World Book Day: Tips for Reading in a Foreign Language

Books in a Romanian library and a woman reading. Photo taken on: June 02nd, 2012

Books in a Romanian library and a woman reading. Photo taken on: June 02nd, 2012

April 23rd is World Book Day. Why not pick up a book in a foreign language?

Reading foreign texts is a great way to improve your language. It is a private endeavor, so you can take as much time as you need, unlike the quick pace of conversation. Plus, seeing new words in familiar context will increase your vocabulary each time you find a new word.

Reading in a foreign language can be fairly easy if the language uses the same script as your native script (meaning, as speakers of English we’re used to seeing roman script, so reading French or Spanish doesn’t feel as foreign), but even so, here are some tips for getting the most out of your reading.


Start with simple texts. 
Think about what types of texts have the easiest language to read in your native language: reading academic texts can be dense even when you know the language it’s written in, so academic texts will also be difficult to read in a foreign language. You may think that children’s books would be easiest, but often they use “baby speak” and diminutives that can make recognizing meaning more difficult. Poetry, similarly, might seem easy, but meaning is often doubled in many poems. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try both! Just don’t be frustrated if they’re not as easy as they seem. You can also try reading translations of books you’re already familiar with: the Harry Potter series, or classics for which you’ve read the translation (Crime and Punishment, The Stranger) but not the original (Преступление и наказание, L’Étranger)

Keep a dictionary nearby. 
If you don’t have access to a physical dictionary, keep an online dictionary open in a tab in your browser and look up any word you’re unsure of. It will also help to take notes. If it’s your own book and you don’t mind marking up the page, write the meaning of the word directly onto the page next to the original, or keep a spreadsheet with new words you encounter that you can alphabetize as your own personal “new word” dictionary.

Look for anchors.
By “anchors,” we mean the words you already know. These can be words you’ve already learned in your studies, or cognates that are familiar because they are borrowings from your native language. Finding these words will give the text stability and familiarity, and you can build from there.

Go at your own pace.
There’s not likely to be anyone standing over your shoulder waiting for you to call out “Done!” Take your time with each piece you read, and spend time trying to figure out the meaning of words you encounter based on their context. Also: don’t be afraid to reread a sentence multiple times until you figure it out!

Test yourself/Challenge yourself. 
Give yourself a list of questions to answer after you read each essay, poem, article, or story. What was the main point of the passage? What were the words I did understand? What were the words I didn’t understand? What were some of the structures I saw? Answering these questions will help you improve with each session.

Don’t expect a word to always mean what you think it means. 
If you’re almost certain you understand what a word means based on context, that’s fine, but until you’re 100% sure, look it up anyway. It might mean something else, and the meaning of the entire sentence or passage might hinge on that word.

Know your alphabet.
As far as learning to read in a foreign script goes, give yourself plenty of time studying the language’s writing system before you dive in to more complicated texts, but don’t be afraid to attempt to read anything you can find as you’re learning. With languages such as Russian, Korean, Arabic, and Hebrew, this will be as simple as learning an alphabet – it can help to say the words out loud as you read them; they might be words you recognize aurally before you recognize them visually. For Japanese and Chinese, the studying process will be more complex, but you can still benefit by seeking out texts for reading.

Listen to the words. 
In our online courses, we like to use “autoplay” audio with many of our dialogues; it lets you see the word and hear it at the same time. This aids recognition. It can also help to say words out loud as you’re trying to decipher their meaning; they might be words you recognize aurally before you recognize them visually. You can also go in search of books on tape and “read along” with them to aid your recognition.

Know your skill.
Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t read a Haruki Murakami novel during your first month of studying Japanese. This doesn’t mean you’re not doing well in your studies! Reading skills in many languages – especially those with different scripts – take time, and can either be the first or the last thing you get the hang of.

Understand why it matters.
Translation is a wonderful tool, but it’s still translation. Being able to read a text in the original Russian, Japanese, or Spanish is ultimately very rewarding, and you will often find meaning in it you hadn’t found in the translation. Also, you will have access to many more texts; there is so much that has yet to be translated, and by having foreign language reading comprehension, you’ll have access to that much more.


Want to start learning a language so you can read the original Tolstoy or Cervantes? Visit our homepage and choose your language from the dropdown menu to get started.