When my younger son was in high school, my wife and I realized we would need to hire a tutor for his French class. Sometimes I would overhear their lesson, and I would think: He’s hopeless. I didn’t mean that word in a critical or disapproving way. If anything, I invoked it out of empathy. I had been hopeless with high school Spanish. How hopeless? To this day it’s the course I avoid attending in my version of the nightmare where you wind up one credit short of graduation.

I was perhaps less empathetic about my son’s reading habits. His school-issued paperback copies of The Odyssey and King Lear were full of doodles. I printed out an essay I thought he might like—all of two pages long—and left it on the living room coffee table, where it sat unread for months, until I finally surrendered and threw it away. He never read for pleasure. He’s the son of two writers: How dare he not read for pleasure? Your parents are pleasure-givers. Here’s a book. Have some pleasure. Are you experiencing pleasure yet?

One day I decided to accept the fact: His brain just doesn’t work that way. Mine certainly doesn’t. How many times have I felt frustration at the slowness of my progress through a book? How often have I found out after finishing a book or a short story that I’d missed a major plot point? How often—

Oh, wait.

I asked my son if he was a slow reader. Yes, he said. Then I asked him if frustration feeds his disinclination to read for pleasure. Yes, he said.

And then I asked myself: Does a correlation between reading speed and a facility for learning foreign languages actually exist?

I thought back on Spanish class, and a sense memory gripped me: the dark cloud in the head that came from trying to translate effortlessly. Vocabulary memorization and verb conjugations in the first year were bad enough; I couldn’t help noticing that some classmates were able to pull the past tense out of the air, seemingly without thinking. By the end of the second year most students were able to hold rudimentary conversations, seemingly without thinking. By the end of the third year nearly all students were conversing fluently, seemingly without thinking.

I tried to will myself to speak Spanish without thinking. Nothing doing. The dark cloud would appear in my head, the vast fog I was trying to bypass—the fog between English and Spanish. I stopped trying to bypass it, or cut through it, or whatever one does to get to the other side of brain fog, in the fourth year, when some of my fellow students started swanning into the classroom saying that they’d begun dreaming in Spanish.

Dreaming in Spanish? Chingate.

I resigned myself to having a brain that needs to hear the word in English in my head first. But now, thinking about the similarities between my son and myself, I realized that that’s how I read, too: I have to hear the words in my head first.

I asked my son if that was his experience. Yes, he said.

Surely the need to hear the word in my head in reading English and the need to hear the word in my head in translating into Spanish were related? I decided to conduct a wholly unscientific survey. I thought of my wife and older son: They both read quickly and pick up languages easily. I thought of a friend who is the fastest reader I know; he speaks French fluently, as in appearing-on-talk-shows-in-France fluently. I polled the eight students in a class I was teaching at the time: 100 percent correlation.  I mentioned the possible correlation in an email to some friends; within minutes came three responses:

“I too am a slow reader and struggle with languages. And my wife is the opposite.”

“Fast reader. I was good at languages, but I didn’t keep going with any and lost abilities over time.”

“I am a fast reader and awesome at languages.”

Does this correlation really exist? You tell me. Really. Please go to the Comments section below and say whether this correlation applies to you and to people you know. That survey won’t be scientific either, but at least it might get a conversation going—in whatever language you choose.

*   *   *

A version of this essay originally appeared on The Last Word on Nothing.

Parle français? Read English? ¿Una palabra a la vez? Oy.
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Richard Panek

A Guggenheim Fellow in science writing, Richard Panek is most recently the author of The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality, which won the 2012 Science Communication award from the American Institute of Physics, and the co-author, with Temple Grandin, of The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, a New York Times best-seller and the recipient of the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Nonfiction Book of 2013. He also wrote the National Geographic giant-format movie Robots 3D, now playing in museum theaters across the country. His educational and professional background is in both journalism and fiction, disciplines he combines in trying to illuminate the history and philosophy of science even for readers who, like himself before he begins his research, would know little or nothing about the topic at hand.

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6 thoughts on “Parle français? Read English? ¿Una palabra a la vez? Oy.

  • August 2, 2016 at 9:50 am
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    Hi, Richard. I’m curious how approaching languages that require one learn an entirely different alphabet, script, and/or direction of reading (i.e. Modern Hebrew, Mandarin, Russian, etc.) would affect this theory, if at all? I would not consider myself a fast reader, but the more I read the faster I become. I do not consider myself remotely fluent in Modern Hebrew even after having spent three years plus studying the language. Which seems, perhaps your theory holds up?

  • July 24, 2016 at 1:24 pm
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    Hmmm. I think I break the pattern here. I am quite a fast reader and always have been (I read for pleasure more quickly than when I am reading for information, which sort of makes sense).

    But foreign language learning has always been something with which I struggle immensely. I can memorize the spelling and vocabulary, but syntax and declensions and article/gender/tenses? Nope. I cannot tell you how frustrated this lack makes me. I want to read poetry without relying on translations. I want to be a more global participant in the world by acquiring, even partially and badly, another language. So far, though, I haven’t found a way to accomplish that. (Outside of moving to a new country and therefore forcing myself into immersion somehow?)

  • July 21, 2016 at 2:27 pm
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    Fascinating thought, Richard! I read very quickly and languages have always been easy for me. I’ll be interested to see what feels natural to my 11-month-old son.

  • July 19, 2016 at 11:52 am
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    I’d be interested in learning more. (I do not like autocorrect).

  • July 19, 2016 at 11:49 am
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    Hello,

    Good morning from New England! I am a Goddard Alumna; a fast reader who is very good at learning World Languages. I talk fast; write fast, and think rather quickly. I am good at table tennis, crossword puzzles, and Scrabble. Any correlation between being a fast reader and a penchant for learning languages? Perhaps, but I am just an avid reader and writer. What do I know? I’d be interesting in learning more.

  • July 18, 2016 at 9:19 am
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    Hi Richard, in answer to your question, I don’t know. Here’s the thing: when I was a child, my parents had a desire for me to be an interpreter when I grew up, so of course there was no way I was going to do what they wanted me to do . . . And my French teacher was a waste of space. (Mostly we drew pictures in our notebooks.) That said, I am a slow reader, but I feel that if I had I not been rebelling against my parents’ wishes I could have been good at languages. I find that when I visit a country whose primary language is not English, I pick up the new language quite quickly. I also feel that if I were allowed to be immersed in that language–while living in the country–I my learning would happen at an accelerated pace. Learning a language from reading a book seems utterly wrong to me–completely devoid of the spark, the energy, the exchange, and the vibrancy necessary to learn a new tongue.

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