Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Sound of Reading

What sound does reading make? At first glance this may appear to be strange question but I believe the answer to the question is key to how you should approach learning a language. First let me map a typical path to reading mastery of English (should also apply to many European languages and languages with a simple phonetic script) as a mother tongue.

I was lucky because when I went to school in England they hadn't started the stupid approach that means they try to cram "measurable" and "iterative" learning of reading English (based on letters and writing and testing etc.) as early as possible into a child's life, this means that I was already over five years of age before I starting doing any formal learning of the English alphabet and that I can remember learning to read (my mother and her contempories were wisely told NOT to try to teach us to read prior to attending school). The sound of reading was my mother or father reading a story to me, I knew somehow the story was encoded in the page (becasue every time they told the same story it was the same words and they turned the pages at the same point) but I was more interested in the picutures and hearing the story they were telling me. So the sound of reading was my parents voices and besides I had no real time to worry about the writing becasue there was the story, there were the pictures and there were the many new words that I was hearing and learning in the stories. By the time I started schooling I guess I could probably recognise a few words that were of special interest in my life "toy" "sweets" etc. and that were important to recognise on signs especially when out shopping but I certainly could not break them down into their component letters and sounds.

At school the sound of reading suddenly took a turn for the worse, the sound of reading was a teachers voice whilst pointing at letters and expecting us to learn that "a is for apple", "b is for ball", ......, "i is for indian" etc. etc. I can still remember vividly the chart that we had on the wall. At home I was not longer interested in the book when my parents read a story to me, I liked stories especially adventure stories, if I was lucky enough to get a story I just want to listen and enjoy now. Sometimes they read to me and I was supposed to pay attention to the words, I hated it, those times the stories weren't the least bit interesting, they weren't even stories "Dick is sad." actually "Chris is SAD", "Jane helps Dick", bring back the dragons and griffons and pirates.

Next the sound of reading was my own voice, me reading the awful Dick and Jane stories and adults expecting me to read out aloud what was on the page. This code of letters to sounds was complicated (especially as English often cheats and throws a curve ball). I had to read the things out loud and then I simultaneously understood, it was boring and tedious and it was my voice uttering the boring words but I guess it was kind of fun and motivating when I got it right and the adults were happy.

The voice in my head retreated internally, reading was my voice still, but I didn't have to say the sounds to understand the reading, I heard them in my head. Some kids took longer it seemed and were embarrassed or cheated by saying the sounds in a not saying them kind of way "His lips are moving when he reads". As time progress I may hear other voices in the my head as I read that were the characters I was reading about but I guess that was just my internal voice imitating. Steadily I was getting to the point where I could read anything I could say and sound out words that I couldn't understand, which meant I could ask an adult the meaning of word I didn't know. Via reading I could actually hear words I didn't know the meaning of and say them out aloud or even listen out for them being used in speech. I didn't connect all the dots just then but amazing don't you agree?

Wham, I can read the stories, the real stories the interesting ones, the adventures, if I get past this silly color graded reading scheme I am on the teachers would let me take the real books on the shelf, the ones meant for the older kids, "The Hobbit".

Quickly I came to love reading, the more I read the faster I got and the more I learned. At some point the internal dialogue was too slow and somehow my mind started to connect words and groups of words in such a way that once I got into a book then the words vanished and a movie played in my head, fastest during descriptive seactions and perhaps slowing for dialogues. I don't know if this is way that everybody learns to read faster than speaking (an I think many people don't get to this point) but I have talked to enough people to know that many do it the same way. For example a friend of a friend at school read many books, very fast (if you check a book out from your local library in the morning and check it back it at lunch time, annoying them because before computers they hadn't had time to move the cards around to the right place, you are reading fast). One day he had to submit a book report on his favorite book, he picked a new one that was very popular with all of us "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy". A major character in the book is called Ford Prefect, in his report he mistakenly called the character Ford Perfect. Many people wouldn't believe that he had misread the name throughout the book so many times, but actually he only misread it once, the first time after that he never read the name at all just saw his image of the character or heard "Ford Perfect" whenever he saw the word, a weakness of this approach for sure but more than compensated by the fact that you can read more and fully remember the story even if you get the odd name wrong. I was lucky I knew that the Ford Prefect (the character mistakenly chose it for his name because he thought it was human name) becauswas a car my Mum had one once.

I learned my mother tongue through sound at first, then I extended my knowledge of the language through reading which as you can see was intimately connected with the sound. Only when completely acquainted did reading begin to go straight to meaning.

Now most European languages use a written system that is similar enough to mine that I can very quickly learn how to "hear" the language by reading the text, stage one think about how people from that country accent English when they speak it, stage two practice with some text and audio and very quickly I should be able to get to the point where I can read the language and "hear" it in my head, even though I do not understand it, or I could read it out aloud without understanding, yet a native speaker could understand what I read. Combine this with a little passive acquisition over my lifetime, a few cognates splattered around and then the following occurs: my wife gives me a toy that has no English instructions, we know that it is a Dinosaur Egg but don't know what to do with it, on the back I have the instructions in German, French, Italian and Spanish. I can fairly quickly decipher an English translation from the combination, starting with my strongest suit (German, more on that in a later post) and then cherry picking sentences from the other languages to fill in the gaps with all the languages in their phonetic glory and a strong dose of context this could probably work quite well in a number of circumstances. Nobody in their right mind would say that I can speak any of these languages but of course being a European I have at least acquired some passive knowledge and also share a language that has connections to them.

Die Suche nach den letzen dinosauriern hat begonnen, Place ton OEUF DE DINOSAURE in warmes Wasser et regarde, es magisch beggint. etc. etc. The magic truly does begin.

Starting any of these European languages I would of course engage with reading straight away.

Chinese however, now that is a completely different story, I have a busy week, next week but in a week or so my next post will describe how I have been learning to read in Chinese and where I have got to.


Bakunin said...

That's a great post, Chris! You were obviously much more interested in getting access to stories than in some kind of formal ability to read. That seems like a healthy attitude, not only for a child, but also for an adult learner :)

I was wondering, however, about your remark on European languages. Their script is closer to a phonetic one, but still there are specific sounds and spelling conventions that would be unfamiliar to the learner. I think it would still be better to start by just listening. Once you're familiar with the sounds and have some basic understanding, reading is much more enjoyable. But compared to Chinese, it's certainly much faster :)

Chris said...

You may be right, however I did experiment with German a little (I read half of Dean Koontz novel) and was surprised how much I learned by reading a book in German, I still didn't understand much of course.

Bakunin said...

Chris, I guess you've started reading Chinese now. If so, are you experiencing the same stages you did as a kid learning to read English? I mean, first reading aloud, then moving your lips, hearing a voice in your head, getting more and more quiet, getting faster, and finally faster than normal conversation speed?

Another great thing about reading in a foreign language is that you can allow yourself to read stories for children again :) I recently devoured a handful of Famous Five books in French, and I really enjoyed it!

Best4Future: Bringing Up Baby Bilingual! said...

my blog ( teaches children Chinese. But these free lessons are also good for any adult who has zero back of Chinese and wants to learn Chinese. Welcome to take a look!