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The Reading Trap

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There are worse things to be.

So my sister used to be a nurse. She quit because she hated living in a world of blood and piss and feces, which I find ironic because she loves Sex and the City. A neat thing about nursing is that it’s a job that, for whatever reason, draws a large pool of attractive, international young women. One of these attractive young women I met was Russian; I think her name was Xenia Onatopp. Xenia spoke English like a native, and barely had an accent. She must have read lots of English books and possessed at least an intermediate writing level given her near-native spoken fluency, right? I bet she was highly literate…right?

Wrong. She used to batch out emails to all the nurses at the hospital (for girl things like “Let’s bake muffins and talk about Tampons”), and that’s when the world found out that this woman appeared to have the writing level of my in-bred cousin Taärguus who we keep in the basement and feed a bucket of fish heads every night. She possessed the absolute minimum level of literacy necessary to earn a nursing license, yet her spoken English was fantastic.

An anecdote: This beautiful German girl came to check out the homestay house I’m living in. We chatted for a while, and she was, literally, a native-like English speaker. I didn’t even suspect she wasn’t American for over five minutes. She laughed about purchasing a Korean textbook, and said she hadn’t learned anything and that “textbooks are, you know, less than useless.” She learned her English from, surprise, English media and interacting with us foreigners.

Another anecdote: We had an Italian dude stay with us at the house for a week. His English was definitely ladled in Italian accent-sauce, but it was also rapid-fire and heavy in everyday English idioms/turns of phrase. He had never been to America, but watched a lot of American TV, which was not surprising. He sent me a Facebook message last week; let’s just say it took a lot of “uh, I guess he meant to spell X” on my part to decode it.

It’s amazing to contrast these fluent-speaking, barely literate people to the Koreans I deal with every day, who have been raised with an opposing philosophy: one should put maximum effort on literacy and grammatical knowledge. The K-girls in the house I live in have both passed the TOEIC test with great scores, which is an absolutely brutal exam when it comes to grammatical accuracy in reading and writing. In short, they know their shit. YET… when they speak, they sound like I did in 2nd semester high school Spanish- it took five minutes to think of, translate, then vomit up a complete sentence. “Well, that’s not fair because in Korea, X and Y and blahblahblah.” Allow me to retort: one of the girls had just returned from England, where she lived for seven years.

SEVEN YEARS.

A quick glance at her Facebook page and, what do ya know, it appears she hung out with Koreans the whole time. Even worked at a Korean company while she was there. But she sure hits the books when it’s time to “study” English, and her written English is flawless (I actually thought the Craigslist ad for the homestay, as well as the ‘house rules’ signs around the house, were written by a native speaker).

I really think that overemphasizing the written word is a serious problem for language learners. Seriously. I think it’s going to be in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I’ve seen so many blogs and comments that like this:

“I can read everything in Final Fantasy XXVI: Crystal Comet Fancy Tiara Adventures, and I’ve got no problems with my high school wizard novels, but I can’t understand a podcast or an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. I guess I need to Anki even more!!!!!”

Why do some people place such a high focus on literacy? Because it’s easy to measure, and easy to improve. Because it’s way easier to make an Anki deck out of audio-less words and sentences. But I suspect the biggest, darkest reason of all, is that it lets us imagine that we are better than we really are at our L2. For a lot of people, merely watching TV and movies, listening to podcasts, and playing dubbed videogames makes them feel a sense of shame, and even anger.

Shame: “Why don’t I understand?! Why do I still suck?!”

Anger: “This is frustrating because I’m just sitting on my ass watching TV and I don’t feel like I’m getting better and my puritan work-ethic mind tells me I need to stand up and start doing something to speed this up!”

This is where the Reading Trap(TM) begins. The learner turns away from the organic waves of native audio to the cold logic of ink on pages and letters on screens, and suddenly everything is measurable; language acquisition can be a methodical process, it can be controlled by the learner! Your brain says “I don’t know this word; I will look it up and paste the definition in Anki.” You do it. You get a squirt of dopamine. “Ooh yeaahh… that felt good, now I ‘know’ this word. Mmm… let’s do that again.” Pretty soon you’ve got thousands of audio-less cards and you can read great and and your listening and speaking still sssuuuccckkk.

Picture two rooms, each containing an attractive young person learning English.

ROOM 1: a girl is watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and laughing her ass off when Cameron kicks his dad’s sports car out the window, and crying softly when Sloane says “He’s gonna marry me…” She wipes a tear away and throws a tissue into the trashcan next to her collection of Weezer and Green Day CDs. She is doing this instead of her ESL homework. Her grades will suffer, but she doesn’t care about that boring stuff. She has huge breasts.

ROOM 2, a guy is clicking away at an Anki deck of soundless words and sentences. Great! 90% correct! He finishes, then gets out a grammar worksheet and begins to quietly fill in the blanks. He finishes by taking a practice TOEIC test. Wow! 100%! He truly is becoming a master of English!

Question: Who is getting better at English? Answer: both of them, but they are practicing different skills. The girl is learning colloquial, spoken English and American culture. She is improving her knowledge of the sounds of English. The guy will absolutely blow her out of the water on a standardized test.

A better question: Who is becoming fluent at English? Based on my Real Life(TM) encounters with Russians, Germans, Italians, Koreans, Japanese, and so many other people here in this bustling Asian mega-cities, I now say with the utmost confidence that the girl in ROOM 1 is getting fluent, and the guy in ROOM 2 is not (although he will get a good TOEIC score and make an excellent Samsung wage slave). Adapting the old “I know porn when I see it” argument, I am hereby declaring fluency to be more closely related to audio than to text, because I’ve seen the results.

To use imagery appropriate to The Language Dojo: The listening/speaking learners are like fighters who get in the ring and spar every day; the reading/writing learners are like the commentators on the sidelines, observing and able to give accurate play-by-play commentary on the details of what’s happening, but who immediately have their underwear pulled over their head when they actually try to step in the ring. Getting stuck in the Reading Trap allows us to sidestep our problems with impatience and shame, but it makes us train for an entirely different sport than we originally intended. Reading is an important part of fluency, but much less so than the aural components- listening and speaking.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Audio trains us to be players; the Reading Trap trains us to be fans.

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Matt is an unorthodox teacher and, above all, an unorthodox writer. He taught himself French mostly by watching TV, and now lives in Korea where he is training for the International Bench-press/Bicep Biathlon.

Latest posts by Matt (see all)

13 Comments…

Jeff September 29, 2013 at 6:54 am

Something I’ve been grappling with with this sort of perspective is that it’s really tough when learning a language as an adult to reach the point where you can just sit down and enjoy watching TV. Most of the time TV made for kids is just boring, so it’s easy to fall into the habit of trying to learn (or study) everything you don’t know so you can get to the point where you have the option of just sitting back and enjoying a movie made for adults like the girl in room 1. And it can take a looong time to reach that point depending on how much time you are putting into the language each day.

So I can definitely agree that a lot of us spend too much time focusing on filling the gaps in our knowledge and the written language, but that’s probably the most easily accessible option before you can watch and enjoy movies. Anyone else agree? I had forgotten about this with my Japanese because at this point I can sit back and enjoy TV (despite still having a lot to learn), but I just started learning Korean and I’m reminded of how much work I’ll have to put in before I really have the option of moving away from the written word.

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Matt September 30, 2013 at 4:33 am

This is a ‘different strokes for different folks’ situation. You said it’s hard to reach the point where you can sit down and enjoy watching TV; personally, I have no problem watching five hours of TV with lots of dialogue I don’t understand. As you said, TV for kids is boring, so that’s why I only watch media I find entertaining enough to watch whether or not I understand the dialogue (like a five year old watching The Empire Strikes Back). At this point I’m confident that immersion is working (it sure as hell worked with French!), so I’m perfectly fine with just sitting on my ass and enjoying the ride.

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Jeff September 30, 2013 at 9:55 pm

Ah, yeah, very true. And I like your example of a five year old watching The Empire Strikes Back. :P

I didn’t have a very good experience with immersion in Japanese before I reached a level where it was somewhat coherent, but maybe I’ll give it a shot with Korean considering that I’m more relaxed about it all.

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Magallanes October 26, 2013 at 3:12 pm

I dont know – what I do is watch the “japanese animes” I used to watch as a teenager which are dubbed into my target L3. Thats easy and fun, and sentimental.

But Spongbob – even as a grown man I have fun watching that in any language.

Cartoons can be fun, man

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Akatoshsama September 30, 2013 at 10:11 am

I noticed this problem last week, so guess what, I hear every day hours of raw Japanese. I’m not a big fan of TV and Movies but I like Let’s plays, Vlogs, Anime etc. Therefore I watched almost the whole playlist of a Skyrim let’s play and some episodes of an Anime. I also try to watch some movies but there are few movies I really like (LOTR, The Hobbit and ohter fanatasy stuff)

I’m bit curious… do you wanna reach native fluency in Korean (would take at least 8 years I think) or just fluency/almost native? (would take 1.5-2.5/3-4 I think)
My goal is to reach native fluency in Japanese (or even better). It doesn’t matter if it takes 10 yeras or even 15. My motivation is growing every day because I’m just glad to be here where I am.

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Malcolm Bacon October 2, 2013 at 3:30 am

I totally agree with this post. It’s interesting that people spend more time reading and writing in the language and studying grammar as opposed to listening and I feel as if this is because of the “I have to work hard on my Spanish” mentality I have. My weak point is in listening and in speaking and I do think that is because when I sit back and try to soak in information I grow to become a bit bored because it usually isn’t with programs that I’m very interested in. I DON’T EVEN WATCH TV IN ENGLISH…But I do know that in order to improve my listening and speaking skills I need to do more passive studying. I’m teaching myself the Spanish language and it’s tough because I cannot gauge my progress. I’ve come to accept that there isn’t and end point and that I’m still even learning the English language to a certain extent. But I do have this theory that if I just get a general idea or overview of the different verb tenses and the grammatical structure of the language that listening will be easier because I will know what patterns to look out for. I know every verb tense in Spanish. I know almost every preposition and pronoun an this has given my listening a boost. I just found a site where I can watch my favorite movies in Spanish and it’s fantastic. But I wanted to ask you, is it better to watch programs that were actually produced in specific Spanish speaking regions or do dubbed versions of movies work as well. Also, there are so many different accents of the Spanish language. Someone who moves from a Latin American country or Spain into the US wouldn’t speak like they do in London, so what should I do as far as my Spanish accent. Because I never really cared to communicate with people from Spain, I was more to worried about those from Latin America. Now I’m not from any Latin American country but I need to develop some particular accent (everyone has as accent). What do you suggest I do?

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J-N October 2, 2013 at 8:27 pm

I don’t think literacy or reading is the problem but book learning.
The examples you’ve given are mostly of people who have been studying the language rather than acquiring it and I think we agree that traditional textbook methods aren’t the way to go.
But just as watching a lot of dramas and listening to podcasts etc. has been very useful, I’ve also learned a great deal of Japanese through all the manga and novels I’ve read.
I can only recommend extensive reading. Definitely more enjoyable than SRSing.

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Daniel October 3, 2013 at 5:44 am

The assumption underlying the view that “audio trains us to be players” is that the game is to converse in that language (especially in-person and face-to-face), right? If that really is the game a language learner is seeking to play, I think this post could be a great help to them.

But that is not the game all language learners are after. In my own case, I am studying Japanese while living in Vietnam. Reading skills are very important for me, because part of the reason I am studying Japanese is to read more from the authors I love in Japanese. Listening skills are important for me, too, because part of the reason I am studying Japanese is to enjoy more TV shows–or, at this point in my studies, to understand more of the TV shows I do watch.

If I ever plan to go to Japan, I will concentrate much more on my speaking and writing skills, but they aren’t that important for me to focus on right now. And so I don’t focus on ‘em nearly as much.

Anyway, just wanted to add this to the conversation. I’ve found one of the most crucial things in learning a language (or anything at all) is to be aware of your own goals–what “game” you are wanting to play–and to train for that game (as well as judge your own progress) accordingly.

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BDF October 3, 2013 at 10:49 pm

I definitely agree that only reading is not the way to go, as one’s native language negatively influences the internal monologue. However, I get around this by listening to an audiobook while following along in the text. I prefer to do this with nice long books such as Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. This way, I get literacy skills and dozens of hours of listening practice to associate sounds with words.. I would especially recommend this for learners of English, for when they come across words such as ‘colonel’ , ‘sugar’ or ‘echo’

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redlab October 10, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Great article Matt. I think TV is super valuable, I’d like to add one other trap though: the NEWS trap. Watch too much news or listen to too much news radio and you’ll find that you’re understanding it great, but as soon as some comedy or normal conversation comes on you’ll be lost. I’m not too far into my French studies (about 7 months), but I’m trying to rectify this by ODing on Un Gars, Une Fille and Scènes de Menage. Tchin Tchin!

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Matt December 30, 2013 at 9:11 am

Thanks bud. Your tumblr is badass, keep it up.

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Livonor November 30, 2013 at 3:22 am

true story bro

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Livonor November 30, 2013 at 3:47 am

`one should put maximum effort on literacy and grammatical knowledge`

まるで19世紀のラテン語学習方法ようにしてるんだ

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