How to read in a foreign language: part 1

When you’re learning a language, reading is probably the fastest, most efficient way of exposing yourself to a wide variety of vocabulary, styles, expressions and grammatical structures. The more reading miles you get under your belt, the better.

That said, reading in a language that is not your own raises a whole host of questions and challenges. What should you read? How should you read it? I wasted a lot of time reading the wrong things in the wrong ways, so I’d like to share some of the techniques that I eventually stumbled upon that have worked for me.

Step 1: Read something interesting.

OK, this probably seems totally obvious, but when I started to try and read in Spanish, my teacher foisted books of short stories adapted for learners on me. They usually went something like this: ‘María and Pablo went out to fly a kite. Then a storm started and they had to run home. María fell and broke her ankle. Pablo helped her and they fell in love.’

Advantages: the texts are easy and give you the opportunity to learn everyday words such as ‘kite,’ ‘break,’ and ‘ankle’.

Disadvantages: they are so boring you have no desire to sit down to read them, meaning you never actually learn the words ‘kite,’ ‘break,’ or ‘ankle.’

Fed up with these stories and my slow language acquisition, I headed to my local library and grabbed a stack of books that caught my attention (I plundered the social sciences section, because that’s my thing). The level of the books was, in theory, far too high for my pathetic level of Spanish, however, because I was actually interested in their content, I was more than happy to put in the extra effort required to plough through them.

As an added bonus, while the vocabulary in the books I chose was objectively pretty obscure, it was actually just as, or even more useful to me than the vocabulary in the books for learners. If I can’t drop things like ‘I don’t believe in the sex binary,’ or ‘the nation state is a 19th century invention,’ into my Spanish bar conversations, then I’m not really… me!

Step 2: Read something you are already familiar with in your own language.

This is particularly useful when you’re starting out. The first novel I read in Spanish was Pride and Prejudice in translation. I had read it so many times in English as a teenager that I knew whole sections by heart. When you know that what you’re reading in Spanish means “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife,” it is pretty easy to deduce which words mean ‘acknowledged,’ ‘fortune,’ and ‘truth’. Since I already had a handle on the content, I could relax and absorb the language without worrying about getting lost or missing an important plot point. I did the same with J.S Mill’s On Liberty, probably my favourite non-fiction book of all time.

But you don’t have to have memorized the text you are reading. Any familiarity is better than none at all. I quickly realized that it was much easier for me to read newspaper stories about subjects I had background knowledge of (Scottish devolution, the Iraq war, the US Senate), than those subjects which were mysteries to me in English (the Faisán case, droughts, Belgian electoral coalitions).

So much for what you should read. Stay tuned for part 2 for tips on how to read it!

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2 thoughts on “How to read in a foreign language: part 1

  1. Pingback: How to read: part 2 « Letter wounded

  2. Pingback: Reading in foreign with a Kindle « Letter wounded

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