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How to pick your first book to read in a foreign language

11 sty 2011

Reading and listening to books in a foreign language is a great way to learn the language. I learned Polish largely through reading and listening to Harry Potter.

It helps your brain learn to think in the language. Reading and listening to hundreds of hours of correct sentences will give you a sense of what "sounds right". You will be able to form correct sentences of your own by feel, not just grammar mathematics.

So, you'd like to give it a try. But what book should you choose?

Read more for advice on how to pick what to read in a foreign language.

Not too hard

While you may feel like you should try to read the classic literature of your target language, that's probably not a good idea for the first book. In fact, maybe not the 2nd, 3rd or even 10th or 20th book.

Quantity is more important than quality. Reading a dozen popular books you enjoy will likely teach you more than forcing your way through just one of the classics.

For some languages (particularly English), simplified versions of classic novels are available. But every book you read will get easier and easier. Personally, I'd rather wait a little while until I was ready so that I could enjoy the sense of accomplishment from reading a classic book in its original language.

Not too easy

Many people advocate reading children's books. The logic is: "Learn like a child." But you are not a child!

The vocabulary can be rather strange, with a focus on animals, fantastical creatures and silly words. Sometimes the sentence structure is non-standard, intended to be funny or carry a certain rhythm or rhyme. In other words, not like normal language at all.

Some people really do like reading children's books and so could probably learn a lot from them. But if you don't like reading them in your native language, you probably won't like reading them in your target language, either!

Longer or shorter?

Starting to read a new book is the hardest part. It takes a while to get to know all the characters, scenes, style of the author, etc. But after the first few chapters, it will really start to flow.

An individual author will tend to repeat certain vocabulary, especially in an individual book. But also, knowing the rules of the universe in that book and knowing what the characters are like, will help you guess words from context, even if you see them only once in the whole book.

For example, if something happens that you know is likely to make a character upset and the author uses a new adjective that you've never seen before, you can guess it means the character is upset.

So, it's better to read one long story rather than several short stories. Reading several books in a series (like Harry Potter) or even several books by the same author can help you read more, but avoid the long buildup when starting a new book.

Read something interesting

This shouldn't need to be said, but only read something in a foreign language, if you'd enjoy reading it in your native language!

Don't get too hung up on trying to find something perfect. Maybe just take the next book you were going to read in your native language and read it in your target language?

Maybe read a book you already know you enjoy from reading it in your native language? Or the book from a film you liked (one of the reasons I chose Harry Potter)?

No matter how motivated you are to learn the language, you will have trouble reading a whole book you don't like!

Have you read a book in a foreign language? Write a comment about your experience! Do you have any advice for someone trying to choose a book to read?

Portret użytkownika Anonymous

Funny thing, you know. Two people, thousand miles from each other and they have the same idea.I was after reading the whole saga of "Blood of elves" in polish and it was time for me to read the storybook"last wish"( well it should be first chronogically). So, I decided to read it in english to assess the quality of translation.
Theres my experience:

1. The translation is average. I mean it keep an orginal sense, but lose its charm. Sapkowski has a powerful tool called "staropolszczyzna"(very old-fashion-polish lenguage)and I wonder if there is fault of the english lenguage or interpreter.

2. It was a hard work. I read, underline, but put it on the paper index cards. While driving to/from school I made repetitions.
It took me 6 months(with 2 months break(lack of faith)).

3. I don't recommend anyone reading a book with old-fashion vocabulary. Sometimes it was demanded (after searching in many dictionaries) to download a pdf with polish version and check the context.

4. The next position was "Eragorn".If it werent for the descripcion of nature,surrounding,feelings it would be quite nice. Some words were really sophisticaded and what you had mentioned, the style of writing was different. Now, despite the fact I like fantasy, I decided to put it aside.

5. Silence of the Lambs is my concern now.

I like so much your idea with audiobooks and reading in the same time. I tried BBC radio,but it was to hard for me.I couldn't focus and after 5min I fly away. VOA works for me, ESLpodcast is great,games and TV
Now I started with spanish and I am looking for a book.

You are doing great job! I found you by Wykop.

well i'm quite sleepy, dobranoc

Posted by: Dwd (niezweryfikowany) | wtorek, luty 8, 2011 - 18:20
Portret użytkownika David Snopek

There is a saying (proverb) in English that goes: "Great minds think alike." ;-)

Thanks for sharing your experience! Definitely let me know how "Silence of the Lambs" goes for you.


Posted by: David Snopek | wtorek, luty 8, 2011 - 22:39
Portret użytkownika Anonymous

I stumbled upon this article looking for ways to pick a Chinese book to read. I can already read books and novels in Japanese and I enjoy them as well.

You're advice is great. I currently teach English as a second language in Japan and I give all my students the EXACT same advice. I tell them that ANYTIME you start a new book it's hard to read. The reasons for that is, you have to get used to the style of the author and you have to be acquainted with the world that they are trying to introduce to you.

Also, just like you stated, reading a classic just to read a classic isn't a good idea. If you read the things that you like in great numbers the returns for learning your target language will be greater based on the fact that you ENJOY what you're reading. I've learned so many new vocabulary words through reading books.

Thanks for the great article! Looking forward to reading more from you.

Posted by: Dodzi (niezweryfikowany) | wtorek, listopad 29, 2011 - 19:00
Portret użytkownika David Snopek

Thanks for the support! It's always great to have your advice validated by someone else in the language teaching/learning field. :-)

Best of luck with your Chinese!


Posted by: David Snopek | środa, listopad 30, 2011 - 10:45
Portret użytkownika Anonymous


Thanks for this useful text. My question is how to learn new vocabulary when reading a book? What could be the best method?

English is my second language and I've recently picked up a book and in each paragraph I face around 10 new words. If I want to look up each one in dictionary I'll forget them soon, so then I'll need to write them down which then becomes like studying and I lose the enjoyment. If I skip them, most of the times I don't get what author was trying to say. What do you think that could be done to help learn new words?


Posted by: Ramin (niezweryfikowany) | poniedziałek, luty 6, 2012 - 19:21
Portret użytkownika David Snopek

Hi Ramin,

I think the key will be making the process of looking up the words and writing them down easier, so it won't seem like studying. Maybe switch to a computer based dictionary, so it's faster? Maybe copy-and-paste the result to your flashcards, so it's fast and easy?

Personally, I didn't like stopping everytime there was an unknown word, so I just underlined them and then returned later to do all the looking up and writing down. That way there was for example 1 hour of enjoyment and only 30 minutes of studying. Maybe something like that would work for you?

Or maybe, instead of using a dictionary, get a copy of the same book in your native language? That way, you don't have to deal with dictionaries at all?

I hope one of these ideas turns out to be useful!

Best regards,

Posted by: David Snopek | wtorek, luty 7, 2012 - 16:35
Portret użytkownika Anonymous

[...] Wybór odpowiednich materiałów jest trudny. (Poświęciłem temu tematowi około 15 stron w swoim DARMOWYM ebooku.) [...]

Portret użytkownika Anonymous

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Portret użytkownika Anonymous

In the three years since this was posted, I think the spread of e-readers like the Kindle have really changed the game a lot. When you can get a definition for a word in a fraction of a second, it's possible to look words up without breaking the flow of the book too much. It also helps that a lot of foreign content is now available on the Kindle, so there's plenty to choose from.

I've written up a detailed description of what I think is the best way to use a Kindle to read a foreign novel. It's my blog, but it's not monetized.

Posted by: Greg Hullender (niezweryfikowany) | piątek, styczeń 2, 2015 - 15:39

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