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Why Reading in English Isn’t Enough to Make You Fluent

Image representing two people learning about what the boss says in English and what they really mean

Why are you learning English? Is it specifically so that you can read a newspaper in Canada? Or Harry Potter in the original language? Or to pick through a financial report from Australia?

Probably not.

Of course, it’s possible that you have a very specific reason that you are only learning to read English, or to read a certain type of English language document. It’s possible that you will never need to understand it when spoken, or speak the language yourself. But this is very unlikely.

Most people learn English so that they can communicate confidently with English-speaking people. That might be because of their job, or their studies. It might be because they are travelling to an English-speaking country and want to make friends and understand the culture better. But the point is, usually you learn English because you actually want to communicate.

Many people complain that the way they learn languages at school doesn’t really help them to talk in real life. It helps them to pass exams, but not to survive in a foreign country. One reason for this is because when you’re learning a language at school, it’s very easy to focus on the “reading” component.

Often, learning to read another language is easier and less stressful than learning to speak it. After all, when you read a piece of text, no one is watching you to see how quickly you understand it. If it is a language that is similar to your native language, you can look for clues in the way the words are spelled to help you understand. You can read back over the text, or think about it slowly. You can use a dictionary, or enter certain words into Google Translate to check what they mean.

In real life, when you are talking to someone face-to-face, you cannot do any of these things. In a conversation, you only have one opportunity to work what someone is saying to you.

Often, the hardest thing about learning a new language is getting used to the pronunciation. Different languages pronounce certain letters or vowels in different ways, or even create sounds you may never have heard in your own language. Sometimes, people pronounce certain words in ways that don’t seem to make sense at all.

If you only ever see words written down on a page, you never expose yourself to difficult pronunciation. In your head, you will always hear the word as it would sound in your native tongue. Or, at best, you try to sound out the word as it should sound, according to the English language alphabet and rules. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work.

English is a very old language that mixes together lots of words from different places. What’s more, the pronunciation of words has changed over the past thousand years. That’s why a city name like “Leicester” is pronounced “Les-ter”” and not “Lie-ses-ter” and why “rough” rhymes with “stuff” but “plough” rhymes with “cow”.

Of course, it’s always good to sound out a word and make a good guess of how to say it. The problem is, is you only ever see the word written down, you will never know if you are right!

Whenever you learn some new vocabulary, make sure you find out how to actually pronounce it. Practise saying the new word and try to use it in conversation as soon as you can.

It’s important to read as much as you can in English to keep improving your vocabulary. Just remember that sometimes, you need to take your nose out of the book and make an effort to say the new words aloud and improve your communication skills, too!

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