Language Learning Tip: Read a Novel

Let’s see: you’ve taken a course or two, learned the basics, searched for speaking partners… now what? Here is a language learning tip for you:

When I was learning my first language, Spanish, I quickly became frustrated because I didn’t feel like I was making much progress. Especially when there are no natives around to practice with, it can be hard to feel the fruits of your efforts. It wasn’t until my teacher assigned us to read a novel in Spanish that I really realized how much I could understand!

But isn’t it hard to read a novel?

I initially thought reading a book would be WAAAY beyond me.
But I soon realized that by only looking up words when I really needed to, I could actually understand most of the book- and even enjoy it- even though I couldn’t yet have a decent conversation in Spanish.

Reading a novel is easier than you think

This is partly because many words in Latin languages (Spanish, French, etc.) look similar to English words. So even though you have never seen them before and couldn’t think to say them or recognize them when you hear them, they are easy enough to pick out in writing.

In fact, sometimes reading is a better way to pick up a language at first than by oral communication. That’s because there isn’t any pressure from others to perform and you can take all the time you want to stare at words and look them up. In the process, you can learn valuable vocabulary and sentence structures which can later be used orally.

Sure, watching television or reading the news in your target language is “better practice” for you… but if your level isn’t quite up to the task it may be too difficult or uninteresting.

The key is to choose a book that is interesting to you and that you’ve already read before or already know what it’s about. My go-to book? Harry Potter. It’s available in tons of different languages and it’s a story you likely already know. [Plus, after making your way through the book you may be able to watch a dubbed version of the movie and understand it better than you would otherwise since you’ll already have learned most of the relevant vocabulary.]

Avoid small children’s books

Despite what many people may think, these stories are actually not easier for non-native learners. Children’s books or picture books use short sentences without much detail, so there is little room for you to guess what is going on if you don’t know all the vocabulary. Novels, on the other hand, usually repeat things, describe things, and have lots of small details for you to catch – or leave behind – without jeopardizing your general understanding of the book.

  • Books whose stories you already know are easier and more interesting to try and read in a foreign language since, through context, you may be able to guess a lot of words without having to look them up (even if they don’t look similar to their English translations).
  • Reading gives you a great feeling of accomplishment because you can physically see  how many pages you can make it through.
  • You can learn plenty of vocabulary by reading a book.

The one important thing to note is that you shouldn’t use the dictionary for every new word. Just  the ones that are repeated a lot or seem integral to your understanding of the story. You can’t be a perfectionist on this or you’ll risk losing interest due to slow progress.

Tried this already? How’d it work? Leave a comment.

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