Quick reading, slow reading

This post comes as part of a reflexive series accompanying our first crowd-funding campaign. Please visit pozible.com/marcopoloproject.

One of our proposed new features on the Marco Polo Project website is a bilingual display system – by clicking on a simple button, readers will be able to see the text in two columns, Chinese on the right, translation on the left, with paragraph alignment. This will not only put forward the mediated nature of the translation (see our previous post on ‘the translator as mediator’), but also give readers the possibility to better ‘quick read’.

There are two main ways of learning a language by reading. One is to practice very slow and careful reading – explore the structure of sentence after sentence, in depth, unpacking each grammatical difficulty and searching every word in the dictionary, until all nuances of meaning become crystal clear. That is the kind of work required for advanced, high quality translation.

But there is another very different way of reading a text in a language you don’t really know: quick reading, skimming over the surface, getting the gist instead of nuances, and looking for speed over precision.

Each form of practice has its benefits. Slow reading will solidify syntactic knowledge, add new words to the vocab list, and increase comprehension of nuances. It will fix in the brain ‘typical’ patterns that can be copied or varied upon. Quick reading will increase overall confidence and intuition. It will rarely develop new knowledge, but solidify what is already known.

The capacity to use simple words and structures rightaway, the capacity to not focus on the self-evident, is a great part of language fluency. Fluency in a foreign language is about more than just understanding – it’s about understanding as you go. Like in sport, music, dance, you must keep up the rhythm.

This comes through repeated practice – with failure, or loss but at speed. Bilingual reading is a way to more easily skim over a text in a foreign language. The eye can shift from original to translation, helping identify the meaning of unknown characters, or perceive the structure of a sentence. This is not ‘lazy work’, this is a smart understanding of motivation. If the task is too hard, not giving up requires a lot of effort – and who will sustain that level of demand over the long term. If we can make the task a little simpler, then it will not be so demanding, and sustained effort become more likely – with success, in turn, increasing.

Beside, if people quick read an article, they still learn more about China, and that’s a good thing, don’t you think?


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