Can you learn Spanish by reading?
For us independent Spanish language learners, one of the most difficult things can be to figure out how to learn. There are so many different options out there, so many different products, and, honestly, everybody learns differently, so how do you decide which way works best?
To completely, totally, 100% learn a new language, you need to work on the four language skills: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. That being said, you can’t completely learn Spanish by reading. As in, you can’t read a bunch of books, walk into Spain, and be fluent. It doesn’t necessarily work that way.
However, if you do it right, learning Spanish by reading can help more than just your reading. If books are the only thing you have access to, you can definitely use them to push your other language skills forward just a little bit.
When you learn Spanish by reading, you think the language
One of the worst habits that a learner of any language can get stuck in is thinking up what they want to say in English and then translating into Spanish. Bilingual people don’t have a machine in their head that takes in English and spits out Spanish, so this doesn’t really work out too well. Sentence structures are different, words and phrases don’t translate directly, and it’s just a giant mess.
Actually learning a new language means learning how to think in the new language. When you read Spanish books, what language do you think you’re thinking in? This is a really huge part of learning Spanish, or any language – past the vocab and the grammar and accents is teaching your brain to actually function as a bilingual brain.
For example, if you get yourself accustomed to flashcards, where you see a Spanish word and train your brain to think of an English word (not to say vocab flashcards don’t have their place), you get your brain accustomed to translating Spanish, not thinking Spanish. It’s a key difference.
To learn more vocab, learn Spanish by reading
Let’s be honest, we all get sick of using the same basic words and phrases all the time, but it’s also hard to learn new ones in conversations because most everyday conversations only use about 1,000 words, and this includes words like “a”, “de”, “la”, etc. To really expand on your vocab, learn Spanish by reading.
For one, written language tends to be WAY different from spoken language: much more formal, with more conjugations and vocabulary. You can almost think of written Spanish has a whole other language, because words that are common in written form are almost never heard in real life. Written language does not feel the same as spoken language.
Second, vocab isn’t king. Tools like Duolingo are important, don’t get me wrong, but there’s more to vocab than flashcards. When it comes to learning vocabulary, approaching it scientifically isn’t nearly as efficient as approaching it in real life.
Vocab isn’t king, context is. Instead of basically giving yourself homework, allowing yourself to pick up new Spanish vocabulary by reading gives your brain context, because that’s how we work. Context creates more complex memories. What’s easier to remember: one of the 200 flashcards you’ve seen, or when your favorite character in your book dies?
Afraid to speak? Learn Spanish by reading
While nobody can ever stress enough how important speaking a language is when you’re learning it, I did mention that having a full understanding of a language does require other things, right? I’m not saying to avoid speaking forever. But I am saying that there are days when sometimes we just can’t push back that fear, and I get it.
When it comes to those days, and you still want to push your Spanish forward, Spanish books are a great alternative. They’re significantly lower stress because you don’t have the pressure of another person there, you can do it without anybody else, and you can do it at your own speed.
Not only that, but just because you’re reading doesn’t mean you can’t speak. Even if you’re just talking to yourself, it’s better than not speaking at all. Trust me. Reading aloud gives your brain some experience with the flow of the conversation, and how sentence structure works, even if you’re not coming up with the sentences yourself.
Do you have to look up every other word? No worries – there’s literally nobody else to judge you! All you have to do is put the effort forward and allow the story (or whatever it is that you’re reading) play out in your imagination. Don’t forget that learning Spanish should be fun – enjoy it!
Need help with pronunciation? Learn Spanish by reading
Even if you don’t want to practice speaking Spanish, reading Spanish books can do a lot with helping your practice your Spanish pronunciation. Half the battle of learning to speak Spanish words correctly is training your mouth to naturally create shapes that aren’t actually natural to you. When you’re reading your Spanish book out loud, it’s a great opportunity to really embellish these movements, and create new muscle memory in your mouth.
With nobody around, you can speak as slowly and deliberately as you need to. Then, once you start getting used to making these shapes you can speed it up by speaking more and more quickly, growing accustomed to that speed. One of my favorite parts of reading out loud is when my reading skills are growing faster than my speaking, so I’m reading so fast my mouth can’t follow!
Not to mention, this is double impact: speaking the words out loud can help to solidify any new vocab, for example, because you’re basically sticking it into your brain in three different ways: reading it, saying it, and hearing yourself say it. For this reason, finding audiobooks to complement your reading in real-time will also help to compound this new information.
When you learn Spanish by reading, you learn natural phrasings
When you have an English conversation with somebody whose first language is something else, you can usually tell, either by their accent or by the words and sentence structure they use. Because phrases and sentences are different between languages, it can really be hard to learn to create natural-sounding phrases when that’s not how words work in English.
Therefore, reading Spanish books is a great way to take in these phrases and structures. When you read in Spanish, your brain is taking in the patterns that the book uses, and this eventually translates to speaking more like a native.
Trying to create everyday phrases using bits and pieces is not nearly as good as learning the phrases from the get-go. I’m still upset at how long it took me to stop saying “otra tiempo” instead of “otra vez”. It makes sense, but it just doesn’t sound right.
This is perfect especially for those of us who just can’t travel to a foreign country to immerse ourselves in Spanish…which is almost all of us. Reading a book written in Spanish is literally immersion; who cares which country you’re in?
Reading a book you already know can be a healthy crutch
I hate the word “crutch”. It comes with such a negative connotation, since it’s usually used to talk about something that makes things easier now, but will just make them more difficult for you in the long run. Fortunately for us, reading a book we already know in English in an effort to learn Spanish can actually help us!
Remember when I was talking about creating the story in our heads, as we do when we read books? When we read a book in Spanish that we already know in English, we already have that story in our heads. We don’t have to create it again.
This makes the part where we learn the Spanish version much easier because half the work is already done for us. In this case, a lot of the time we can even figure out words just by context; if we already know what the cat does after it gets in the box in the English version of the book, we can easily learn the Spanish words for the same things.
Learn Spanish by reading and by writing
Reading and writing go hand in hand. These are both often forgotten aspects of learning a language, but they’re both so important! If you’re having a hard time writing in Spanish, reading it can do a lot to help you out. Just like learning new phrases and words by reading, you can also learn when and how to use conjugations and verb tenses, which you can bring into your writing.
Just like vocabulary, conjugations and verb tenses are significantly easier to learn when you have context for them. Nobody wants to learn all these rules for these things; if you take them in naturally, you’ll begin to understand them naturally. It’s much better to use conjugations because they feel right than to spend your time trying to remember all your rules at the spur of the moment.
Like I said, immersion. Especially if you’re more of a visual learner, like me. Vocab and conjugations come and go instantly in conversation, and most of us spend way more time trying to figure out the conjugations in our head while in the middle of the conversation. When you’re reading, you can take as much time as you like. The words aren’t going anywhere, and you can go ahead and google search whatever doesn’t make sense.
Learn Spanish by reading and learn your level of fluency, too!
A great thing about lower level books (especially the popular ones that you probably already know) is that it’s easy to look up what age range your book is written for. This knowledge can give you a good idea as to what level your reading is at, which is helpful for coming up with goals to improve further.
You’ll usually get an age range of 3-4 years when you look this up, which is great for understanding your level in terms of elementary school, middle school, and high school. Plus, when you can finally get up to that high school level? That’s a great feeling.
Just make sure you don’t automatically go for the entire Harry Potter series (which I’ve definitely done while at an elementary school reading level). Not only is it definitely not at an elementary level, but it involves a lot of made up words that can really trip you up if you spend too much time looking them up or trying to figure out which ones are actually important/useful for you.
Where do you start to learn Spanish by reading?
When you’re just starting out, it’s easiest to start right from the beginning. This means picture books and fairy tales, like Three Little Pigs, and Cinderella. Again, the fact that you already know these stories will really help you to push past this level to more advanced elementary books.
Fortunately, Spanish is so common that many public libraries carry Spanish sections, especially if you live in a city with a large Spanish-speaking population. If you don’t have access to one of these Spanish is one of the most common languages in the world, so it’s not difficult to find these books. One of the most popular options is Amazon – you can find picture books for just a couple of bucks each.
Have you learned Spanish by reading? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!