Luke Ranieri’s Newsletter


True Reading and the Phonological Loop ?

?  Χαῖρέ τε καὶ salvē! ? 

I’m so grateful for the positive feedback you sent me on last week’s newsletter! Your helpful comments and questions inspired me to make this video about how to use Extensive Reading and Audiobooks, modeling how I apply the 7-step technique that I was talking about in Latin and Ancient Greek, as well as languages I’m learning as a beginner, including Romanian, Portuguese, and Russian. I look forward to hearing more success stories from you as you continue to apply the technique, and I’ll be excited to know how you’ve tweaked it to fit your needs.

This time I wanted to tell you a bit more about the phonological loop.

Dr. Randall Buth, a scholar of Bibilcal literature, often speaks of this. The essential idea is that comprehension of text, which is just a more elaborate form of speech, must occur at the speed of speech.

Why? If we read slower, won’t we understand more?

Nope! The human auditory memory has a very limited capacity, something like a FB audio message, but much shorter: just 2 seconds. This phonological loop is part of the apprehension of human speech: when someone says something, it is echoed inside the auditory part of the brain, and then understood by the rest of the intellect.

Ever talk with someone who can’t get the words out? It’s unbelievably frustrating, isn’t it? And ultimately you can’t understand them easily, because your brain automatically dumps the words they were saying from the phonological loop after two seconds. Trying to listen to someone hemming and hawing and painfully arriving nearer their point requires a huge amount of concentration since, to understand them, we have to focus on consciously re-echoing their words silently while they slowly say them. This is why we hate people like that. (Just kidding. But you’ve been there before, right?)

And since the phonological loop is automatic, you can be watching TV with your spouse, and then your spouse says something to you, but your were concentrating on the program and didn’t actively listen; whereupon your spouse inquires, “were you listening to me?” if you did indeed clearly hear the sound of your spouse’s words — your conscious mind was merely focused primarily on the TV show — you can quickly parrot back exactly what your spouse said, and then respond to it. An amazing thing, that phonological loop!

And possibly because of the phonological loop, all spoken language is structured into phrases, every clause taking just about 1-2 seconds to utter. Each phrase is like a step we climb on a staircase; once we conceive of the meaning of the speaker’s phrase (an unconscious process when fluent in a language), we ascend, following the speaker’s train of thought.

This is also true in reading. We must necessarily read at the speed of speech (slow but intelligible speech is perfectly fine) in order to comprehend. If not, we find ourselves going over and over the same text, apprehension of the meaning coming to us quite slowly, if at all.

Dr. Buth quotes researcher Catherine Walter as saying that working memory “consists of a central executive, plus slave systems. One of the slave systems is the phonological loop, a short-term memory mechanism that stores information in phonological form and automatically rehearses that information by unconscious sub-vocalization” — and like I mentioned in the video, this isn’t the same “sub-vocalization” as mumbling quietly while reading; this is an automatic mental process that cannot be escaped when speech is involved.

Thus one of the reasons the grammar-translation method is not an effective way to learn to read, is precisely because “if the brain is overly engaged in these lower-level processes,” as Dr. Buth says, meaning the processes of slow analysis of case, declension, gender, tense, etc., “the brain does not have the full resources available for thinking and higher-level processing of understanding the reading.”

Thus we must read at the speed of speech, in order to indeed call the act “reading.” Even with texts that are truly too difficult for our current level, it is possible to read them, with a bit of work. If you have an audiobook available, like I talked about in last week’s newsletter, immersing yourself in the narrator’s intonation, inflexion, and performance, and then striving to repeat that performance, is a stupendous way to push through a more difficult text. While you are allowing an audiobook to carry you through a text in such a manner, even if you barely comprehend the text, I would dare say that this activity is more truly reading in that language than any grammar-translation parsing, since the visual process paired with the heard audio excites the phonological loop into action.

Using techniques of parsing, or whatever is necessary to understand a more difficult text, is the next step. Understand as much as you need about the passage, and then move on to the other steps in the technique. The process of re-reading in these different ways will meld sound, image, and text into one coherent relationship: reading Latin or Greek, or Russian or Portuguese, will become second nature.

Using graded readers that focus on Comprehensible Input (CI) is clearly best, but sometimes you have to work with what you have available. This is how I was able to teach myself Ancient Greek, and I confess it was a comparative struggle after Latin: not because Greek itself is inherently more challenging than Latin, but because the even the best texts currently available fall far below the CI and Extensive Reading standard that LLPSI had taught me with.

Next time, I’ll tackle the question of pronunciation and what role it plays in our ability to become fluent readers.

Till then, valē atque ἔῤῥωσο!

Luke · Lūcius · Λούκιος  ? 

P.S. If you’re interested in the audiobooks I make, I have some free ones at along with all the audio recordings I make for my Patreon supporters, and I have others at my audiobooks store.