08 April 2011

Speed reading's great - unless you want to learn a language.

Every now and then, I read someone on the internet quoting the remarkable reading speed of trained speed readers, and then asking whether this would help a language learner.

In principle, it sounds like a good idea.  After all, if you can read four times faster, you can read four times as much, right?  It seems like you can therefore expose yourself to more foreign language in a shorter time.

Unfortunately, the mechanics of speed reading -- and indeed reading in general -- do not allow this.

When we read, we take advantage of known, familiar patterns in the input.  This means that we don't actually need to process everything that is printed in order to understand it.  Tak# th{s sent#nce, f*r ex*m*pl*.  As a reader, your knowledge of English is probably enough to fill in the gaps.  We do this all the time.  If we didn't, reading speeds wouldn't improve so dramatically just through frequent reading, but they do.  Basically, our brains get in the habit of knowing the bits they need to read.  "The book is ## the table": the eye knows those two ## shapes are "on" as there's nothing else they could be.  "The book is ##### the table": well, that's just got to be under.  So the brain recognises the rough shape and/or size and matches it with the known patterns -- it knows what it must be without actually reading it.

Speed-reading training isn't anything special.  Although some speed-reading schools will tell you to do this, that or the other, in the end, all speed-reading classes do is encourage you to take this natural process to its logical conclusion.

So where does this leave the language learner?

When we're learning a new language, we do not have deep knowledge of the language we are studying, so our brain cannot take the shortcuts required for speed-reading.  Any assumptions it makes will come from outside the target language, and therefore will result in errors.

So, nice thought, but no.

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