It’s true, learning to speak another language is a difficult and often awkward experience. However, when language learners are asked which of the four basic skills they find the most intimidating (speaking, listening, reading or writing), the answer is often ‘reading’.
As a completely solo exercise, it’s hard to come face to face with a page of unfamiliar words and try to decipher them. It can be slow and demotivating work, and for a lot of learners it can even feel redundant. If reading fluently in French isn’t a necessary skill for you to have, what’s the point? What many French learners underestimate is the impact reading regularly in French can have on other key skills - speaking skills especially.
It can be hard to get the necessary exposure to your target foreign language. This can be the case even if you’re lucky enough to live in a French speaking country. Many language learners complain about being able to discuss certain topics well, but being stumped as soon as they’re faced with an unfamiliar conversation point. This isn’t surprising. After all, we all have daily routines that tend to expose us to the same situations over and over again. These are the things we grow comfortable discussing. Whereas, if you’ve never found the need to discuss French politics in your daily life, it’s probably not a conversation topic you can talk about fluently.
Reading is a fantastic way to expose yourself to unfamiliar situations, in any language. And reading in French can really help you to become confident in discussing new topics, using new language forms and even speaking with a better accent! All you need to do is pick the right book and get started on some simple approaches to reading.
1. Learn Vocabulary Through Context
Having a sufficient vocabulary is key to speaking any language and, compared to the English for example, the French often use a very large vocabulary in everyday life. If you are living in a French speaking country then learning new vocabulary through context is probably something you do quite regularly. You come across new words every day and have to decipher their meaning based on information you already know. However, the rate at which you can do this slows down as you settle into a routine. If you don’t live in a French speaking country, then exposing yourself to new vocabulary can be a real obstacle in your learning: boring vocabulary lists are your most available, yet uninspiring, option. One of the best vocabulary learning skills to master is learning through context. It adds another dimension to your learning and will help you to recall the words you learn more easily. Reading is a fantastic way to do this.
One of the reasons people are so put off by reading in a foreign language is the constant need to look-up new words. Stop doing that! As a rule of thumb, never look-up a word until you’ve read it three times. When you’re first confronted with a new word, try to guess it’s meaning. Read the sentence it is in and see if the context can help you. The next time you see it, see if your idea still fits. By the third time you see the word, you should know if you’ve got it right or not. If, after three times, you have no idea what the word could mean then you can look it up and be sure to write it down.
This is also a great time to start a glossary. At the end of each chapter, make a list of the words you’ve learned and test yourself on these as you continue the book. It’s a easy way to track your progress and see how beneficial your effort has been!
2. Grammar & Tenses
As French language learners, when you converse with native speakers you’re probably aware that they often use more advanced language than you. And while you may be able to pick out a difficult tense or a more elaborate sentence structure when they speak, it can often be hard for you to replicate. Reading can be very useful in helping learners get to grips with sometimes difficult sentence structure and grammar forms. They don’t necessarily have to be complex, just ones you tend to trip over when you speak. Reading gives learners endless examples of difficult language and, as you can see it written down, allows you more time to get to grips with it.
For example, reflexive verbs in the negative form can often be a difficult structure for intermediate learners to form verbally. In the present simple 'ne' is before the object pronoun and 'pas' is placed after the verb: 'Je ne t'aime pas'. In the passé composé 'ne' is before the object pronoun, then there is the auxiliary verb, followed by 'pas' and finally the past participle of the reflexive verb: 'tu ne m'as pas dit'. When native speakers say this you may understand it, but it can often sound like a jumble when you try to replicate it. Reading it over and over again will help you to replicate it accurately in the future.
3. Reading Aloud to Improve Pronunciation
Any learner of French knows how tricky pronunciation can be. French is indeed considered one of the sexiest languages in the world. But not so much when you’re choking over a throaty ‘g’ sound or tripping up over a rolled ‘r’ sound.
While you may feel a little silly to begin with, one of the best things you can do to practice your French pronunciation is to read aloud. This can be to yourself or perhaps to a French friend, it doesn’t matter. Simply taking the time to say words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs out loud will help to improve the speed and accuracy with which you can pronounce the French language. If you want to go the extra mile, record yourself while you speak and then listen back. This will help you to notice which sounds you’re finding tricky and which sounds are parfait!
Finally, summarizing is a great way to check your understanding and practice some of your new vocabulary. When you finish reading your allotted piece for the day, summarize what you’ve read in your own words while speaking out loud. This will give you a chance to practice discussing a new topic, using new vocabulary while forcing your brain to paraphrase. This is a simple exercise, but it can have a massive impact on the fluency with which you speak.
Whew! Now with all of that knowledge, what books are you going to start with? If you need some guidance, you might be interested out our Easy French Reads --a great list for beginners to delve into French literature
For many language learners, verbal fluency is the ultimate priority. While this is completely understandable, it’s important to remember that all of the key skills complement each other. Reading is an often neglected skill that can have amazing results when it comes to improving your French language skills as a whole.