, so here it is…
Readlang’s homebrew importer has been ditched in favor of the same readability algorithm which powers the Firefox Reader View **.
See the difference it makes here:
As you can see, there’s far less cruft now. Also, some of the original formatting is retained, including headings, bold and italic.
(One thing still missing is images - let me know if this is important to you!)
There are three ways to use the web importer:
Install the Web Reader Chrome Extension, right click any web page and select “Import to Readlang”.
Open the Web Reader within your chosen webpage, open its drop-down menu, and select “Import to Readlang”.
Save the Web Importer bookmarklet to your browser bookmarks, browse to a web page you’d like to read, and click the bookmarklet link.
These new additions should make the Web Importer far more pleasant to use. Give it a try let me know what you think!
* At the time of starting work on Readlang, I was devouring Marco Arment’s Build and Analyze podcast, where he talked about the making of Instapaper. This inspired the creation of Readlang’s Web Importer bookmarklet.Tweet Comments
This one’s a biggie, and has taken a while to implement.
Earlier this year I added some improvements to My Texts. But after receiving feedback from some of the most prolific sharers of content on Readlang, it was clear that more organization was required.
Here’s the new My Texts page:
Select the section to browse:
You’ll notice that there’s now a search box on the right allowing you to quickly locate texts based on their title or the author name.
Select some of your texts by clicking on the checkboxes at the left of each table row, and then click the Arrange on shelves… button to see the following controls:
These allows you to add new shelves, and to add and remove selected texts from shelves.
Select some texts and click Actions to alter their read status, share them, or delete them.
Browse to a specific shelf and you’ll see the shelf editing interface:
You can click on the title or description to edit them. And you can use the handles to the left of each text to re-arrange them:
Click on the Share Publicly checkbox to share this shelf, along with all its associated texts.
Once public, you can share the Shareable Link allowing others to open the public view of that shelf.
(For now these shelves aren’t listed anywhere on Readlang, but you can share the link however you like. After enough shelves have been shared, I’ll think about adding a public listing of shared shelves.)
I hope you enjoy these new features. As always, please let me know if you have any feedback.
Happy language learning!
PS: Only Premium users can create shelves. This was an easy decision for private shelves since only heavy users will require them for organization. Public shelves may become free in future, but I’m restricting them to paying users for now since it will greatly reduce the risk of people posting spam in the shelf descriptions.Tweet Comments
Have you ever felt that Chrome’s new tab page is a massive productivity sink? It tempts you with your most visited pages. Facebook, Gmail, Reddit – procrastination central. It wastes your time with watching innane viral videos and derails your train of thought. This extension takes over the new tab page to encourage browsing the web in Spanish. If you’re going to be distracted, don’t fight it, use it to your advantage!
It’s very simple, and contains:
This was inspired by the excellent Momentum extension.
Useful? Would love to hear your thoughts!Tweet Comments
If you read a lot, you’ll appreciate the need to keep your language learning library in order. Readlang helps you by organizing your texts and videos into the following categories:
I hope you enjoy these features. If you have any comments or suggestions please make use of the Feedback Forum
Remember that building regular habits is the key to successful learning, so keep reading and practicing a little every day!
PS: This was launched back in June, but I was so busy working on other features I forgot to announce them on the blog. Oh well, better late than never!Tweet Comments
Speaking and listening skills are an extremely important for learning a language. Readlang already has plenty of YouTube videos for you to practice listening. Songs have proved to be a favorite:
To complement this, you can now enable Speaking Mode. This provides automatic text-to-speech when you click a word or phrase in any text, and when reviewing your flashcards, Readlang will pronounce the word or phrase as it is revealed.
Enable speaking mode via the Settings page:
These features are available to Readlang Premium subscribers only. Go Premium for only $5/month or $48/year.
Works for the following 17 langauges: Catalan, Danish, German, English, Spanish, Finnish, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Swedish, Chinese.
It works on readlang.com and the Web Reader on desktop and Android Chrome. On iOS it only works on readlang.com.Tweet Comments
There are few topics more divisive among language learners than the question of translation. Is translating a bad habit? Should learners stop as soon as possible? Whatever your opinion, Readlang can now help.
From today, you can disable translations and access monolingual definitions.
This is the way Readlang is typically used - unobtrusive translations are provided in the text itself, with the option of extra translations in the sidebar dictionary.
To turn off translations and go monolingual, click on the little arrow so that it turns to a cross. The box representing your first language will be greyed out and the sidebar dictionary will show definitions in the language you are learning:
In the background, Readlang will still translate these words in order to prepare flashcards for you to review later.
You can now define two different custom dictionaries for each language that you are studying, a monolingual one and a bilingual one. Many of the languages have pre-defined dictionaries, for other suggestions see a guide to online dictionaries on Fluent in 3 Months.
Add your own favorite monolingual or bilingual dictionary from the settings page:
The monolingual mode works within the Web Reader just the same way - click the little arrow in the Web Reader toolbar to toggle between translation and monolingual mode. The monolingual definitions will be displayed in an external pop-up window. (On some browsers the pop-up may not appear at first, in this case, click Menu -> Open Dictionary to see it, it will then update on each subsequent lookup.)
The translation mode is still the main attraction of Readlang, with the new monolingual mode as an alternative when you feel like more of a challenge. So which is more effective - to translate or not to translate? Try both ways and decide for yourself.
Please leave feedback in the comments below.Tweet Comments
The main reason people fail at learning a language is not showing up to practice every day. Effective language learners manage to incorporate the language into their lives on a regular basis, they form daily habits. Having a job where you must speak the language is ideal, but most of us need to find other ways to squeeze practice into our busy lives.
If you enjoy reading novels, and wish to learn a second language, then you’re in luck, since reading can form a highly motivating and effective way for you to absorb the grammar, vocabulary and culture of a language.
The best way to learn a language is to form productive habits, and what easier habit to form than browsing the web? Turn your addiction into a powerfull learning tool with the redesigned Web Reader.
Based on your feedback, Readlang has become a fully fledged eReader with the addition of chapter navigation, as well as bold and italics:
Context is key when learning language. Wouldn’t it be nice to access previous contexts you’ve seen a word in every time you encounter it in a new text?
Based on popular demand, I’ve added the ability to auto-highlight words you’ve previously translated as they appear in new texts. Clicking on any of these underlined words will trigger a pop up showing the translation along with previous contexts.
Readlang’s main feature is inline word and phrase translation, as seen here in the Web Reader:
The best way to learn to speak Spanish is to just speak Spanish. Ideally with native Spanish speakers. But there’s also a lot you can do completely independently, and these are some of my favourite methods of self-study.
By the way, although I’ve focussed on Spanish, these methods are applicable for many languages.
This is a great place to start. It gives you a really good feel for the grammar, getting you to construct quite complex sentences from the very start, which really gets you motivated with the feeling of rapid progress. The format is unusual in that there are two other students on the CD who are learning alongside you and who will often fumble through an answer to be corrected firmly by Michel. It sounds strange but it really works. As with most language learning CDs, it’s best to actively participate, pausing after each question and speaking the answer aloud, or in your head, before listening to the student’s and Michel’s responses.
After finishing this course you should have developed a really good intuitive feel for the structure of the language, but will still have a very limited vocabulary.
I’m already addicted to reading in my native language of English. As a child I would read computer magazines cover to cover, as a teenager I started reading novels like The Andromeda Strain, and now as a guy who works at a computer all day long, even when working I’m habitually reading blogs, forums, wikipedia articles, news sites, you name it! So when I decided to learn Spanish, it was only natural to make reading the foundation, and reading in Spanish is now my core daily language learning habit. Here are 8 benefits: