Are simplified language texts worth reading in language learning? - Western Philsophy in Simple Spanish by Olly Richards

Posted on May 29, 2023
tl;dr: Intermediate readers shouldn't come with compromises to the subject, and this does.

In my quest to learn Spanish, and my continued attempts to maintain my French, have led me to the ‘input method’ of language learning. According to this, the primary thing which determines a language learners command of the language is the amount of comprehensible, high-quality input which they get. Naturally, it can be very difficult when first starting a language to understand anything, let alone native-level media on subjects that you’d be interested in. Thus, rather than attempting to read Descartes in Spanish, I opted for Olly Richards ‘Western Philosophy in Spanish’ in an attempt to tickle my non-fiction fancy while acquiescing to my less-than-stellar Spanish. 

My Level of Spanish

First, some background of my level of Spanish is I think relevant, but feel free to skip. As one of my 2023 New Years Resolutions I decided that I was going to ~learn Spanish~. For me, this meant a general goal of being able to read Harry Potter, or something the equivalent to it in the language without having an aneurysm. While achieving this in just one year may sound like an ambitious goal, my pre-existing upper intermediate French was inevitably going to give me a massive leg up in reading comprehension. So I started with the Refold Spanish deck, set to teach the most 1000 common words in the language. I even stuck with it too, for about 2 months. I got maybe 60% of the deck looked at at least once before falling off the wagon. During this, I also spent some time trying to read fairy tales (I recommend The Spanish Experiment and Spanish readers from Project Gutenberg.) I believe I also watched a couple of Netflix foodie shows before finally winding my learning time to zero. 

Then, I went to Spain. In April I completed the Portuguese Coastal Route of the Camino de Santiago, going from Porto all the way to Santiago de Compostela. While the Portuguese section, of course, required a little bit of Portuguese, the Spanish section became a mockery of my practically non-existent Spanish skills. During this time I learned to order a coffee, and general understood more than I could stay, but I really was pretty useless. This reignited my goal toward actually learning a usable amount of Spanish and I set to work on Spanish for Reading, a textbook aimed at rapidly allowing a native English speaker to understand Spanish texts. Within 3 chapters I felt ready to start giving it a shot, and got myself a copy of The Giver (El dador de recuerdos) that I’m still working through, and Western Philosophy in Simple Spanish, which I finished today. For both The Giver, and Western Philosophy, I haven’t really struggled to understanding anything, though there are usually a couple of words I don’t know per page. So after all this waffle, I can say that my reading comprehension at least has reached a lower-intermediate level (though every other skill remains woefully inadequate.)

Western Philosophy in Simple Spanish

This book is part of a series of interesting topics in simple x language by Olly Richards’ Storylearning company. In this, an interesting-to-adults topic is chosen and explored in a conversational format that is friendly to the less-than-fluent but still aims to be informative. From what I’ve heard, Olly Richard’s Storylearning program is a much more expensive, albeit modernised version of the Spanish for Reading textbook I’ve been working through. A text is incrementally presented and analysed to by the learner to learn all the necessary parts of the language in context. While the programs probably differ in the exact presentation, the general principle remains. For what it’s worth, I think you can probably save yourself a lot of money by going for Spanish for Reading, but I’m sure the Storylearning program is very helpful. Western Philosophy in Simple Spanish complements either program, or those similar to them, by providing comprehensible input for those who don’t wanna go for children’s story books. It does so by introducing a set of characters who we follow going to a university philosophy class in Paris, and largely we learn through their after-class conversations at the Cafe de Flore. This conversational format has two primary effects. 

First, the constructions of general conversation are more relevant to those needed by a beginner-intermediate language learner. People do not speak as they write, and language learners are generally looking more to be able to speak to others than to be able to write in their target language. In general, the conversation does seem to flow quite naturally. However, as a humanities university student, I do think that the quality of conversation is over-simplified for university students. Their debates are generally quite shallow and serve more to expose a new fact about a particular thinker than to really flesh out any genuine debate. This is probably necessary if you’re going to present the information in a conversational way, but it doesn’t really lend itself well to the teaching of Western philosophy. This takes us to the second major effect of the conversational format, which is a shallow exploration of themes. 

The simplification of language structures and vocabulary, in my opinion, should not also mean a dumbing down of content. Throughout the book we are introduced to dozens of major philosophers and movements with very brief and shallow insight, with some major thinkers reduced to only one or two lines. While I’m not particularly knowledgeable about particular philosophers in the first place (hence reading this book), I am sure that there was a whole lot that had to be left out because of the format. For me at least, it would have been preferable to create a genuinely informative text in simplified language, and maybe just focus on a couple of philosophers or a particular school of philosophy. This, however, shows a general incongruence with my non-fiction preferences and the aims of the Storylearning team, which is mass appeal. Western Philosophy in Simple Spanish never really sets out to provide a comprehensive overview of Western Philosophy since it has constrained itself by format and length. However, I think that does a disservice to the possibilities of truly good adult/non-fiction content aimed at language learners.

Are simplified texts worth reading at all?

In all honesty, it is unavoidable for most language learners to avoid seeking simplified texts to supplement whatever learning method they follow. While my ability to understand Spanish has outstripped the amount of hours I’ve actually put in, few of the Spanish learners these texts are aimed at are going to have proficiency in another romance language. It is not easy to try and push through something if you only understand every fifth word, and it’s definitely not something I enjoy. If I was trying to learn a language much more different from my native language and/or second language, I would be left with a much harder fight to get through native-level materials. That being said, I do think it is possible to find comprehensible input without resorting to shallow renditions of complex topics, but the hunt for such material can be more time consuming than rewarding. And, just because this sort of simplification doesn’t appeal to me, doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to you. I’d only recommend this book and series if you’re aware of and happy with the compromises made to fit this format. However, I’ll be looking elsewhere for my next read in Spanish.