After listening to someone, who’d studied foreign languages at university, talk about the massive amount of reading they had to do, a thought just occurred to me: Why do so many graduates finish their degree in x language unable to speak fluently, and often even struggle to understand the spoken word?
If reading is so great for speaking and listening comprehension, why are these heavy readers in the language so weak in those areas?
I get that you need to practice listening and speaking, but surely they’d have a massive advantage to be able to develop those skills very quickly if reading was so beneficial for it?
I’m not saying reading isn’t helpful BTW, I’ve actually believed, for a long time, that it was a crucial component in developing high listening/speaking ability, but now I’m not so certain.
Having never studied languages at university, I don’t know how much reading they do, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard that it’s a LOT. Has anyone here studied languages at university? If so, how good was your listening/speaking, and how much reading did you actually do?
I feel like it shouldn’t take you long to develop your speaking/listening if your reading level is so high. Unless reading isn’t quite the ‘fix all’ mircale activity I always assumed it to be.
One aspect might be the variation in speech patterns.
For example, listening to a Spanish teacher give a talk on a video with no background noise, using straightforward Spanish without slang, is different from listening to some people in Mexico City talk in a setting where they’re using local expressions freely, and without clear uncluttered audio.
As I understand Steve Kaufmann and others, they recommend reading and listening simultaneously if possible, not just reading.
I’m working on French and it’s hard to hear the separate words in Standard French without much listening practice. All the reading in the world won’t get you there.
Yeah, I can see that. I’ve been in that exact position myself, where you get so comfortable listening to a tutor, or it may be some kind of long term content designed for learners, that you kind of allow yourself to forget that it’s not even close to the same as the real speech you’ll encounter in the wild, or listening to authentic content made for natives. It’s actually quite easy to trick yourself into thinking you’re quite fluent, when in reality you’re actually probably a weak intermediate.
I was really thinking about the months following their course. If reading was so important when it comes to listening and speaking, you’d think that once the course is finished, they’d make very rapid progress to complete fluency in both of those skills. I guess some won’t ever try, but I don’t remember hearing of any cases of a graduate who can’t speak and/or hear the language well to then suddenly transition into super fluent speaker/listener after like 3-6 months of real immersion.
I feel like if you’d spent that much time reading, and if reading is so great for overall language ability, that we’d hear of many, many cases of people coming out of college and smashing it in a very short space of time. Like I said, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a case where that happened.
I can only guess that speaking and listening skills just take as long as they take no matter how much reading you do. That would contradict so many articles I’ve read, and so much advice I’ve heard, about how reading is almost regarded as the elixir of language skill.
Right, but if reading was that powerful to overall language ability, which it’s often quoted as being, how is it that these massive readers leave university and rarely develop those other skills beyond the level they had when they left?
It’s understandable for those who never tried, but surely there’d be floods of people who went on to very rapidly improve their speaking/listening? That doesn’t seem to happen at nearly the rate it should if reading was so powerful to language production/oral comprehension. Granted, I only know of a few personally, but they’re all terrible at using the language and they’re no where close to understanding native TV shows/movies without subs.
Massive reading at university will produce excellent readers in the target language. Readers have practiced extensive reading
Speaking fluently requires extensive speaking practice
Listening and understanding the spoken word with ease requires extensive listening practice
Writing well requires extensive writing practice
Reading to improve speaking
Reading can absolutely help you become more articulate - there’s no doubt about that! If you engage in speaking, reading will help make you a better speaker.
Reading to improve listening
Likewise reading can help you become a better listener. If you read a lot, it’ll be easier to recognise new words in speech. Highlighting words helps with more complex subjects or new topics making listening easier when you hear about those same topics.
Readers often do less multitasking when reading. Engaging in listening while doing other things like dishwashing, commuting to work or school or jogging in your free time means distractions galore. Multitasking while listening is excellent to train your brain in real-time comprehension but recollecting complex information is more challenging.
Reading is powerful!
Reading is brilliant but will not fully compensate for speaking. You’ve got to practice speaking to become a better speaker. Reading will not entirely compensate for listening. You’ve simply got to practice listening again, again, and again.
I find reading French far easier than hearing it. And after three months I haven’t tried to speak beyond repeating aloud what I’m reading in LingQ.
Listening and speaking are very, very different skills and with their own considerable difficulties. If one has gotten through university just reading, that’s a solid accomplishment and perhaps satisfied one’s interest or needs.
I’m sure such students would do better learning to listen/speak than those starting from scratch, but it would still take great effort. They would have to be motivated to do so. Perhaps they don’t want to feel like beginners again!
Define what they mean by “massive” reading. I’ll bet they really haven’t done all that much. Many here have judged 3 million words read as maybe a “goal” to where you may be decently “fluent” in the language. Of course, one understands that many of those who have defined that are also doing at least some output practice.
The entire Harry Potter series is 1 million words. That’s 7 books. So to get to 3 million words read one would have to read 21 Harry Potter sized books.
Are they REALLY doing that in just class work? I kind of doubt it, but maybe if they were actually majoring in the language? In either case they probably need to be doing a lot more reading outside of their normal schoolwork or homework to get to that number I’m guessing, but again, just a guess.
Likewise they would need to be doing hundreds of hours of listening practice.
Caveat, my only experience in college was “year 3” of Spanish (I had taken 3 years in high school and after switching majors in college suddenly needed to demonstrate level 3 skills). That year was taught only IN Spanish, but there was not a lot of reading imo. Certainly not as defined with our homework. There was reading and listening involved but I doubt we even cracked 100,000 words read. You would have to do a lot more outside of the class or homework imo.
I have a degree in German, and did not leave my program being able to have a natural conversation, or speak well at all. I left being able to use a dictionary and Google translate to read German very slowly and intensively. I read adult books like Kafka, Hesse, Nietzsche and Kant in German (arguably), and wrote about them in German (arguably).
This process was slow and incredibly painful, and if I had the papers I wrote about these texts, I’d post them and we could all have a good laugh at them.
All told this was maybe 6 books that I read in 2 years of the program? 500.000 words tops, and all very dense where the language and the subject matter are difficult.
The issue really comes in that this isn’t really reflective of having a conversation. Even if I was able to talk about Nietzsche auf Deutsch (I wasn’t), reading intensively, or slow reading, is completely different than natural conversation. I cannot listen as slowly as I want, break down the grammar, or look up as many words as I want, when someone is trying to talk to me.
To develop listening skills from reading, you need to make it more reflective of listening. Have time pressures forcing you to read at speed.
If you want a miracle activity that will improve listening and reading ability. R+L without stopping. Even better if you do so with natural dialogues.
tl;dr: if you’re interested in practical language learning, my advice is don’t let ‘perfect’ get in the way of ‘good enough given what I’ve got to work with right now’. All the various pieces do wind up reinforcing each other in some way at some point even when they’re hardly perfect, it can just take a bit of time and practice to stick together.
I do think reading and listening to native language content aimed at native language speakers is a very huge deal if you’re going to actually go somewhere and try to make it ‘daily driving’, especially listening to content with all the slang at 100% speed. Which is what makes the internet an absolute gold mine for language learning. There’s auditory stuff like pacing, phrasing, cadence, a ‘musicality’ if you will, that getting familiar with is super duper valuable IMO and doesn’t get discussed nearly as much as it probably should. Ironically once that starts to ‘stick’ you’ll sort of start to hear it while you read, and I’ve found that ‘aliveness’ of the written word makes the language acquisition process via reading much smoother and faster… I find myself starting to read more in phrases like I do in my native English rather than picking apart words or verb conjugations one at a time for example.
And yeah ideally you’d practice output also, but there’s nothing quite like being put on the spot in a grocery store or a bank or a doctor’s office and I don’t know how to replicate that from a distance. Eventually I’ll probably have to hire a tutor to get a little going but for now the poor dog has to listen to me.
Source: someone who initially learned in an immersive environment and is only now getting after more formalized instruction, so pretty much the opposite of the scenario you’re mentioning. I simply mangle things in a different way than they do, lol.
A person with great reading comprehension in, say, French, would still face a steep learning curve to read French in braille.
Once the reader mastered the skills of reading braille, his or her ability to read French in braille would take off.
However, according to the web it takes a year or more to get good at braille. I’ll bet good listening comprehension is comparable.
depends the level you are at for me at intermediate and beginner you need to be reading and listening at the same time .just reading will not help you with your understanding of the target language when you hear it you will be solely relying on your native languages pronounciation to pronounce words on the page which might be very diferent than how a native would pronounce them .
“Why do so many graduates finish their degree in x language unable to speak fluently”
Just out of curiosity: Do you have any stats for your claim?
Or is it just based on “anecdotal evidence”?
My anecdotal evidence in Romance studies (in France, Spain and Germany) is completely different:
At my alma mater, you were expected to start at a high level (B2-C1) and just hone your Romance, esp. French, skills (this wasn’t always the case, of course, but it was still the “expectation”).
The focus at university is not on SLA per se (because of 1)), but on learning to process info like a scientist in the L2.
- And no, it’s not simply about “extensive” reading (that’s the uninteresting part), but studying difficult media (poetry, prose, graphic literature, movies, etc.) using advanced linguistic, literary, etc. concepts, methods and theories. If that’s not the case, what are you doing at a university?
- Notabene: you don’t “read” difficult texts just like that - rather, it’s a constant struggle over hundreds of hours of reading tons of secondary literature to gradually develop your competence.
- It was (and still is) also expected in Germany to study for 1-2 semester(s) in a foreign country where your L2 is spoken.
In sum, students who major in their L2s in Germany and have studied for 6-12 months abroad (i.e., in a country where their L2 is spoken) usually have no problems with everyday fluency. But, again: that’s an uninteresting achievement - from an academic perspective.
What people sometimes don’t seem to get is this:
Where L2 learners, here on LingQ, for instance, stop (“Hey, I’ve read a few million words of easily digestible literature and listened for hundreds of hours in my L2”) is not where Romance and other language studies at university end.
This is rather the expected basic language level that academia starts with…
It is true that reading can be a helpful tool in developing language skills, but it is not a “fix all” solution. Reading can improve vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, but it does not necessarily improve one’s ability to understand or speak the language fluently.
It is possible for someone to read extensively in a language and still struggle with speaking or understanding spoken language because reading and listening require different skill sets. When reading, one has the ability to take their time and reread passages, look up unfamiliar words, and process information at their own pace. However, in real-life situations, speaking and listening require quick processing of language, responding in real-time, and interpreting nonverbal cues.
It is a fair question but as @Peter pointed out, it’s more anecdotal that based in real statistics or evidence. It’s more “emotional” I would say. Probably you focused on those that don’t speak well a language even if they read a lot instead of embracing everyone, which is difficult, because the ones that would speak the language wouldn’t make “news”.
But let’s take it as a fair question and I try to give you some insight based solely on my experience, which is of course limited.
- First of all, read a lot without focusing doesn’t bring you much further. We can read by skipping a lot of words and text and just process it in our mind to get the meaning without the need to make vocabulary.
You can read an entire book by skipping a lot of things and then explaining it using always your limited vocabulary and sometimes expanding it. We are lazy animals but smart.
Reading with focus for learning the language or for learning how to write is completely different. If those people, me included, had read all those “massive” input with an app like LingQ, things would be totally different. But they didn’t.
- If you read with focus you might have a lot of passive input but you would have a strong foundation.
After that, if you want to progress, you can only listening or speaking by practising. But if you don’t do it, how can you?
A language is not only reading but vocabulary is quite important, if you don’t have vocabulary how can you talk?
But in the vast majority of languages, if they would push themselves a tiny bit by listening and speaking, with that “massive” vocabulary, they would progress quite fast. A couple of month in the target language would make a real difference.
Probably those “massive” readers are introvert, or they don’t care about the language but just about the topic to give an exam. Or they don’t make any effort to do more because it’s not a requirement for their university. I mean, they just don’t care, they say they care but they don’t!
It’s not so complicated.
To make a fair example with our beautiful countries, a lot of people watch football all their lives and they still don’t know the rules. I mean, seriously, and those are just simple football rules! There are not so many! I know that, I watched football in all countries I went just for fun, comments are hilarious!
Imagine a language!