Specializations > Language Acquisition
How do people learn to read in a foreign language?
What has to happen in order for someone to become fluent in reading in a foreign language?
What if someone has never fully learned to read in the first language that they were exposed to and they start reading in a second language?
There are several definitions to consider to begin answering this question:
1. What does it mean to speak a language fluently?
When you speak a language easily, comfortably, without effort, and can communicate clearly, you can consider yourself fluent. You might make mistakes, or not know all of the vocabulary, but you are fluent if you feel fluent. So in a sense no test can tell you that you are fluent, because part of it is how you feel while speaking. There's also an expectation of a high level of general competence in the language, but that is necessary for feeling ease while speaking. In short, fluency is a feeling when speaking, not a level of technical competence.
2. What exactly would 'fluent in reading' mean? I can fairly easily read several languages, but I have difficulty speaking some of those, and it is easier to recognize words than think of them. Could I consider myself fluent? And I also can only read so easily (at least for some of the languages) for specific topics, especially Linguistics research papers. Yes, some Latin professors, for example, might be able to read very easily and not have much ability to converse, but for most people, reading is secondary (although perhaps easier) compared to speaking, for which we usually describe 'fluency'. The term "literate" would be too general for what you probably mean by "fluent" but we would need to come up with a way to define that to test it out, or think of some examples to see how it applies.
3. I assume you mean any non-native language in general, not specifically foreign languages-- indeed, becoming fluent in a foreign language (spoken primarily outside of one's own country) would be difficult in most cases. But just like speaking a language, or maybe even more easily, you can learn a language through classes, travel, practice, etc. But for many people around the world, it's more than that: there is a second language that is learned naturally as the written language in the country/region, while another language is spoken at home. Sometimes this results in an interesting situation where they become dominant speakers/users/writers in the second language and might even end up with limited competence in the other (for example, many professors might have trouble writing a technical research paper in their native language if they usually/only publish in English-- that's not an issue of fluency per se though). A related topic is diglossia, when the two varieties are related (usually at least called "dialects") as in the case of Swiss German, or the Arabic 'dialects', where the standard language is used as a written form and the local dialect at home. There is a lot of research about that topic if you want to read about it, but in that case the situation is standard in the community and literacy is widely taught in schools.
So, in short, reading ability develops similarly to speaking ability, through practice. We can define fluency as ease, a lack of effort, and ability to use the language spontaneously and in different situations. Fluency in reading might be easier than in speaking in some ways, but at the same time, the concept might apply less, simply because reading is in some ways a less natural part of language in the first place, and one that is generally slower than speaking and allows for re-reading a word or a sentence, or even looking up words, even in one's native language. Unlike for speaking, it is hard for me to think of any obvious properties that would always identify a second language reader-- becoming a literate user of a second language is entirely possible, although often there are somewhat different results for psycholinguistic experiments about the details, which are of course closely associated with differences in speaking as well.
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