Reading German novels or short stories can be a great way to increase your vocabulary and see grammatical structures in action. There’s no pressure to parse things quickly. You can take your time with each sentence or paragraph until you feel confident you’ve understood everything.
But is reading foreign language “comprehensible input” only helpful for improving your passive (comprehension) skills, or can it actually improve your active (production) skills?
In my own experience, reading novels in English has been extremely helpful for developing my speaking and writing abilities. And it seems that many people experience a similar effect.
For example, yesterday I stumbled over an interesting blog post by Juan Francisco in which he writes:
I remember one occasion when, after months of private German lessons, I finally decided to take the challenge of reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis in the original. In those days I read at night, with a dim lamp and an uncomfortable chair. It took me two hours to get through ten pages. It was a kind of torture, very much in tune with the story of Gregor Samsa, but I was thoroughly enjoying it. The following week I went to class with my teacher and, after fifteen minutes of conversation, she interrupted me: “You’re speaking very well! What did you do?”. I hadn’t done any more exercises, any more homework, I hadn’t practiced my verbs or gone through my vocabulary lists, I had been reading Kafka.
As an author of simple stories for German learners, I often receive similar feedback from readers, telling me how immersing themselves in German storytelling has helped them become better not only at understanding texts, but also in their speaking proficiency.
And while most of the “evidence” here is purely anecdotal, I do think there are a number of good reasons why reading can indeed boost your speaking skills.
1. Vocab Bonanza
First of all, reading exposes you to a wide range of vocabulary, including colloquial expressions and idiomatic phrases used in everyday conversations. This is especially true for contemporary novels and short stories that use a lot of dialogue or are written in a colloquial style, for example from the perspective of a first-person narrator.
Over time, this expanded vocabulary can become part of your active Wortschatz (treasury of words). This doesn’t happen overnight, in my experience, but small consistent efforts compound over time and new vocabulary will slowly seep from passive into active proficiency.
This process can be greatly amplified when using spaced-repetition methods to commit new words to long-term memory.
2. Grammar Galore
By reading German novels, you become familiar with sentence structures, tenses, and other grammatical constructions used in real-life contexts. This exposure can drastically improve your understanding of how sentences are formed in German, decreasing the time it may take you to put your own sentences together when speaking.
In short, when you’ve been exposed to tons of examples of grammatically correct input you start to develop a feel for the right word order, tenses, etc. and the constant second-guessing will slowly make way for clear and confident speech.
3. Context is King
Stories and novels provide you with real-world context in which words and phrases are used. This contextual understanding is crucial for using vocabulary and grammar correctly in spoken communication.
Many words have multiple meanings and connotations in any language. Stories are filled with examples of how words can have nuanced meanings depending on the situation. Understanding these subtleties goes a long way in expressing yourself more precisely in conversations.
German modal particles for example are notoriously hard to grasp for learners. By getting a feel for how and when these little words are used in dialogues, it’ll become a lot easier to mimic correct usage when speaking.
Last but not least, context in literature often reflects cultural norms, customs, and social interactions. Understanding these cultural subtleties is crucial for effective communication. For instance, knowing when and how to use the German Sie vs Du (formal vs. informal) is deeply rooted in cultural context.
4. Mastering the Melody
Last but not least, when you read literature in German, you’re not just absorbing vocabulary and grammar; you’re also immersing yourself in the musicality of the language—the way it sounds, its rhythm, pronunciation, and intonation patterns. This auditory exposure, even in silent reading (!), plays a pivotal role in enhancing your spoken language skills.
How does it work exactly? There’s some debate about it, but I think a lot of it has to do with the “inner voice” or internal dialogue we experience in our own heads.
Fore more about this, check out this excellent Radiolab episode that discusses some theories about the role of this internal dialogue in language acquisition (and beyond).