Read for pleasure and super‑fast language acquisition

The Readlang Method for Learning Vocab

January 21, 2016 by Steve - Comments

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?

Where to start

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:

  1. An isolated word often has no direct translation, and needs to be surrounded by other words to carry meaning.
  2. Your ultimate goal isn’t to know X words, it’s to be able to string them together to express ideas and thoughts in sentences and conversation.
  3. We remember things better when they form connections with other memories or concepts. You’ll remember words more effectively when they are used in an interesting or emotionally charged context.
  4. The top 1,000 words from one particular list may not be the ideal 1,000 words for you to learn. A backpacker will need a different set than a businessman.
  5. A list this long is too intimidating to memorize without a good strategy.

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.

How to read

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.

Novel with translations above

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.

How to drill vocabulary

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.

  1. A small deck of the most frequently used words is pulled from your translation history.

  2. 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.

    Passive mode flashcard

  3. 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.

    Active mode flashcard

  4. 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.


An Instapaper For Language Learners

December 10, 2015 by Steve - 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…

Web Importer 2.0

Web Importer


Introducing Shelves

November 16, 2015 by Steve - 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.

My Texts

Here’s the new My Texts page:

New My Texts Page


Spanish Immersion Homepage - Chrome Extension

November 9, 2015 by Steve - 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!

Spanish Immersion Homepage Get the Spanish Immersion Homepage extension on the Chrome Web Store

It’s very simple, and contains:

This was inspired by the excellent Momentum extension.

Useful? Would love to hear your thoughts!


Keep your books, articles and videos organized

October 14, 2015 by Steve - 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:

Private Texts Redesign

  1. Reading queue Texts you are currently reading, or waiting to read.
  2. Completed texts Celebrate your victories! Browse through this list and feel pround of what you’ve accomplished. The great part is, if you choose an old text to re-read, it will remind you how far you’ve progressed, as you breeze though a text you were previously struggling with.
  3. Abandoned texts Like Trash on Mac, or Recycle Bin on Windows, Abandoned texts will stay here until you decide to clear them out. I encourage you to abandon texts that are too difficult and move on to something more enjoyable. If you’re anything like me it’ll be hard to admit defeat, but often finding an easier, more interesting, or more enjoyable text will motivate you to learn faster.
  4. Shared texts All texts you shared publicly with the Readlang community will be listed here.

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!


Speaking mode

October 6, 2015 by Steve - 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:

Je Veux


To translate or not? Monolingual mode arrives

September 30, 2015 by Steve - 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.

Translations On (default)

Translations On

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.


New Activity Monitor to encourage a daily language learning habit

September 10, 2015 by Steve - 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.


Turn your favorite novel into a motivating and effective language learning tool

July 5, 2015 by Steve - Comments

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.


Learn a language while you surf - training wheels for browsing the web in French, Spanish, German + 50 other languages

June 5, 2015 by Steve - Comments

Entranced while browsing the web

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.

New Web Reader design


Chapters and Rich Formatting

April 15, 2015 by Steve - Comments

Based on your feedback, Readlang has become a fully fledged eReader with the addition of chapter navigation, as well as bold and italics:


Auto Highlight Words As You Read

March 17, 2015 by Steve - Comments

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.


New Translation Glossing Mode

March 8, 2015 by Steve - Comments

Readlang’s main feature is inline word and phrase translation, as seen here in the Web Reader:


My Favorite Tools For Learning Spanish

November 28, 2014 by Steve - Comments

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.

1. Michel Thomas

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.


8 Reasons You Should Read More (includes waffles)

May 28, 2014 by Steve - Comments
Selfie of myself reading at the lab. Note the professional Readlang logo in the background ;-)

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:


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