Benjamin Franklin, an early American patriot, was probably the first person to write “There is no gain without pain.” A few years ago, actress Jane Fonda used the popular expression “No pain, no gain” to say the same thing in her exercise videos. Many people believe that success always requires hard work and, often, pain. Interestingly, this idea may be wrong when we think about acquiring, or improving, language. Keep reading!
A theme and a variation
Successful English has a simple motif – an idea or theme that is repeated and developed in almost everything you’ll find here. In a way, the SE theme works like the famous first four notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. It is the basis, or starting point, for everything. It appeared first in The Basics and has been repeated many times. Here it is one more time:
When we understand what we read or listen to, and we’re relaxed and feeling good about ourselves, we acquire, or pick up, more language.
Today I’d like to add a corollary – a related idea – to our basic theme: if an activity is good for language development, the activity will be pleasurable .
If we add this idea to our theme, we could write it this way: when we understand what we read or listen to and it gives us pleasure, we acquire, or pick up, more language.
In other words, if our English reading and listening gives us pleasure – a feeling of happy satisfaction from doing something we enjoy – it’s helping us acquire more English. So, one of the keys, or secrets, to improving our English is to read and listen to books, articles, and podcasts that give us pleasure.
Language teachers talk about reading for pleasure
A few years ago, three language teachers sat down to talk about their personal language experiences. In addition to their teaching, all three of them read to acquire a new language; one of them is working on two languages. Here is a summary of some of the things they said :
Junk reading is the kind of reading we never did in school. It is fun and entertaining light reading that does not require a dictionary.
For the first teacher, junk reading was mostly translations of Star Trek novels into French and German. While he was working on them, he often carried a book in his pocket so he could read whenever he had a few minutes.
For the second teacher, junk reading is El juego del Ángel and La sombra del viento, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. According to this teacher, pleasure reading is whatever makes you want to go to bed early to read extra chapters before falling asleep with the book on your chest and whatever compels (makes) you to set the alarm an hour early to read first thing in the morning.
They all agreed that “language acquisition should be effortless and involuntary (automatic). We pick up new words and improve our grammatical accuracy not just through pleasure reading, but anytime we take our minds off of the language and put it on the content that the language is communicating.”
Important principles to follow
All three teachers regularly use several principles, or ideas, from language research to help them improve the languages they’re working on:
- Read for pleasure. Interesting, compelling, engaging junk reading in large quantities is more valuable than serious reading in small quantities. We are more likely to read more if we are excited by the thought of returning to the book.
- Focus on narrow reading and listening. Read books and listen to podcasts or movies in a genre (category or kind) that you already find interesting. Read or listen to the same topic or watch many of the same kind of movie so that similar vocabulary will continue to naturally come up until it is acquired.
- Do not listen to input that is incomprehensible (not understandable) or difficult. Large quantities of easy input create a feeling of acquiring language effortlessly and involuntarily. Look for books, podcasts, or movies that are 100% comprehensible (understandable) so you can focus on the content, not the words.
Pleasure, a very good indicator
Pleasure – that feeling of happy satisfaction you get from doing something you really enjoy – is a strong indicator, or sign, that whatever you’re reading or listening to is helping to improve your English. Why can we say that? We can say that because if you are truly experiencing pleasure, we have a high level of confidence that all the conditions, or requirements, for acquiring language have been met.
If you are experiencing pleasure when you read or listen, you can be sure that you’re acquiring, or picking up, more English. Your vocabulary is growing. Your grammar is getting better. Your writing is getting better. Your English is improving.
If I were you, I’d get a lot of confidence and pleasure from that knowledge!
 Krashen, Stephen (2006). Pleasure Reading.
 Improving Language Acquisition as an Adult. International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching. Fall 2008. It can be accessed here (free subscription).