How To Sight-Read A Foreign Language With Speed And Efficiency

One of the skills needed to acquire reading proficiency in a foreign language is “sight-reading.”  This is the act of reading a text quickly for information and comprehension.  I have found from experience that there are effective and ineffective ways of approaching this skill, and that some discussion of these points may prove to be useful.

It is important at the outset to define just what our goals are.  The purpose of sight-reading is to gain a knowledge of the writer’s main points.  We want to understand what he is trying to say.  The corollary to this–and this cannot be stressed strongly enough–is that we are not trying to understand all the writer’s rhetorical subtleties.  That task is one for a serious translator.  The sight-reader is simply trying to pick up a newspaper, book, internet article, or whatever text is in question, and gain a working knowledge of it in as short amount of time as possible.

First, practice is absolutely critical, as in so many fields of human endeavor.  One must acquire a “feeling” for the language through long exposure.  You must be constantly hearing and reading the language; only in this way will its structures and architecture cement themselves into your brain.  A student must have a baseline level of exposure, and this level must be constantly maintained.  If you are not willing to put in the time to do this, then read no more of this article.  You are not serious about accomplishing anything; you are more interesting in wasting time.

Second, you must become adept in a process I call “clustering.”  I have never seen this concept discussed anywhere, and so cannot think of any better word for it.  What is clustering?  It is the process whereby your eyes and brain, as they read through a text, “clump” words together in familiar, comprehensible clusters.  The brain then intuitively assimilates these clusters into a coherent mass for comprehension.  The reader clusters words into prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses, and modifying nouns and adjectives.  All of this is done quickly.  It is not a step-by-step process.  How does this work in practice?  I will provide an example, using an English sentence.  Take this sentence, which I selected randomly from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall (Ch. XLI, p. 331 of the J. B. Bury edition):

The faithful soldiers and citizens of Naples had expected their deliverance from a prince, who remained the inactive and almost indifferent spectator of their ruin.

Suppose someone learning English was trying to sight-read a selection that contained this sentence.  He or she might “clump” the words into the following clusters as he skims his eyes across the sentence:

faithful soldiers and citizens of Naples

had expected

from a prince


inactive and indifferent spectator

of their ruin

Note how we have clumped nouns and modifying adjectives together.  We have clumped prepositional phrases.  Note that the verbs (had expected, remained) are generally kept separate.  Because of their importance, the mind seems to place them in their own category.  What is the point of clustering?  It is to read the text quickly without having to struggle laboriously over every word.  If you do that, you will never make any progress in reading a foreign language fluently.  Clustering allows you to take big, bold strides through the text, rather than dainty little steps.  We are trying to speed up the reading process.  I have to stress that the process of clustering is not an exact art; every person may do it in a way that suits their own style.  But I am confident that everyone who learns to sight-read does some sort of clustering, whether they are aware of it or not.  Let’s take another sentence:

As soon as Belisarius was delivered from his foreign and domestic enemies, he seriously applied his forces to the final reduction of Italy.

In this sentence, we may identify our clusters as:

As soon as

was delivered

from his foreign and domestic enemies

to the final reduction of Italy

Remember, you are trying to group together related words and concepts, so that you can digest and process them quickly.  With practice, you will be able to “see” and “feel” prepositional phrases, relative and subordinate clauses, and other constructions intuitively.

Third, do not read the text aloud.  Do not whisper it to yourself.  All this will do is slow you down  I have often seen people reading a foreign language while silently moving their lips along with the text.  This is not a good idea.  Why?  Because you are mechanically reading, rather than using your eyes and brain to skim and absorb.  You will never become a fast reader unless you learn to skim and absorb.  Your eyes should be dancing across the sentences, like a lithe cat leaping from place to place.  Reading out loud is a schoolroom technique that may be fine for a classroom setting where we are trying to gauge pronunciation.  But it has no place in learning to read quickly.

Fourth, do not worry if you don’t understand some, or even most, of the text.  I will repeat that point:  do not worry if you don’t understand much of what you are reading.  Just keep going.  You are never going to make any progress if you sit around fussing and fretting over words you can’t remember.  Armies that advance deep into enemy territory do so by bypassing strong points, and pushing through soft points.  Leave the hard parts of the text to be conquered and absorbed later; for now, just keep pushing through what you do know.  Your mind will, over time, make its own adjustments.  At first, you will find this technique uncomfortable and unnerving.  But if you can get past this stage, you will find that you make rapid progress.  I suppose it goes without saying that the bigger your vocabulary is, the more progress you will make in shorter time.  Use flash cards, notebooks, or whatever else works to maximize the amount of vocabulary words you know.

Fifth, realize that repetition will be very useful.  It often happens that reading through a text once will enable you to understand some of it.  But if you read through it a second or third time, you will understand even more.  So don’t be afraid to repeat yourself.  Remember, the point of sight-reading is not to be scientifically precise.  The point is to comprehend what the writer of the passage is trying to say.

It will take discipline to implement these techniques.  The biggest stumbling block will be your own bad habits.  Your mind will, at first, rebel against you.  It will have a desire to know every word, and it will not want you to keep going until it has digested what it has already seen.  You must fight your own bad habits, and have the conviction to keep going.  Give your mind some credit; it can retain and comprehend more than you might believe.  If you do this, you will find that your reading abilities in your foreign language will improve considerably.



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