Reading can unlock English
The Taipei Times
Sep 01, 2005

By Stephen Krashen

  The Taipei Times is correct when it says that "Learning English is a positive step" (Editorial, Aug. 30, page 8). There is no question that English is the international language, and its dominance is increasing. It is difficult in today's world to be active and successful in international business, politics, scholarship or science without considerable competence in English.

 English dominates the Internet: As of 2001, 45 percent of the 500 million Web users were native English speakers and over 75 percent of Web sites linked to secure servers in 1999 were in English.

English is now the language of science. In 1997, 95 percent of the articles cited in the Science Citation Index were written in English, up from 83 percent in 1977.

 The International Civil Aviation authority has recommended that English be the "default" language in ground-to-air communications; English is used if communication is not possible in the language normally used by the ground station. This means that most international air traffic uses English.

 The Pasteur Institute in Paris changed the language of its journal from French to English. The editors explained that in 1973 only about 15 percent of articles submitted to the journal were in English, but in 1987 100 percent were.

 Does this mean that everybody needs to be constantly taking English lessons? Need all non-English speaking countries entice large numbers of native speakers to teach them and their children? Absolutely not. Basic language classes are essential and helpful, but they need not be taught by expensive imported teachers. The goal of the basic class is not to develop perfect speakers, but to bring students to the point where they can improve on their own.

 A great deal of recent research tells us that the most powerful means of improving English for intermediate students is massive recreational reading. The easy and inexpensive way to guarantee English for everybody is to establish school and public libraries filled with large numbers of interesting books, magazines and comics covering a wide range of subjects and at different levels of difficulty. And the most effective way to read is simply to read for pleasure, to get lost in the story, without excessive use of the dictionary or grammar book.

 Evidence is mounting showing that listening is also a powerful means of improving in a second language. Libraries need to contain large numbers of tapes and films. Those who don't want to wait for listening libraries to be established might want to take advantage of for podcasts of interesting and very comprehensible discussion of a variety of topics, designed for intermediate English acquirers. It is absolutely free.

 Those who develop a reading and listening habit in English after completing a basic course will continue to improve in all ways, including grammar, vocabulary and speaking. Reading and listening to language that is comprehensible and genuinely interesting has been shown to be more effective than traditional language teaching, with workbook exercises and boring homework.

Happily, the most efficient way of improving also happens to be the easiest, the most pleasant and the cheapest, requiring only membership in a library with a good collection of English reading and listening material and a computer to listen to and download interesting discussions from the English as a Second Language Podcast.