Saturday, March 1, 2008

Reading children's books

Every serious language learner encouters it soon enough; a too small vocabulary. Vocabulary is one of the most important things, because you can get fairly far without a strong grammar base. That's why you want to build your vocabulary FAST. "Ahhh, that's easy! I just use a list with the 3,000 most common Spanish words" you might say. Well mate, loose words suck. You want to use sentences instead. But sentences will mostly help you in the long run, instead of in the very beginning.

So what's the best way then? It's hard to say what's the best way, because it's probably as case of combining several methods and investing a lot of time, especially in the beginning (not that I'm saying you should invest less when you're further on your way to fluency). However, reading children's books can and will help your progress significantly. I've discussed "children's books" for adults in the past, but just too short to be useful. What you want are books which are most useful to adult learning and which use a limited lexicon. Books as de ones of the University of Salamanca and esparaleer are probably the best ones around. They don't really contain dull children's stories, but rather short stories which are enjoyable for adults. The downside is that most of the books are quite short, so you want to get yourself at least 3 or 4 to do some serious reading.

So, you have been reading the books and you like them. Starting at level 1, which uses about 400 words, and working you way to level 6, which uses about 2,500 words - taking the books of the University of Salamanca as example (getting to level 6 will take, of course, a lot of work besides reading these books). But what is the best way to use them?

A good friend of mine who speaks several languages at near-native level, says he just takes a book he really likes and start reading, a dictionary at his side to look up unfamiliar words. Normally he won't look up every word he doesn't know, but rather take the words which he stumbles upon more than a few times. This is a method he generally uses for longer books, such as novels. But it can be used for short books aswell. Applying this method to the espareleer books, for example, will result in building up a basic vocabulary fast. An extra feature these books have, is an explanation (in Spanish) for difficult words, just at the bottom of the page the word is on.

But beware, don't read a book just once. Ok, most esparaleer and Santillana (the ones of the University of Salamanca) books are written in the same style, but it's possible that another book relies on another basic vocabulary. The thing you want in this case, is to know each and every book you're going to 'tackle' very well. Add sentences to your Anki database, add words you like or find difficult to your personal notebook (and write one or two example under the word) or mark the words in your book (if it's yours). Do anything you want, as long as you learn from it. The strength of this is that you see everything is context, which is the most important thing in gaining vocabulary. You want to learn these words NOW, and you will. You in the end you will also want to know the structure of Spanish, gain an intuition. You will, but be sure to do everything in context. Even analyze the sentences in the easiesier books, you will find out this can be fun. Read, look up, write down, analyze. Do this with children's books or the simple books mentioned before, and you will get a bigger basic vocabulary soon.