Can the reading material be too difficult?

Does it matter if I am reading material where I only understand 10% of the words.

Assuming that I remain motivated because I find the texts interesting will I still learn the words if I keep going and get enough repetition or is it self defeating?

Is it more efficient to be in that 70 to 80% comprehension sweet spot even if the material is not as interesting to you?

I’m thinking about this a lot lately myself. I haven’t truly done the extensive reading method for a while and want to make the switch back to it for Chinese and then Korean. I learned German way back in the day (about 20 years ago) and jumped right into reading native material from a vocabulary of probably 100-300 words. It was very painful but I was highly motivated and ultimately it worked. And this was before LingQ or pop up dictionaries (at least to start for me, I discovered and started using pop up dictionaries and e-texts later). The trick to keep my level of understanding high enough to where I felt like I was reading and it wasn’t pure nonsense was to pick translations of stories I hadn’t read in a while so I knew them but I didn’t know them too well. My first book was the Hobbit. I enjoyed rereading stories I hadn’t read in a while. I think I branched out to books I hadn’t read before pretty quickly after that though. And then I followed the principle of if it doesn’t hold my interest then drop it and try something else. I might go back to it later when I felt I had leveled up. This was totally effective but it was so long ago I can’t say how many years it took me to reach fluency or a B2 level or anything. For Japanese I relied a lot on SRS and Anki because I felt I couldn’t read the script well enough to just immerse directly. I did years of SRS and finally made the switch to reading books and listening to audio books. As you can guess, it wasn’t until I had immersed extensively that I felt like I really had a grasp on Japanese.

With German, I didn’t discover graded readers until I had already fought my way through several books. My impression of them was that they were a bit on the boring side and I’d rather struggle with something more interesting. But I can totally see how reading something at the right level will help you learn useful vocabulary more quickly.

Now I’m trying to make the switch back to reading native material for Chinese and Korean. Old habits die hard so giving up Anki isn’t easy for me.

As far as difficulty goes… why not mix it up? Especially on LingQ where you can read the graded reader style stories or lessons they prepare or jump into something really difficult. I’m importing a lot of the material myself from other sources though. I suspect you’ll find yourself spending a lot more time on the material that’s way over your head (because reading something that’s more interesting is probably going to be more fun and not feel like studying)

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If you do comparative reading, you can tackle any level of difficulty at any point. I find comparative reading a much better option for interesting content as opposed to graded readers.

Sounds like you have had an amazing language journey.

My goal at the moment is to read 10,000 words of German a day I try and get about 5000 words of difficult but interesting stuff first and then wind down with the easier stuff to get the next 5000 words.

Thanks for sharing your journey it helps me know this method will get me where I want to be with German.

What do you mean by comparative reading?

It’s when you read TL text with the translated version of it side by side – such as when you have two versions of the same book in different languages.


thanks, good to know you can go with what’s interesting

I got the language learning bug when I was in college and I’m in my 40’s now so I guess you could say that.


I think it does matter because the motivation level could be affected. It seems to be the very point of the ‘mini lessons’ that they are short with repeated words and therefore manageable. Looking up every second word in a large text is not conducive to motivation or progress; neither is ploughing-on whilst not understanding 70-80%.
In early reading I’ve found it better to read things that have lower core vocabs and a lot of repetition, so tabloid press, pulp magazines. I don’t go for the avoidance of grammar. It’s good to check out bits & pieces of grammar as you need it (which most self-study courses do piecemeal as you progress). Many of the things you may be missing/not understanding are very likely set phrases which you can learn to recognise.

The ‘being thrown-in at the deep end’ theory is not foolproof; despite what some people on here say. There are also many people who sink rather than swim. Those people who sink, or give up, disappear so we don’t hear about it. I don’t know why people push this idea; no-one joins a gym and lifts the heaviest weights from the get-go, so why should learning things be different?

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If you’re just starting out then you like will only know 10% of the words, so there’s always going to be a little struggle at the beginning. I’ve not tried a language from scratch using LingQ so I’m not sure I can speak to that.

If I had to read something at my currently level that I could only understand 10%…I think I’d dislike that too much, no matter how much the material might interest me. You would just not have a great flow…although t_harangi’s comparitive reading idea might give you that flow.

For me, I love to read about a variety of things and so reading just about anything non fiction is very interesting to me and there is plenty of content for that in German (my target language), so finding level appropriate material is not difficult at all. I do tend to like an unknown word percentage of 10-15%, but 20-25% or higher isn’t too cumbersome with LingQ.

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Do you find that the usefulness of comparative reading varies by translation? I’ve never tried it for study and am curious. I have compared two different English translations of the Russian “Master and Margarita”, and they were quite different. Just now I’m starting the Russian translation of “A Gentleman in Moscow” and compared some paragraphs in the first chapter to the English original. The gist is there, but the wording is sometimes quite different from what I’d have chosen, sometimes one sentence is translated as two, and other differences. I don’t know how useful this would be for a beginner, but I’ve never tried.

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The short answer is, yes, it does work, and I say that while considering the following factors:
– Modern books are admittedly better for this because their language will be closer to current usage in both NL and TL versions.
– Classics are always more challenging to read. They will require more patience. They will also have multiple translations available for various reasons – rights to translations expiring, need for a more modern text, etc., however, this should not matter. Get the latest translation and just stick with it.
– Using LingQ will help the process because, as you said, you can use the TL text to give you the gist of a sentence and LingQ will help you identify each word individually.
– Listening along to audio is a huge help and adds a lot benefit to the process itself.
– I’ve done this with 4 languages now, including Korean, which is pretty far away from English as far as sentence structures, grammar etc. Of course the farther away you get in language families, the more you’ll encounter things like sentences split, thoughts expressed differently etc. and the more you have to be patient at getting the hang of it. With Korean, I needed to have a very good foundation of the language to be able to move onto comparative reading.
– At the beginning it’s aways easier to read an NL book translated into TL.
– Though the method can be used with any language, of course it’s easier for languages that are closer to each each other on the family tree. Reading modern best sellers in, French, Spanish, and German, the translations are pretty much always sentence by sentence matches to English texts, so it will be admittedly easier than Russian or Korean.

With Spanish I was able to start with comparative reading from scratch because of all the factors above.


I have the same question but no answer.

The theory would say it’s better to have 90% comprehension so that you can focus on what you don’t know way better.

The problem with this is that you have to engage with material you don’t like for quite a while.

For me this is to boring. And boredom is an obstacle for me that’s very difficult to challenge.

With German, at 4k know words, I’ve started reading stuff I like even if I read articles with 100 words I don’t know. The result is that I struggle a lot more, it takes more time but at the end I’m more satisfied because I read some stuff I really like. Generally articles and news.

I don’t care if I don’t understand everything, I leave it for now. I focus on building vocabulary and on topics. More you read about a specific topic, easier will become to read stuff in the same subject you can enjoy. Then you can mix with other subjects.

As others already said, you can do some mix, as here there is plenty of material to try.

It’s a constant balance between motivation, engaging, grammar, comprehension on many levels and so on. I believe your strategy should constantly change depending on the level you have with your language at any moment.

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It doesn’t have to be 90%. It’s okay to read stuff where you don’t know a fair number of words (and to resist looking up every single word); as long as you understand the gist of the article and can pick out constructions. That’s the point of using reading as a tool. You learn a number of things and move on to the next. The problem is spending hours on an article trying to understand every last word and phrase… For many people this is extremely inefficient, boring and discouraging.

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Well, using LingQ means looking up at every word you don’t know. That’s the point of lingQing: creating a LingQ.

Yes, you don’t have to be precise on understanding everything. I quote myself above: “I don’t care if I don’t understand everything”.

90% is a general theory, not mine.

Nobody said spending hours in translating or decrypting any single word in an article. Yes, of course it would be boring and discouraging. But probably not if you really like the topic or doing that kind of work. And it depends on the level of the language you have too.

Anyways, probably I explained myself in a wrong way.

I don’t have a paid LingQ account, so I don’t link any words. I don’t disagree with the methodology, but a see a lot of folk on here who are doing the ‘LinQing’, have huge official vocabularies, but still feel like they don’t understand the target language! Maybe it’s just impatience and not enough of a realistic time-frame given to goals?
Immersion learning for speaking, under normal circumstances, is almost exclusively listening (and a practical application of some book learning). Reading books makes you good at reading books.

I think the best solution is to read at the same time something quite difficult but interesting for you (for pleasure) and something corresponding to your level with 20% of unknown words (to go ahead and to reach the visible achievement).
It was long time ago but I remember that I combined some simple texts or grammar lessons with the novels by Thomas Mann (in German) and Charles Dickens (in English).
By reading first pages of these writers I had 90% unknown words, but on the 100th page I had only 2% of unknown words.


Hmmm. Not to be argumentative but who are these people with “huge official vocabularies, but still feel like they don’t understand the target language”? And at what size of a vocabulary are these people you are identifying?

I think anyone who has stuck with LingQ through the advanced 2 (as defined by Lingq) probably understands the language quite well. If they don’t…I suspect they simply just set the word to “known” without learning it.

Also, I’m not sure if you are comparing the way lingQ counts words (which is each and every variation, conjugation, plural etc) vs. what many in the language community count as a word (i.e. run, ran is two words in lingq, but “one” word in typical language community count). So a lingq “count” will be many times higher than what typically people count as a word. In other words a 10,000 known word count in LingQ really isn’t very much…it’s only early intermediate level of reading (maybe listening, if they’ve put in the hours).

I’m not sure what you are arguing in regards to immersion…is it in reference to LingQ?

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I would beg to differ. Reading books builds your vocabulary on a massive scale, AND reading books wile listening to the audio version – which is what most people advocate here – builds your listening comprehension along with it. The impact of the combination of reading / listening to books is I think unachievable by any other method.

Reading books leads to listening to books unassisted, which then leads to comprehension of film / tv unassisted, along with fluent speech with practice.

I don’t see a lot of those claims here, but if / when see complaints from people with high word counts on LingQ, they break down into 3 categories:
– those who aren’t doing enough listening along while reading and hence, their listening comprehension is behind
– those who can’t speak fluently yet because their speaking practice is behind
– those who mark words known with less discrimination and include barely understood words and proper nouns, therefore building up a high word count very fast without much of it sticking.


Trawl through the forum posts and you’ll find them - isn’t this thread a common one? What you have are people who can read guided stuff and listen fairly competently, but aren’t speaking and thus feel like they aren’t actually “speaking” the language (because practically they aren’t).
Accumulating words alone does not do the job. Just like merely acquiring books is nothing unless you read them. It’s good to increase vocab and of course LingQ allows assimilation of some grammatical structures through usage, but it does promote the absolute falsehood that you’ll learn a language just by listening and reading along…and somehow it all comes together. It doesn’t and won’t.

You have to struggle a bit and also jump in more and more without the dictionaries, word mousover popups, words in front of your eyes. None of those crutches. I spent almost 2 years learning one particular language, then became homeless and over 3-6 months of the year I lived in a homeless hostel, being forced to communicate in the target language, I was using it to my capacity. I’m not saying everyone has to do something like that, but I do think you’re better off getting properly going with whatever you’ve got rather than stockpiling words that aren’t really being used.