Is it possible to learn to only read in a language to a high level?

General discussion about learning languages
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Is it possible to learn to only read in a language to a high level?

Postby Kevin » Sun Sep 13, 2020 9:01 pm

If someone wanted to learn one of the "easier" languages for native English speakers such as French, German, Spanish etc. But they had zero interest in learning to speak, listen, or write in the language. Their goal would be to only read at a B2 or higher level.

For someone with a goal of only wanting to read newspapers and literature only in a language, do you think it is possible for someone to only learn to read a language to a high level (B2-C2) while having speaking, listening, and writing at A0?

If someone has a goal to only learn to read a language and nothing else, do you think this could be done? If so, do you think attaining a B2 or higher in reading would be a quicker process than trying to attain a B2 or higher overall in a language?
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Re: Is it possible to learn to only read in a language to a high level?

Postby 白田龍 » Sun Sep 13, 2020 9:07 pm

Just a few decades ago people learned languages from books. it sounds crazy, but it worked.
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Re: Is it possible to learn to only read in a language to a high level?

Postby Lawyer&Mom » Sun Sep 13, 2020 9:10 pm

Absolutely. And with the more transparent languages it wouldn’t even be that hard. I would recommend doing a passive wave of Assimil first so you have a least a rudimentary idea of pronunciation. Then just start reading. I started reading YA in French after Assimil, and while it was rough sledding at first, after about five books I could read contemporary middlebrow adult fiction. I only do extensive reading. Just keep going, it gets easier.
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Re: Is it possible to learn to only read in a language to a high level?

Postby Longinus » Sun Sep 13, 2020 9:30 pm

The short answer is yes, it is very possible, and easier than learning to speak, certainly. I can read almost anything in German, probably to a level above that of the average native speaker. But, I have no practice speaking German, although I can put together some basic sentences if I need to. Weirdly, I find that I can understand slow spoken German, even though I've never practiced that skill.

There is a caveat, though. You will want to spend a few months learning the sounds of the language and how they relate to the orthography. I'm not sure why this is exactly, but it seems very important. I tried an experiment of learning to read French without any audio input and it was a complete failure. I found that I needed to be able to internally hear the language while reading.

Probably the fastest way to do this is to just get a novel in your target language and also get the audiobook in the target language, and just listen and follow along in the book. 20 or 30 hours of this would probably suffice. You could also work through some little course that was good at teaching pronunciation -- Pimsleur, for example. Once this is done, then just focus on reading. For widely spoken languages, there will be books that just teach reading, and this is a good place to start. The books like this that I like the best for German, French, and Spanish are by Karl Sandberg, and are titled "[Insert language] for Reading." I particularly did not like a book that is popular in universities by Hubert Jannach, "German for Reading Knowledge."

Obviously, courses like this are just a beginning, and you will then want to dive into native material. You can find all sorts of different strategies for handling native material for reading, on this forum, for example.
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Re: Is it possible to learn to only read in a language to a high level?

Postby Iversen » Sun Sep 13, 2020 9:32 pm

There are some languages and dialects which I to some extent can read because they look like something I know, and if I then also have studied such a language or dialect in an oldfashioned reading course where speaking wasn't intended then it is entirely plausible then I can read ordinary prose texts fairly well, but not be able to have a simple conversation.

My Ancient French and Ancien Occitan are in that situation.

One important factor is that to get active I need a good dictionary from something into the language - it is not enough enough to have one in the other direction. Without such a dictionary I can't build the necessary vocabulary - especially not without external oral input. And on top of that it takes some focused training to move a reading-only language into the active category, but that's more a question of skill than knowledge.

But A0 against C2? I think that pushing any language or dialect to C2 passively would give you quite a lot of both vocabulary and grammar, and then it would be silly not to try also to activate it along the way.
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Re: Is it possible to learn to only read in a language to a high level?

Postby Cainntear » Mon Sep 14, 2020 8:55 am

Kevin wrote:If someone wanted to learn one of the "easier" languages for native English speakers such as French, German, Spanish etc. But they had zero interest in learning to speak, listen, or write in the language. Their goal would be to only read at a B2 or higher level.

However, this is something you should only do if you are absolutely certain that you are never going to want to learn to speak it.

Even if you don't know you're doing it, the process of reading does involve pronouncing things. If you learn to read without learning to pronounce, your brain will invent its own pronunciation for you, based on languages you already know how to speak and read.

In French, that would probably mean you'd be pronouncing final Ss and Ts and the like, and this would be an exceptionally hard habit to break years down the line.

And it's not just your pronunciation that could be messed up by this. It's very easy to read a written sentence out of order without realising you're doing it -- your eyes can flick backwards and forwards and read things in an order that is more like your native language, making it easier for you to understand, but preventing you internalising the language's own syntax. For example, if you're reading a North Indian language with what Indian grammarians call postpositions (and European grammarians call paradoxically something like "postactive prepositions") your brain can very easily get your eyes to look ahead and read the pre/postposition before reading/processing the word.

Also, you won't even necessarily process every word. If you're never producing language, there is no need for your brain ever to notice that you are "on a bus" but "in a plane". It's enough to notice short word with N, transport... and you understand the sentence. Your brain could very easily bundle the two together, making it harder for you to say the right thing later.

All that said...
Actually, even if your goal is only to learn to read, these unconscious mental shortcuts could limit your potential for future learning. The more advanced the material you're reading, the more likely you're going to encounter multiple weaknesses in your language simultaneously. A single error might not impede understanding on its own, but when it interacts with other errors, it can render a message incomprehensible.

If you read your Hindi postpositions before reading the word, what happens when you start reading very long noun phrases? If it's long, you might fail to notice the postposition and get confused. Or if you learn to infer the meaning of prepositions from context, and someone starts discussing the concept of "talking to" vs "talking at" someone, you're going to get lost.

First and foremost, language is a spoken phenomenon, and if you really want to understand a language, you have to understand its spoken form, even if you're never going to use it. (IMHO)
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Re: Is it possible to learn to only read in a language to a high level?

Postby iguanamon » Mon Sep 14, 2020 12:45 pm

This was my problem with learning Catalan. Because I already spoke related languages, I could/can read it. I can read adult novels, with some help from a dictionary at times. I watch native native non-dubbed series. Understanding is way easier than producing. The little things get glossed over in reading and in listening because they're not really needed for getting the meaning.

Reading and listening are easier skills to acquire for a learner than skills of producing language. I would go so far as to say it is more common here on the forum than the other way around simply because most of us do not live in a TL country and our opportunities for conversation (written or oral) are more difficult to come by than picking up a book and reading it.

To really take a language in as a language-learner, I would also argue that all skills require work, especially speaking and writing. Each skill reinforces the other in our minds. I become a better listener by being a better reader... a better speaker by being a better writer, etc.

After learning a few languages, especially similar languages from the same family, I got lazy. I didn't want to do the work that I knew I had to do, which is ironic for a language-learner, I know. The thing is, despite course hype, it isn't done "with ease". Doing the hard things, the "not fun at first" things is so necessary in language-learning. What a shame it would be for me to be able to understand Catalan well but not be able to communicate.

Some day, hopefully soon, this pandemic will pass and people will live their lives as we have done before- interacting with each other, meeting people without fear, gathering together. When that day comes I want to go to Catalunya and hike in the Pyrenees, hang out in a neighborhood bar in Barcelona, meet some new friends. I don't want to have to speak Spanish with them.

That being said, there are languages where a learner only wants to read, and maybe listen. It's a legitimate desired outcome. That's ok. It is indeed possible to do this at a high level. Just don't expect to (and don't complain about it) be able to produce at anywhere near the same level. I do believe that even if consumption in a language is all that is desired, working on production can only help understanding. It's amazing how the more connections we make with a language in our minds, the better our abilities become in that language.
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Re: Is it possible to learn to only read in a language to a high level?

Postby PfifltriggPi » Mon Sep 14, 2020 3:26 pm

This seems like a question for me. In a word, yes you can. As my profile indicates, I have done it four times and am in progress of doing it again. (I do want to actually be able to speak Ukrainian, although I have not been making much progress in that direction. Greek on the other hand can be read-only as far as I care.)

As Professor Argüelles put it : "In order to speak a language you have to do just that." This I certainly do not : the only languages I truly speak on a regular basis are French, English and now some bad Ukrainian. I suppose I have been producing a bit more spoken Italian as my sister has started learning it, so I have been helping her, but I have not truly had a conversation in Italian in months, and I can not think of a time when I really ever did outside of a language-learning context. I have not spoken Spanish for even longer, and I have not spoken Catalan with anyone for years.

In my case, this comes about somewhat naturally : there are not many Catalans or Italians in my vicinity and I have not the means to go to either Catalonia or Italy even if I were allowed to do so. I am also a somewhat stereotypical anti-social autist would would rather sit inside and read old dusty books by long-dead people of whom no one has ever heard. (Fondly caresses a bilingual copy of the Life of Saint Neilos of Rossanno.)

And I think I can honestly claim to be able to read at a decent level in these languages. (Although I do need to improve my Catalan a bit.) Consider for example the first "advanced" texts to come to hand grabbing somewhat at random in those languages, Rivolta contro il mondo moderno by the 20th century metaphysician Julius Evola for Italian, "Cançó de taverna" by the 19th century Catalan Poet Josep Maria de Sagarra, Petrarch's Latin masterpiece of introspection the Secretum and "Final Absurdo" by contemporary Spanish author Laura Freixas, and one of my favourite Spanish short stories. All these I can/have read and enjoyed, albeit perhaps not with the full ease understanding of a native speaker growing up in the social and cultural context, at very least well enough to appreciate and learn much from them.

That said, the "level of difficulty" of these texts are all well beyond what I could write, (except possibly in Latin) and infinity beyond my spoken capability. Reading poetry in Catalan is possible for me, albeit not as easily as in French or English. The last time I tried holding a conversation in Catalan I ended up quickly giving up and switching to Spanish, and even my spoken Spanish is not good enough for me to speak effortlessly in it. So it certainly is possible for one's reading ability to vastly outpace one's speaking ability or vice versa.

That said, if you read and listen enough you will eventually assimilate enough to speak somewhat, albeit not excellently. I can speak Italian if I have to, and have done it in the past. I just have a thick French accent and somewhat poor grammar, but could probably survive were I to be somehow teleported to Italy although making it to the French border would be a priority. So perhaps it is not a question of being able to read extremely well and not being able to speak at all, but rather a question more simply of to which facets of using a language one has dedicated the most time. Perhaps this is all just personal preference playing a larger part than I realized.

In other words, yes if one reads more than one speaks one will read better than one will speak and if one speaks more than one reads one will speak better than one will read. It seems most polyglots prefer the second option, but if one's primary interest is in the literary applications of one's languages, there is no reason not to peruse that primarily.
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Re: Is it possible to learn to only read in a language to a high level?

Postby Aloyse » Mon Sep 14, 2020 7:29 pm

Kevin wrote:do you think it is possible for someone to only learn to read a language to a high level (B2-C2) while having speaking, listening, and writing at A0?

If you have no idea how the language is pronunced, especially with the many possible ways to write a same sound in French, it will probably be difficult to understand puns, poetry, songs, slang (especially verlan) and some text message simplified orthography (?), maybe even dialogues in novels (sometimes written as pronunced).
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Re: Is it possible to learn to only read in a language to a high level?

Postby tarvos » Mon Sep 14, 2020 9:01 pm

Of course it's possible. That's not really the question, plenty of people learn to read languages for archival purposes. It's about whether it's desirable, and 99% of the time I see this question pop up the feeling creeps up on me that either a) this person doesn't want to talk to people (not my bag, but ok, there's a place for that) or b) they're lazy and want to learn the language without having to put in the effort to speak it and overcome that barrier. In the second case - I think those people shouldn't be learning languages, they should be doing something they have more fun doing instead of making up excuses.

If you learn to read German to understand historical texts from WWII it's not really the same as learning German in order to have to live in Germany... and most people need to sort out the why before they start on the how. Because really, if you know your why, the how won't be put into question. You'll have the intrinsic motivation to just do it.
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