When people set out to learn a new language there is often a focus on simply learning to speak it, after all what use is a language if we cannot have a conversation with other people using that language? But is that really a wise course of action when trying to acquire a foreign language?
For many people, me included, there is just nothing better than a good book (well ok there might be one or two things but anyway..) and reading a gripping story is actually a great way to improve language skills by absorbing more vocabulary and grammar. The great thing is your brain just seems to automatically make connections while you are reading and words you may not even have learned before are often almost magically understood at least approximately if not precisely. Of course this may not happen immediately but over time, as you read through a book you will come across the same new words over and over again. These words may appear in the same context or a similar context or even in a completely different context but as long as you know some of the words around it, in other words if you get the gist of a sentence, your sub-conscious mind seems to make sense of the rest.
Passive learning from books is also good for learning grammar as well as vocabulary since you can generally expect a published author to produce grammatically correct works – or at least to have such work edited to fix any errors before publishing! 😉
You can’t always rely on such “effortless” learning (it’s not really effortless as your brain does need to actually work on it!) of unfamiliar words of course and you should keep a dictionary nearby so you can give your brain a helping hand by looking up the meaning of such words. This will speed up the learning process a great deal and you will likely remember those words far more effortlessly when you learn them as part of a great story.
It is important to choose the right kind of books to read though, particularly at the earlier stages of learning as you may find it simply too much work and no fun at all if 99% of the words are unknown! A good tactic is to choose a book which is aimed at younger readers – personally I have used The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien for this purpose.
Another tactic is to choose a book which you are already familiar with in your own language. So again for me The Hobbit was a great choice since I have read it in English several times since I was a child. Lord of the Rings might also be good however it is a rather long book and may prove too much of a challenge for beginners.
However, an advantage something like LOTR has is that it has been made into a movie (or three) and so you could also watch that before trying to read the foreign language book version and thereby benefit from some added visual cues.
So do not neglect reading good books (even short stories) when trying to learn a new language – it is an effective way to learn and also a lot more fun that just reading and memorizing boring word lists.