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Reading in a foreign language

Updated: Sep 15, 2019

When you first start a new language, it can be daunting to think about reading a full novel in that language. As a teacher, I often strongly suggest to my students that they start reading a book in English. Unfortunately, the common response is something along the lines of: "I could never read something like that". When I hear this I have to stop myself from berating my student with a long monologue about the about the benefits of reading. I have saved that long rambling rant for you lucky people...

Reading is an important skill to develop when learning a language

When I first started learning French at school I found my progress to be painfully slow/inexistant. On a trip to Paris I couldn't even converse on a basic level which annoyed me no end considering the amount of time invested in my French. I could just about manage to ask a taxi driver how much a trip would cost, which wasn't a lengthy conversation especially considering the ridiculous price he quoted me. It was on that trip that I decided that I had to take unilateral action. So, I decided to purchase Harry Potter et la Coupe de Feu (Harry Potter and the fiery haircut). I set myself the goal of reading this mammoth book, and was full of motivation until I tried to read the first page... So, here's my first piece of advice:

Try to read every day: It must have taken me somewhere between one or two hours to read that first page, because I had to look up nearly every word in my gigantic dictionary (this was a time before the ubiquity of the internet, so I had this huge cumbersome dictionary that I had to flick through every time).This was a painful and depressing task, and I very nearly gave up completely, but I decided to continue, convinced that ultimately, it would become easier. And it did. It took a long time, but over a few months, I noticed that I needed to look up less and less words. I also noticed something else very important: I recognised the function of the words in the sentence. This brings me a very important point.

Understand your own language's grammar:This might seem a little strange, but it's quite important to understand the role of the words in the sentences. How to they relate to one another and how do they change in different circumstances? I find it useful to know whether a word is a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb, a conjunction, subject and object. In my English classes, I find that my students have a real hard time figuring out what words are verbs and nouns in English. This is mainly due to the fact that English verbs have no set form, and in Japanese the verbs all follow a set pattern and are relatively easy to distinguish. Also, when you read your own language then you innately know what type of word should come next, even without knowing the technical term. For example, after a pronoun "he", "she" "I" etc. then we would expect a verb or maybe an adverb. In more complicated sentences the subject may be a little harder to determine. Try to read a book in your own language, and asses the role of each word. Then, try to do the same for a book in a language you're learning.

When I read Harry Potter in French, I found it difficult at the beginning to find the subject and object. This was accentuated in the Russian and German books I read later, where the word order is a little more fluid. Determining the role of words was very important when it came to looking at verbs. Often, I couldn't tell straight away where the verb was, and I had to use careful deduction to find it, frequently looking at endings of words and locating and other nouns etc. This came in very handy when memorising conjugations and infinitives because it forced me to put the verb in the correct groups in my head.

It looks like a daunting task at first but reading helps you to identify patterns

When I read my first German book I had real difficulty with longer sentences and with separatable verbs. I would start a sentence and then find some mysterious preposition at the end which I then had to assign to the correct verb. This required some more careful analysis than in French and a little bit of trial and error with the dictionary. However, I sometimes found myself faced with a truly iimpossible sentence. Speaking of which...

You don't have to understand absolutely everything: You may have noticed that I didn't start by reading a French novel. The reason for this is that it's very difficult to dive headfirst into a book you have no knowledge of. It's much better to start with a familiar book *and a relatively easy one, too), because this alleviates some pressure. In a French novel, I would have been stumped right at the beginning, and would have been unable to continue. However, because I chose Harry Potter, I was able to recall the important parts of the story, so I could remember more or less what happened in the English version. This was especially useful for parts of the book where the author describes a scene using flowery language that I just couldn't understand as a beginner. Knowing the story allowed me to not get bogged down, and skip parts that proved far too difficult. Obviously, it's not useful to skip large portions of the book, but don't torture yourself, the whole process should be enjoyable.

At the beginning, it's important to get used to reading in the language, pick up some useful vocabulary, and familiarise yourself with the sentence structures. Don't stress about every word!

Make some notes: In addition to reading, it can be a good idea to note sentences down (and their translations if you're confident). That way you get used to writing in the language as well. Also, it helps to train your brain to recognise certain words, and so this will help you pick them up more easily.

When making notes, I recommend that you write complete sentences. Do not just write single words, the words won't mean much to you without some context to flesh them out. When I read the Harry Potter books, I made reams of notes, writing down any sentences I thought were interesting or useful (I just wanted to sound cool when I spoke French). Of course, if you're a normal person you don't have to completely copy out the novel again by hand, but make a note of some things that you find useful.

Making notes really helps you to digest what you are learning

If you really want to have some extra support when reading, then I suggest you get a bilingual book. There are books like this for many languages and you can definitely buy them on Amazon. Personally, I prefer to be completely immersed in the language, so I don't feel tempted to keep looking at the English version.

I hope these ideas were useful to you. If you have any other suggestions, then let me know!

Thanks for reading my rambling blog post :)

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