How to learn a foreign language: Skimming

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more.

Skimming is just a form of familiarization with languages which are close to a language I already know. For example, Dutch is very close to both English and German, and I already understand these languages quite well. Using anything like Rosetta Stone would be painfully slow and boring; for example, I don’t have to hear “zuster” repeated fifty times in various simple phrases to remember that it means “sister”. The vocabulary of Dutch is so similar to that of German (mostly) or English (sometimes) that I often need to hear or read a word just once with a translation to be able to remember it (passively).

I believe that the ideal method for this stage is Assimil. It is a method based on incremental assimilation of a new language by reading texts, increasing in difficulty and providing translations, brief explanations of grammar which develop naturally from the text, and some useful cultural notes. This method can be used as a stand-alone approach which teaches you most of what you need. However, in the very first stage of language learning, I just skim through Assimil. And by skimming I mean the following:

  1. Listen once to the recording while reading the original text (i.e. the text in the language you are learning), glancing swiftly to the translation if I become completely lost).
  2. Listen to the lesson again while reading the original text, stopping the audio if I don’t understand something and looking and the translations and numbered notes.
  3. Listen to the recording with my eyes shut trying to get every word. If I don’t understand something, I open my eyes and take a look at the original (which usually suffices).
  4. Read once to the ‘exercises’ below the lesson text (those that don’t require you to fill in anything) while listening to the recording, sometimes stopping the audio and peeping quickly at the translation when necessary.
  5. Move on to the next lesson. (I often do several lessons in one day.)
As you can see, I don’t work out the exercises that require you to fill in the blanks and I do every lesson in the book only once. The purpose of skimming is to build up passive vocabulary very fast and to get used to the grammatical constructions of the language. Of course, after finishing the book like that, I am not able to write or speak the language well and I have missed many interesting words (especially those that do not resemble anything I already know). However, after that, I am ready to proceed with a second reading in which I concentrate on the details, but this is a part of the next stage.

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