When I visited Japan, Book Off was one of my absolute favourite places. Strolling the aisles and aisles of books and 100 Yen manga, I knew I’d found my souvenir from my time in Japan. I settled upon a Road Dahl book: Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.
As I flick through the pages of that book, even now, I still can’t read it. Reading is one of my favourite things to do in foreign languages. But I rarely read novels. That’s why I was excited to hear from Rachel with her tips for reading novels in other languages. Take it away, Rachel!
Who knew something as simple as reading a novel could do wonders for your language progress? And yet, so many language learners see understanding novels as something difficult to achieve. There are so many questions involved:
At what point in my language learning journey should I pick up a novel? What if I don’t understand what’s going on? Should I read children’s books? Mainstream fiction? Classic literature, like in school?
I’m here to comfort you, and let you know that reading novels need not be so complicated. As you can tell by my blog’s title, The Book-Bound Polyglot, I’m pretty partial to reading in all forms, and reading novels just happens to be my favourite way to learn and use my target languages. I’m not alone in this either – polyglot Kató Lomb learned her 16 languages with a huge emphasis on reading novels.
Novels provide you with so many learning opportunities. You acquire a rich and varied vocabulary from descriptive paragraphs. You come into contact with casual language through dialogue.
No need to worry about when to start reading. I’ve flipped through a Polish Roald Dahl book before I knew 10 words in the language. That being said, I think things are most fun when you’ve completed a beginner course or book– when you’ve got the basic grammar and vocabulary mostly down.
Now that you’re convinced reading novels is right for you, here are 3 tips to make the whole endeavour easier!
1. Use both extensive and intensive reading
Defining how you read and what your goals are makes everything easier and less discouraging. Many learners jump into reading native-level novels only to be turned off when they find they don’t understand what’s going on. Redefining how you look at reading can help with this.
Extensive reading is when you read for quantity. It’s just like how you read in your native language. You skim parts that bore you, and you skip words you don’t know unless you’re really curious. And that’s exactly how extensive reading works with your target language. Keep the pages turning, no matter what. Only define words that you persistently wonder about– don’t be afraid of skipping a lot of words or paragraphs! Guess what’s going on as best as you can.
If you’re a raw beginner, then your goal is to flip through the pages scanning for the vocabulary you’re learning elsewhere. See what you recognise, and get excited when you string a couple of words together.
Intensive reading is when you read deliberately in order to understand. This is when you drag out that dictionary and look up every word you don’t know. This is what most people think of when they read in their target language. However, this method is obviously more labor-intensive, and it takes more concentration.
The way I like to study is to read extensively the majority of the time I spend reading in a target language. Then, each day or so, I sit down for 10 to 30 minutes to really parse out what’s going on. Using both ensures that you’re learning quickly and also having a great time.
One more note on this– especially when you’re reading extensively, don’t focus too much on whether you’ve guessed something correctly, or read something completely correctly. The hope is that reading is one part of your language regime, and there are plenty of other places for you to figure out the meaning of a word you’ve glossed over.
In fact, reading frequently in and of itself can correct for some of this, too.
2. On choosing your novel
Choosing a novel to read in your target language isn’t as tricky as it sounds. As we’ve covered in Tip #1, your chosen literature doesn’t have to match your language level exactly. So, read whatever you want! A lot of learners head straight for children’s literature expecting it to be easier, but that isn’t always the case (many children’s picture books and novels are written for adults to read to their children). I personally love a good middle grade novel, but if you don’t, don’t feel any pressure to cave.
If you love mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, romances, high literature, whatever, then go for that. In fact, most mainstream genre fiction isn’t written at a reading level much higher than young adult fiction. You can find a lot of novels by thoroughly hunting Amazon third-party sellers (searching author names tends to come up a lot).
It’s most helpful to start off with a book you know well in your native language, or with a genre with which you’re very familiar. If you’ve read and loved the book before, this provides you with context. This helps keep your interest up even at the early stages when you’re just hunting for words.
At more advanced levels, context helps you guess at meanings of words when you’re doing extensive reading, and if you’ve lost your place, the context provides “footholds” so you can catch up with the story again.
Personally, I’ve read the Harry Potter series in English more times than I can count, and considering the number of translations in print, HP makes the perfect candidate for learning languages. I’ve read Harry Potter books in French, Spanish, Dutch, German, and Swedish, and it’s always easy to figure out what’s going on.
Finally, don’t worry about whether the novel you’ve chosen is translated or not. I find that works originally written in the language tend to use slightly more complex vocabulary and grammar, but the difference isn’t really that drastic. After all, translated books are made for consumers who natively speak the language in question. And, if you’re looking for a well-loved book already, chances are it has to be translated from your native language.
3. Timeboxing to make your novel less intimidating
This last tip brings everything together so that you can actually achieve your goal. Timeboxing is a technique used to chop up huge tasks (like, say, learning a language or reading a whole novel in a language with which you’re barely acquainted) so that you can get to work on them. It’s as simple as setting a timer for an achievable amount of time– 5, 10, 20, or 30 minutes– and then sitting down and committing to reading for that time. By doing this, and by committing to smaller and smaller timeboxes if the task still seems too big, you’re making an intimidating project into something that’s easy to get done.
I like to use the Forest app for iOS for this. Not only does it block all other apps on your phone (for maximum productivity), but it also plants a little shrub or tree for every time block you complete! It seems like a small thing, but seeing your forest at the end of the day is pretty satisfying.
Currently, I’m actively committing to reading both Spanish and Dutch in my day to day life. I try to read 10 or 15 minutes of Dutch per day, and I commit to 25 minutes of Spanish. If you’re still new to your language, I recommend smaller timeboxes– Dutch is tiring for me to read, so I make it manageable. My Spanish is at a much higher level, so 25 minutes doesn’t seem so taxing.
With these three tips, you never need to be intimidated by a mere novel again! Novel reading is fun and enriching, and it’s a great way to practice and learn your target language. Have fun with it!
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Thanks Rachel! Do you read novels when you’re learning a language? How do you find it? Share in the comments below!