Five Top Tips for Reading in a Foreign Language

Reading is by far the best way to increase your vocabulary; this stands to be true in all contexts, whether it’s a native or foreign tongue. I’ve been reading a lot in Spanish over the past few weeks for my Harry Potter reading challenge, fortunately, it’s been a fairly pleasant experience. When I first started reading in Spanish, a few months ago, my experience was unpleasant. I’ve learnt a great deal over the past few months and here are my top tips (Be open).

1. Don’t read

Don’t read? Well… what I actually meant to write was ‘Don’t just read‘, as a beginning student of a foreign language it’s absolutely essential you have the audio to accompany text. Really? Yes. In reality you could read without audio, but you’re going to do a lot of harm, and create extra work for yourself. Being able to listen to a native speaker read eliminates all guess work, with the exception of meaning. You’ll able to listen to the rhythm and intonation patterns of the language, something you couldn’t possibly get from reading alone.  As I progress through Harry Potter my ear for the language improves. Comprehension whilst reading In no way leads to comprehension of spoken language. It just doesn’t work that way. After I have read a chapter of a book I challenge myself to understanding without the aid of text. This forces me pay closer attention to what’s going on in the language. My ability to recognise a word on paper doesn’t necessarily help with my ability to understand the spoken form.  Don’t make the mistakes I made a few months ago. You may feel you’ll be able to understand the spoken form from the written, but I assure you, the speed at which words are uttered alters how they are delivered from the mouth of a speaker. Your ear needs to be able to recognise these words in their slightly distorted forms. The way a word is represented on a paper is not the same way it’s represented on the tongue of a native. In theory it should be this way, but things aren’t as simple as that.

If you don’t take anything away from this post, take this. If you read without listening you will have a crap accent. (I promise)

2. Don’t use your dictionary

Running to your dictionary every few seconds is probably going to drive you insane (that’s no fun). Read through a piece of text and gauge how much of it you understand. Return with the dictionary later (it’s not going anywhere), you’ll find that words appear in different contexts, so you’ll be able to guess what some of them mean (correctly). The super exciting stage is when you’re able to ‘just know’ what a word means. This happens when there are only a few logical possibilities in your mind. It works in the same way when you give someone the word they’re searching for to complete their own sentence. This stage is magical. Perhaps I feel this way because I’m reading Harry Potter?

3. Write more

I have two points to make here:

One, it’s ok to write in your book. This is the contrary to what you would have been told in school, but guess what? You’re not in school anymore (possibly lol).* My copy of Harry Potter has notes in the margins, underlined words and underlined sentences. At first glance it looks as though i’ve noticed a million and one mistakes the editor missed. Writing notes makes it easier to review what you need to look up.

For example, when I read on the train it makes a lot more sense for me to underline a sentence with structure I don’t understand for review later. The train is neither the place to check my grammar book or use a dictionary. The trains here in London are always crammed, my journeys are short and rummaging through my bag is an inconvenience.

Two, writing is extremely helpful when trying to master the use of new words and sentence structure. Immediately after reading (or as soon as possible) try to write a paragraph using what you’ve just learnt. This will help transfer your knowledge from passive into active. It’s unlikely that you will be able to spot all of your mistakes. That’s where Lang 8 comes into the picture. Lang 8 is a website where native speakers correct the writing of learners. ALL FOR FREE

4. Always select text that will defeat you.

‘Defeat’ was probably a strong word to use, but as the picture illustrates, you need to get beaten up a little (sometimes a lot) when you’re learning ANYTHING, in order to grow. Our muscles grow only when we put them under strain, and the same goes for our abilities involving language. Don’t read texts that are super easy for you; I can’t think of a better way to waste time. If you intend to improve. YOU NEED TO CHALLENGE YOURSELF.

“Growth means change and change involves risk, stepping from the known to the unknown.”

5. Be a foreign version of yourself

Why are you reading history as a foreigner when what you really care about is technology or shoes? What you like reading doesn’t change when you’re foreign (it doesn’t for me). Forcing yourself to read something you’re not interested in is boring, and that means… Well…you’re boring (really boring). Fun is the key ingredient to successful learning. The idea is to take your personality into the foreign language. I have read all of the Harry Potter books in English, and with great pleasure. Reading them in Spanish allows me to re-live the magical world, but this time in a foreign language. I can’t think of anything cooler to read. What do you read in you native tongue that really gets you excited? Whatever pops into your head first is what you need to be reading.

And there you have it, my five top tips.

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