Face-to-face communication can be easy to understand even if you don't speak the same language as the other person. You only need to interpret their body language and listen to their tone of voice to get a rough idea of what that person hopes to convey.
Text messages can accurately convey what the writer wants to say too, especially if s/he uses emojis to add to the meaning.
Stories, on the other hand... novels, thrillers - even when reading biographies, it can be difficult to understand exactly which picture the author meant to paint. So much of what we read is influenced by our personal narratives and views that, even when we want to take in a written work with a clear mind, our personal biases filter through.
And that's just if we read something in our native language. What if you read something in German?
First, you'd have to have a fairly substantial vocabulary and know a bit about German grammar and syntax. And then, you have to know about German culture; so much of written language reflects people's beliefs, traditions and social mores!
Even if you have knowledge of all of that, there's Zusammenhang, a wonderful German word whose literal translation is 'together-hang'. In reference to reading and stories, it represents context (textzusammenhang - yes, it's all one word).
As a beginner or intermediate German learner, what chance might you have to grasp a story's zusammenhang, let alone understand what the story is about and the themes it addresses?
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Print v Digital
Before we get into improving reading comprehension, we have to tackle this question: would printed materials be more helpful or would digital suffice? We pose this question with full understanding that you might have trouble getting your hands on German reading materials.
Not only are they hard to come by unless you're in Germany but there's a pandemic on, just now. It's not like you can waltz into the foreign books section at your local library or visit your favourite bookseller. Still, this is an important question, especially for language learners.
E-readers have a lot going for them: they're economical and help protect the environment. Even better: if you already have an e-reader, you don't need to buy one them every time you want a new book. But they're not very helpful for language learners trying to improve their reading comprehension.
Using an e-reader is a bit like shopping with a credit card: you don't see/feel the cash leaving your hand so you don't have a good idea of how much you spend. Where books are concerned, you can see exactly how far you've progressed just by looking; e-readers' percentage indicator hardly gives you a clue about how much of that book you have left.
Another thing about e-readers: you can't flip back to a page you read a few days ago, at least, not with ease.
Some e-readers allow you to bookmark pages, highlight passages and search the book for a phrase or word. The trouble is that they deliver results indiscriminately. What if you want the fifteenth passage you read that particular phrase in but it coughs up hundreds of them?
If you are a beginner or intermediate German student, we recommend you at least print out your reading materials. That way, you can highlight and mark them as you see fit, post them on your wall if you wish and flip through them for the notes you made.
Later, when you're an advanced German reader, you might switch to a reading device. Now's not the time to use one.
Keep Your Duden Handy
So popular is the Duden brand that its name has become synonymous with 'dictionary' (the actual word for dictionary is Wörterbuch). Any language learner worth their umlauts will have a dictionary, electronic or hardcopy, so that, when they come across a word they don't know, they can look it up.
Reverso and Beolingus are two fantastic online dictionaries. Both provide direct translations, show the various forms of words and list sample sentences. They also come packed with features such as vocabulary trainers and verb conjugators. The only thing is: you have to type the word you're looking up. There's no voice input for either one.
Not so with translation software!
Whether you use your phone's app or your computer's web browser, you only need to click on the mike icon and say the words and phrase you want translated. Just beware of the results; they might not be right, as you'll see further in this article.
It's not a bad idea to type in the words you want to translate; it's one way you can get some German writing practice in.
Either way, to boost your reading comprehension, you have to find out what unknown words mean. Keeping your Duden handy and making ample use of it is the best way to do that.
Learn to Dissect Compound Words
By all appearances, the German language has a fondness for smashing as many words together as possible to make one long word that expresses an idea or concept. Usually, these words don't have a direct translation into English - or, often, into most other languages.
Like that monster word in this article's introduction: Textzusammenhang. It's made up of three words, two of which you already know. Here are a few other German words that are remarkable - both for their length and the concise way they describe concepts:
- Fahrvergnügen: Fahr+Vergnügen (drive pleasure)
- Damfschiffahrtsgesellschaftkapitän: Dampf+Schiff+Fahrt+Gesellschaft+Kapitän (steam ship trip company captain)
- Freundschaftsbeziehungen: Freundschaft+Beziehungen (friendship bonds, connections, relations)
- Lebensabschnittspartner: Leben+Abschnitt+Partner (lover)
- Lebensversicherungsgesellschaft: Leben+Versicherung+Gesellschaft (life insurance agency)
- Mullautohintendraufsteher: Mull+Auto+hinten+drauf+Steher (rubbish collector; literally 'the one who stands on the back of rubbish truck')
- Nahrungsmittelunverträglichkeit: Nahrung+mittel+Unverträglichkeit (food intolerance)
- Mutterseelenallein: Mutter+Seelen+allein (bone-deep loneliness; literally 'mother-soul alone')
Many students see these mad-long words and immediately experience panic attacks. How is anyone supposed to learn these eternally-long words, let alone use them in a sentence?
That's the thing, really. Native German speakers use magnificent words such as these in everyday conversation and in their writing. Even if you're limited to reading German newspapers online, you're likely to see such monstrosities.
The best way to manage your fright is to see them for what they are: elongated words made up of several smaller words, with a few prefixes, suffixes and 'S's for good measure (like the one between 'Freundschaft' and 'Beziehungen').
Here, we emphasise that you cannot rely on translation software to communicate these words' true meaning. At best, it will translate word for word the words it can pick out; at worst it will return gibberish.
A fine case in point: Google's translation of Mullautohintendraufsteher is 'Mullao stand up'.
If you want to improve your German speaking fluency, mastering monstrous words such as these is a must; learning how to read them is the first step towards that goal. Slow and easy does it; just break them into their component parts!
In the last segment, we said you cannot rely on translator software to convey exact meaning. That's because it's trained to translate words, which it does very well. Unfortunately, such utilities have no clue about context or colloquialisms.
Just like English, the German language distinguishes between formal and informal speech; the kind of everyday language that native speakers use. You might hear such informal language in films, podcasts and German songs. There's a good chance you'll come across more than a few colloquialisms in German texts, too.
Ich bin blau does not mean 'I am blue'.
If the story you're reading includes a scene describing everybody drinking beer or wine and suddenly, one character says 'Ich bin blau!', s/he's not wailing in despair over being sad, blue or depressed; s/he's saying she's drunk. Likewise, if the host intones "Hau rein!", he's not saying 'Hit in!' - the literal translation, he means for his guests to start eating. It's kind of like our 'Dig in!'
The word 'saufen' is one of the most dramatic examples of software mistranslation I've seen. Google turns it into 'drink' - which is correct, in its truest sense. However, the closer translation would be 'to swill' - drink rudely and without manners. That paints quite a different picture than 'to drink', doesn't it?
So, if the story you're reading contains a line: "Ich will ein groβes Guinness saufen!", you can better imagine that this character has no intention of standing discreetly at the bar, sipping his stout like a gentleman.
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What About Slang?
Slang is much harder to pin down than informal speech. For one, because it's temporary: the words your parents and teachers thought communicated the spirit of their times are now considered... uncool.
Slang is a style of talking that helps define a particular group. Gamers have their own language which could rightfully be called slang. For instance, you wouldn't hear 'smurfing' or 'aggor'ing in everyday speech; such words belong exclusively to the gaming community.
The German language certainly enjoys its liberal sprinkling of slang but you won't find such words in mainstream publications. It would be best to focus on learning everyday language and save the slang for when you're language skills are more advanced.
Besides, why burden your vocabulary retention skills with words you won't use very often?
Read Out Loud
If you're like most people learning a second language, you believe that speaking and listening skills are more important than reading and writing skills. We'll not get into why that's not true, we just want to encourage you to put that preference to work.
No matter which language you read in, reading out loud offers several benefits: greater confidence, better posture, firmer intonation and the chance to role-play among them.
By far the greatest benefit, though, is that it helps improve your reading comprehension. For one, you'll be more focused on what you're reading so that you're less likely to skip words. Also, reading aloud draws on three functions - sight, speech and hearing whereas reading to yourself only uses one.
When reading to yourself, you have no idea what the text sounds like, nor can you tell if you've misread a word. By contrast, reading out loud, if only for an audience of one - you, lets you hear what you sound like and, by extension, gives you the chance to correct your pronunciation, if needed.
Of all the tips in this article, reading aloud every day is the best way to improve your reading comprehension because it engages you in your task in a way that silent reading never could.
Reading aloud does wonders for your listening skills, too...
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