Reading for Language Learning and Pleasure

Reading is an important skill to develop when you are learning a language, and luckily it is one of the least-intimidating and most relaxing skills to practice. You probably associate reading in your native language with relaxing – think about curling up with a book in front of the fire, or taking a book to the park and reading in the sun (depending on the season, of course).

There is a difference between what is considered active reading, which means that you are trying to understand everything and looking up most of the words that you don’t know, and more passive reading, where you just go with the flow and try to understand as much as possible without getting too hung up on every single word. In this post I would like to talk about some techniques for passive reading, which is fun, relaxing and educational.

1. Start Easy

One of my biggest critiques of the way foreign languages are taught in universities (at least the way it was taught at the university I went to) is that they often have you read classic literature. The first book we read in my advanced French class was La Princesse des Clèves. It is a classic novel that all French school children are required to read. It was also published in 1678. That’s a bit like asking advanced English learners to dive into Shakespeare. While there are certainly cultural reasons to read classic literature, if advancing in your target language is the reason you are reading at all, it is much better to choose something more contemporary and less complicated.

And less high-brow.

A lot of language learners are intellectual types that might not usually read romance novels, mysteries or young adult novels. But that is exactly where you should start.

Just because it’s not classic literature doesn’t mean that your reading material is completely void of culture – it’s just a different kind of culture. It is common for Japanese learners to read Manga, and comics are a big part of culture in a lot of cultures (including in France, where I also spent quite a bit of time reading comics).

I also read a number of French children’s books with my husband, whose French was at a pretty basic level when we arrived. These books are much simpler than La Princesse des Clèves, but most French people also know these children’s stories. And I imagine they have fonder memories of them than La Princesse des Clèves.

When I lived in Russia I often read detective stories that had an element of romance. They were extremely popular in Russia, where romance novels actually didn’t really exist except in translation from English. The books cost one dollar each, and didn’t take very long to read, either – and after a while I stopped buying them because they were so predictable.

Which leads me to my next point:

2. Read something you’ve read before

There is absolutely nothing wrong with reading something in translation from English, and in fact, if you’re not to worried about understanding what’s going on because you already know what happens, you can focus on enjoying the story and learning some new vocabulary.

I am a big fan of reading translations of Harry Potter for precisely this reason. Yes, some people think Harry Potter is too juvenile. You also aren’t really picking up any culture specific to your target language. That’s true, but you’ll be able to follow along with the book and learn quite a lot. And nobody is going to think you’re a loser because they see you reading Harry Potter in, say, Russian or Chinese. Quite the opposite.

The bottom line is that you should read something that would not be difficult to read if it were in your native language. It should be interesting enough to hold your attention and should have a plot that is straightforward. This doesn’t mean that you can’t read Cervantes or Pushkin in the original, if that is one of your goals. Just don’t start there.