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Can You Read in a Foreign Language? I Mean, Can You?

reading in a foreign language is like a puzzle

I don’t mean to be cocky or insulting with that title, but I really want to know: can you really read in a foreign language? Do you know how you can do it best?

You’ve probably been taught that all you needed to do was get a book, open it, and start reading.

That’s the way I’ve been taught to read.

But this is how children read. And even so, good teachers provide them with good strategies and best practices for them to extract as much as possible from a book.

Reading Books in A Foreign Language

When reading a book in Portuguese, for example, many of the people I know—including some first-time students—follow the same procedures as they do when they read in English.

That’s not a problem, and that’s not necessarily wrong. It’s just ineffective.

If you want to read in Portuguese, you need to know some things about how our brain works and what you can do to make the most out of your time. Especially if you have a family to take care of or a job to do, or both!

How Your Brain Works

It’s a simple matter.

Imagine your brain is a computer — and I know it’s a trite metaphor. It can process only so much information without getting overloaded. It has to allocate the processing capability to specific tasks.

You can call it “cognitive power.” That’s not a scientific term, it’s just a shorthand for the concepts we want to explore here.

You have only so much cognitive power throughout the day. And everything you do consumes some of the cognitive power reserves you have.

If you’re trying a new recipe, you spend five cognitive points. You have to have the talk with a client? There goes another five points. Having a stressful day? Oh, I can’t even put a number to that…

And when you’re reading, your brain is at the same time

  1. putting the letters together so they make sense as a word,
  2. retrieving the information about the sounds of Portuguese,
  3. keeping up with the plot or the storyline,
  4. making relevant associations with previous knowledge…

Well, you get the idea.

The fact is, your brain is busy doing hard work on many fronts.

If you don’t have the necessary skills to read in Portuguese, you can get tired very fast.

And that translates into you putting the book on the coffee table and forgetting about it.

The Purpose of Reading

You also have to consider the purpose of reading.

When your professor of English 101 assigned you a reading, you may have liked it… Or (quite likely) not.

You weren’t reading that for fun. You were reading that out of obligation.

So the purpose was to complete a task, a necessary thing for your survival, so to speak.

But when you are waiting in line for your turn and see the cover of the Cosmopolitan or the National Enquirer on the checkout lane, you can almost feel the tingling in your hands. You want to grab it. It’s interesting. It’s tantalizing. It’s titillating.

In other words, it’s fun.

So, depending on the purpose you have for reading, your brain will need more or less cognitive power points.

What’s the Problem, Then?

The problem is, if you don’t know exactly what the purpose is, you don’t have a strategy and you don’t know what tactics to use.

And that, again, pretty much translates as procrastination. Books going from the coffee table to the garage (or to a forgotten folder in an overcrowded computer).

And that translates as loss of money as well. Investments need to give something back. Otherwise, they’re just expenses.

And What Can I Do?

First, bear in mind that there are two different kinds of reading in a foreign language.

There is extensive reading.

When you don’t want to strain yourself and get tired, that’s the kind of reading you have to do. You get some material at your level or slightly below. You don’t care much about the words in it—rather, you want to get immersed in the story. You want to have fun as you have with any other paperback you might buy from your local bookshop.

You are going for speed here. You may even skip some parts of the book entirely and do a lot of guessing from context.

And the perfect materials for extensive reading when you’re still at lower levels of proficiency (close to intermediate) are graded readers. You can check our catalog of graded readers here.

And there is intensive reading.

This is what you do when you want or need to get out of your “comfort zone” (a term I very much despise but have to use as a shorthand). Maybe all you can gobble during an intensive reading session is a paragraph. But you will know this paragraph like you know one of the elementary school teachers you wanted to take revenge on.

For a list of books that natives resort to when they’re not experienced readers, click here. These books tend to be more accessible for those reaching the intermediate level.

Speed isn’t important here. You want to grasp the grammatical structures, understand the registers and styles, pick up some new vocabulary specific to a professional area… You have a very specific goal.

Then, as you can see, according to the goal you have, you can choose the general strategy — extensive or intensive — and have a set of tactics to tackle reading books in Portuguese.

Of course, there are requirements for the book as well. They have to be like the graded readers we put out.

So, how have you been reading so far and what books have you been reading? Leave your answers in the comments section below. 🙂


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