Newspaper Reading for Language Students

A Khmer student wrote to me on YouTube and asked me to produce videos about how to read English language newspapers.

“I’d like to ask you to make videos how to read newspaper and translate it from English to Khmer. I Khmer and I having a problem to understand English phrases.” Wrote the student.

Language learners often write telling me about some area of learning or area of their lives where they are experiencing difficulties of comprehension and ask me for a trick or a guide to help them learn.

As I have said in numerous other language learning articles, there are no tricks and no hints. The more hours you invest, the better you will get. And if your goal is to read at a native speaker level, then you need to read things a native speaker reads. If you are a 22 year-old university graduate, then you need to be reading at that level in the foreign language. And you won’t get there by reading textbooks ABOUT the language. You will get there by reading books, articles, and textbooks IN rather than ABOUT the language.

If we analyze this latest email, the student says he has trouble reading, and he specifically singled out newspapers.

Obviously, reading is reading. On some level, reading a newspaper is no different than reading a novel or reading a short story.

If you are reading novels and short stories, you should be able to read newspapers. If I asked this student, however, he is probably is not reading one novel per month in English. If he were, newspaper reading would just come.

Therefore, the problem is not the reading or the newspapers, per se. The problem is the lack of practice.

I never took a course called “Newspaper Reading” in English. I just started reading newspapers. And at first, I had to learn to deal with the language, structure and organization of newspaper writing, but no one taught me, or you. It just came to us. The same was true for German or Spanish newspapers which I can read almost as well as English. No one taught me, or taught Gunther or Pablo, it just came through practice.

A point, that I have made many times in articles, is that when you begin learning a foreign language, you are not an idiot. You are not starting with an empty brain. One reason it takes babies three years to learn their native tongue is because they are also learning what a language is and how language works. You know all of that, and much more. Babies don’t know that there is such a thing as grammar. Every single piece of vocabulary has to be learned. A seven year old may not know the words “population, economy, government, referendum, currency” in his native tongue. So, reading a foreign newspaper would be difficult for him, because reading a newspaper in his mother tongue is difficult for him.

If you are an adult, coming from a developed country, with at least a high school or university level of education, you should already be able to read newspapers in your native tongue. At that point, reading a newspaper in a foreign tongue is simply a matter of vocabulary.

True there are different uses of language, and styles of writing. And newspapers do have style which differs from other kinds of writing. But you just read, and read and figure them out.

The problem with most learners, however, is that they aren’t reading novels and short stories. Most learners need to just accept that they need practice. They need to read, and read, and stumble, and fall, and read again, until they get it.

I didn’t develop a taste for reading the newspaper in English until I was in my late twenties. But, by that time I had read countless books in English, and completed 16 years of education. I only began reading newspapers because I had to read foreign newspapers at college. Then I learned to read the newspapers in English first, to help me understand the foreign newspaper.

One of the problems, specifically with Khmer learners is that there is so little written material available in Khmer. American students have had exposure to newspapers, magazines, novels, reference books, poetry, plays, encyclopedias, diaries, biographies, textbooks, comic books… Most Khmers haven’t had this exposure.

If they haven’t read it in their native tongue, how could they read it in a foreign language?

And, I am not just picking on Khmers. True these styles of writing are not available in Khmer language, but even in Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese education, where these many styles of writing exist, students may not have had exposure to them. For example, Taiwanese college students said that during 12 years of primary school they never wrote a single research paper.

But then they were asked to do that in English, in their ESL classes.

Currently, I have a Thai friend, named Em, who is studying in USA. He has been there for three years, studying English full time, and still can’t score high enough on his TOEFL exam to enter an American community college. In Thailand he is a college graduate, but education in Thailand is way behind western education. And in the developed world, American community colleges are about the single easiest schools of higher learning to enter.

If Em finally passes the TOEFL and gets into community college, in the first two years of core requirements for an American Bachelor’s Degree, he will be given assignments such as “Read George Orwell’s 1984, and explain how it is an allegory for communism, and how it applies to the Homeland Security Act in the US.”

When foreign students stumble on an assignment like this, they always blame their English level. But I am confident that the average graduate from most Asian countries couldn’t do this assignment in his native tongue. Their curriculum just doesn’t include these types of analytical book reports.

When I was teaching in Korea, there was a famous story circulating around the sober ESL community. A Korean girl, from a wealthy family, had won a national English contest. She had been tutored by expensive home teacher, almost since birth, and her English level was exceptional. The prize was a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school in the Unites States, graduation from which almost guaranteed admission to an Ivy League school.

Apparently, one of the first assignments she was given at her new school in America was to read a poem and write an original analysis of it, and then give a presentation in class. When it came time for her presentation, the student stood up and dutifully recited the poem, word for word, she also regurgitated, exactly, what the lecturer had said about the poem in class. And she failed.

In Korea, her incredible memory and ability to accurately repeat what the teacher had said, had kept her at the top of her class. But in America, she was being asked to do much more than that; think, and analyze, create, present, and defend.

The majority of learners believe that their difficulty in dealing with foreign education, books, newspapers, or conversations lies in their lack of vocabulary or failings of language. But once they posses a relatively large vocabulary, the real problem is some combination of culture and practice.

Getting back to the Khmer student and his problem reading English newspapers: To understand English newspapers you also have to know all of the news and concepts in the newspaper. The best way to deal with foreign newspapers, at the beginning, is to first, read a news story in your own language. Then read the same news story in the foreign language newspaper. Also you can watch the news in your own language and then in whatever language you are studying, and compare.

Translation isn’t just about knowing words. You have to know concepts. The first rule of translation is that the written text must convey the same meaning in the target language as it did in the source language. Even if the wording, in the end, is not even remotely like the original. No matter how good your foreign language skills are, you cannot convey meaning which you don’t know in your native tongue.

Recently, newspapers in Asia were running stories about the Taiwan Y2K crisis.

To understand the newspaper stories, you would first need to understand the original, global Y2K crisis. The global Y2K issue was something that Cambodia wasn’t very involved in because there were so few computers in Cambodia in the year 1999. There were probably less than one hundred or so internet connections in Cambodia at that time. Next, you would have to know and understand that Taiwan has its own calendar, based on the founding of the Republic of China in 1911. Government offices and banks in Taiwan, record events according to the Republic of China calendar, which means, if you take money out of an ATM machine today, the year will show as 99.

Once you know and understand these facts, then you would know that Taiwan is about to reach its first century, in the year 2011, and is facing a mini-Y2K crisis, because the year portion of the date in the computer only has two digits.

The bulk of my readers do not live in Asia, and may not have known anything about the history of Taiwan, or the Taiwan date. But, any person with a normal reading level should have understood my explanation. It is not necessarily a requirement that you posses prior knowledge of the exact situation you are reading about, but you can relate it to other things you know about, for example, other calendars and otherY2K problems.

If you look at the above explanation, the vocabulary is fairly simple. There are probably only a small handful of words, perhaps five or six, which an intermediate language learner wouldn’t know. So, those words could be looked up in a dictionary. And for a European student, with a broad base of education and experience, that would be all of the help he would need. But for students coming from the education systems of Asia, particularly form Cambodia which is just now participating in global events such as the Olympic Games, for the first time, it would be difficult, even impossible to understand this or similar newspaper stories.

The key lies in general education, not English lessons. Students need to read constantly and simply build their general education, in their own language first, then in English, or else they will never understand English newspapers or TV shows.

By Antonio Graceffo

Leave a Reply