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Learning a Foreign Language

Learning to read a foreign language is often one of the more frustrating parts of graduate school, particularly for those who do not come in with a great language background or who are simply not gifted with languages. The fact that crash-courses and reading exams make sophisticated texts only slightly accessible adds to this frustration. I remember trying to read Balthasar after passing my German exam and having trouble understanding even the basics of the text; not exactly an encouraging experience. What is the best way to become more proficient in reading another language?  For the past few years I have been fairly diligent about working on German. I have tried many different strategies and, even though they may not be novel, I want to point to number that I have found helpful:

  • The most common advice I have heard is simply to make a regular schedule of reading whatever language you are working on. Everyday or a few times a week, read something in that language whether it is theological or just a newspaper article. This is, of course, absolutely true but the fact is that most of us know this and very few people end up maintaining it is the midst of  coursework/exams/dissertation. Therefore:
  • Find a few books that you would actually enjoy reading. For me, this meant getting some of the Harry Potter books in German. This has given me something easy to read when I get tired of academic German but want to keep to my reading schedule. Another great book for me has been Ich bin dann mal wegthe best-selling journal of a comedian/actor about his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The particular works aren’t important. Just find a few that you can move in and out of when you feel like it.
  • Find an article or book that you absolutely need (I assume that if you are trying to move beyond the beginning level of a language there will be such texts). I have started many articles/books which I thought might be helpful or be good practice but unless the piece is really necessary, I have found it hard to keep with it when it gets difficult.
  • Learn to speak the language at a basic level. I am by no means advanced in my German (I have gotten myself to somewhere around the intermediate level in speaking), but learning to produce German at even a basic level has given me a much better feel for the language and helped my speed and comprehension when reading. Of course, learning to actively produce a language takes even more time and usually means taking classes or a trip abroad. 
  • Find a reading group. However, I have found that unless the text being read is either enjoyable or necessary, groups oftentimes fall apart as quickly as an individual stop reading on his/her own.

Any other practices that people have found helpful?

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  1. WTM
    July 21, 2010 at 9:08 am

    Vocab, vocab, vocab!

    • Todd Walatka
      July 21, 2010 at 10:19 am

      Ah yes, vocab. I used to make a lot of vocab cards to memorize words but found that it simply did not work well for me (except for cramming for a reading exam). Now I just try to read as much as possible and that seems to do the trick. If I do make flash cards, I follow a helpful tip given to me by my old Latin teacher: each time I look up a word, I put a little mark next to it in my dictionary. After 3 or 4 times, I put the word on a card and memorize it.

  2. myles
    July 21, 2010 at 9:21 am

    You could go my route and write a dissertation about 20th century Americans, requiring zero foreign language work.

    • Todd Walatka
      July 21, 2010 at 10:24 am

      That works too! Of course, I knew a guy who was studying 19th/20th century US Catholic history and who was hoping to avoid other languages. It turned out that he need to read a number of old German newspapers and magazines from German immigrants in the Midwest – in the old German script.

      • myles
        July 21, 2010 at 1:12 pm

        It wasn’t an intentional move, I don’t think–it just worked out that way. You don’t find anyone commenting on Yoder, Dorothy Day, or William Stringellow outside the American context. Now, getting beyond the dissertation, there’s lots of interesting continental analogues which will necessitate getting my languages back up to speed, but that’s for a different year…

      • myles
        July 21, 2010 at 1:13 pm

        Or excuse me: outside the English-speaking context. Plenty of Brits comment on these folks.

  3. July 21, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    The same strategies work for ancient languages. Did you know there are Latin translations of the Harry Potter books?

    • Todd Walatka
      July 22, 2010 at 7:10 am

      I have seen some modern books translated back into Latin, Greek, etc and they seem like a great idea if they get someone to actually read the language. On another of my points, actively producing these languages is obviously harder unless one takes time to try to write in the language.

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