A good chunk of time I spend at the beginning of learning a language is just trying to find good materials. I don’t just mean my textbooks. I pick one, and usually pretty quickly, and that’s it. But there’s also the question of what cultural materials will help me learn while keeping me motivated.
Sometimes this is a pretty easy process for people, and a lot of it depends on your relationship with the language and culture itself. Sometimes, television and movies are a no brainer (anime, k-dramas, telenovelas). Sometimes it’s music (bossa nova, latin hip hop). Sometimes it’s the news (I frequent le Monde and Radio-Canada).
These are all great things to incorporate into our days to keep us engaged while giving us good practice. I have personally used all of these types of materials with different languages.
But some of us like to spend a lot of time in books. And while it may be easy as an advanced speaker to just pick up a new novel and start reading, breaking into literature can be difficult for beginning to intermediate learners. Thankfully, there’s something you can read that is still fun and engaging and can help bridge that gap: poetry
1. Poems come in many sizes
One of the reasons reading a book is difficult is because a chapter is very long, and ideas get stretched out over multiple pages. When you are still at a level of learning a lot of vocabulary, it gets hard to keep track of what’s happening while still going at a pace that you enjoy.
Poetry on the other hand can be short or long. Some poems are just a sentence long. Some poems are pages (or whole book lengths). When you are a beginner in a language, you can start reading the shorter poems without getting frustrated with how much you had to look up.
A one stanza poem might take a little while to learn, but then you are done. Nothing like reading a whole chapter. Then, you can work your way up to longer and longer poems.
2. Poems are often in bite-sized chunks
Poetry is usually composed of shorter phrases (unless the poem is intentionally a long run-on sentence). So much like with song lyrics, it’s often easier to grasp the meaning along the way without having to spend a whole lot of time decoding or translating.
Smaller chunks also means those lines and verses are easier to remember. This can be helpful if someone makes a literary reference (yes, that’s the kind of people I hang out with), or if you want to make one yourself! In some cultures, referencing poetry can be a treasured skill – It has greatly increased the popularity of the United States’ spokesperson to Iran, for example.
3. Poems use a wide range of vocabulary
The very thing that can make poetry difficult is also what makes it such a great resource. The words in poems vary from simple, every day terms to flowery and technical terms. This means that you can easily pick poems that fit your level or interests. All it takes is a quick skim. If the poem is too difficult, move on to another one.
The variety also means that they are a great way to discover synonyms and antonyms. A poem is like a miniature, artistic thesaurus. They help you break out of the trap of just using the most “common” words, and grow into a more advanced speaker.
4. Poems are easy to review
Because poetry is often so short, reviewing it doesn’t have to mean rereading page after page, or starting a book over. Rereading a poem or two can be something you do during the few minutes you’re waiting for the bus, or as a relaxing read before bed. Even a two or three page long poem is a relatively quick read.
Besides, poetry is not only meant to be reread, but rereading it is enjoyable. So reviewing a poem doesn’t have to feel like work or study. Often times, once you’ve learned the poem, it’s simply relaxation.
5. Poems get better as you get better
That doesn’t mean that poems are always easy. They aren’t. And some of the best poems out there pack a lot of thoughts, meanings, and emotions into those small chunks. But you don’t have to understand everything on your first pass.
The first time you read a poem, you might grasp one meaning. But as you get more familiar with the subtleties and senses of the language, the poem will reveal new meanings to you. It’s like that movie where you start noticing important details only after a few viewings.
So how should I use poetry?
The good news is that the number one thing you can do to benefit from poetry is just read poetry. In my case, I often look for readers or dual-language anthologies in the library. But google searches will turn out great results as well.
Once you have poems and start to read them, just read them for fun. Don’t stress about it. But if you find one that you really like, or that you wish you could understand more, that’s when you should take it and really learn all the words and grammar.
Maybe you’ll be learning a few at a time. And when you think you have a good grasp on them, put them aside for a bit and move on. They’ll be waiting for you when you come back.
The key is to have fun. Of course, poetry isn’t for everyone. So if it stops being fun, or starts feeling like a chore, just stop. The fun is what is supposed to motivate you.
How has poetry helped you?
Do you love poetry? Do you use it to practice your languages? Has it proved successful or unsuccessful with any language project?
Let me know in the comments!
(Bonus points if you leave a comment in verse)