By Joseph Poulshock, PhD
What’s the best way to learn a foreign language? As a linguist, I hear this question all the time. My students are in Japan, and many of them want to learn English. So they often ask me, “What’s the best way to improve my English?”
Students ask many other questions, too, like:
- “Should I memorize long lists of words?”
- “Should I buy a bunch of heavy books to help me prepare for tests?”
- “Should I repeat many sentences over, and over, and over, and over?”
- “Should I spend my life savings at a language school?”
- “Should I hit myself on the head with a fat grammar book?”
Now you could do these things. Actually, I’ve tried them all. But first, we need to ask a basic question. How do humans acquire languages? The answer is surprisingly simple. All people everywhere acquire languages in the same way.
“We acquire languages by understanding messages.”
That’s it. It seems too good (and too easy) to be true. But research and experience support this idea. It is called the “comprehension hypothesis,” and it was made famous by the linguist Dr. Stephen Krashen. I give this idea an easy name. I call it the ALBUM Theory. Look again.
With the ALBUM Theory, we have a clear rule, model, and guide for learning English or any other foreign language.
There are many ways to use the ALBUM theory, but the best one is called extensive graded reading. That’s too formal, so, for simplicity, let’s call it “big, easy reading,” or just “big reading” for short.
With big reading, you read lots of easy and enjoyable books and stories that you choose. That’s it. “Wait! What? Huh? Really?!” Yes, that’s it. Big reading is probably the most well-researched and best-supported language-teaching technique in the world. And it brings amazing results.
There are two keys to big reading. First, it has to be easy. Research shows that you need to know 95%–98% of the words in a story to benefit from big reading.
Many people make a big mistake here. They think it’s enough to know 70%–80% of the words in a story. But 70%–80% is way too hard. At 70%, in 4 pages you’ll meet 300 unknown words. That’s not just hard—it’s impossible! So remember the 95%–98% rule.
Second, to improve a lot, you have to read a lot. That’s why I call it big reading. This takes time. To improve a lot with big reading, you may need to read for 200 to 300 hours (about 40 minutes per day in one year). But this is not boring and hard study time. It’s more like vacation! Which would you rather do? Try to learn a bunch of complicated grammar rules and long word lists, or go on vacation and enjoy many, many stories?
Still, at this point some people complain. They say, “That’s too much reading! Actually, I would rather hit myself on the head with a fat grammar book!” But remember. You took thousands and thousands of hours to acquire your first language by understanding messages. For a foreign language, studying grammar and word lists actually takes MORE time than big reading.
Big reading is not a waste of time. When we compare traditional techniques with big reading, research shows this. With big reading, in half the amount of time you can improve three times as much. So big reading is not just enjoyable. It is also effective, giving you good results. And it is efficient, saving you valuable time.
At this point many people are still not sure if big reading is the thing for them. They say, “Hello, hello? I want to learn how to speak, not to read!” And I say, “Exactly!” Research shows that big reading will help you improve all your language skills. With big reading, you can improve your listening, grammar, vocabulary, writing, and yes, speaking!
So there you have it! The ALBUM Theory can guide you in your desire to learn a foreign language. Remember: “You acquire language by understanding messages.” And big reading is a proven technique. Remember: big, easy reading is a great way to easily and enjoyably improve all your language skills. It may even be the best way in the world.
Note: If you want to improve your English through big reading, you can choose from many easy books. You can also use BeeOasis.com, the best big reading site for English learners on the World Wide Web.