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Tips on starting to read books in a foreign language from my personal experience

I first started reading books in English when I was about 14. It was out of necessity: the third and last book in The Hunger Games series hadn't been translated yet, so the only way to read it was in English. At first, I didn't understand a lot, but after some time, gradually the words started making some sense and I could get the general meaning of each paragraph. It's not the ideal way to read a book, but it was a necessary step to venture into the wonderful world of English literature. Now looking back, I am glad that I used YA dystopian books and John Green's books as a passageway to English. At the time I liked them, but now I don't regret what I missed because of the insufficiency of my language skills. Had I started with books which I really love would have made me miss too much of the meaning.

I advise you to start by books which you are not too desperate to read or which you've been dying to read. At first there are lots of words you're not going to understand, only after a great deal of pages does your mind get used to (and gradually better at) constantly guessing words from context.

If I had to grade the best reading staircase, in my eyes, it would be:

  1. tv series/movie with subtitles in the spoken language
  2. contemporary children's books /short stories
  3. contemporary short stories
  4. contemporary YA books
  5. contemporary short books
  6. contemporary (medium lenght) books (Congratulations! You achieved the great milestone!)
  7. Children's classics
  8. Classics

And after you're comfortable reading contemporary books, you're ready to get into the older classics.

Contrary to contemporary books, older classics have a different kind of language which is not encountered very often in our daily lives. If you try to read an older book too soon, you may get frustrated and discouraged. That's what happened when I tried to read The Lord of the Rings right after the dystopian YA... The way of writing was just too strange and there were too many obscure words. I advise tou to start by reading older classics or short stories for children. The book that helped me through the magical door into the language of English classics was "The Secret Garden", by F.H. Burnett. The language was old and they spoke "in a very queer fashion", but now that I read it and got used to it, Jane Eyre is not that much of a shock. It's actually easier to understand. And voilà! Here I am inside the world of English Literature!

I hope this has helped you in some way. What have been your experiences with reading books in a foreign language? Do you want to share any tips?

October 5, 2017



I have also advanced enough through Duolingo in a new language, Dutch in my case, that I felt confident in reaching out for a book. I did look into "Clausewitz" by Joost de Vries as well as "De Ontdeking van de Hemel" by Harry Mulisch. I could follow the narration, but to be honest the stories aren't interesting enough for me to keep pushing against the wall of vocabulary.

So, I tried a different idea: Why not grab a book I read once before and liked very much, and read it again in the Dutch translation? So now I am progressing through "The Hitchhiker's Guide through the Galaxy" in Dutch and getting along very nicely: I remember enough to be able to guess the author wrote to make sense of new words, and the story is entertaining enough to make me want to look up words I still don't get.


I absolutely adore books and it's a dream of mine to be able to read books in many languages. Currently, I am struggling with the different alphabets that many Asian languages use. So I'd be grateful if you have some extra tip for this.... like how to learn alphabets more quickly and so.

My tip for all you readers would be: when you find an unfamiliar word, don't rush for dictionary, instead pick a blank notebook (or notebook you use for learning language) write down the word and try to guess it's meaning as it comes in the sentence and write it down too (you can write more, making it more accurate each time you encounter that word). Later when you finish a chapter or so you can check the words in dictationary.


That's a very good idea! As to learning other alphabets... Well, I don't intend to read any books in Asian languages, so I'm not as experienced in that, but I'll try to give some advice.

It's important that you practice writing the alphabet regularly. Try to make some time each day to just write some letters (syllables in the case of Japanese). What matters the most is how often you practice it, not how much.

I'm learning the arabic alphabet right now and I've come to the conclusion that instead of learning the letters by alphabetical order, it's way more effective if you divide them into groups depending on similar features (be it shape, pronunciation, grammar rules, etc). I don't know which languages you're learning, but try to study the alphabets by groups. (You can also try to organize grids by vowel/consonant)

As soon as you learn one group, try to form words with those letters, and then repeat eith the other groups. Then try to from words with more and more letters.

Ex: Group 1: vowels: あ え い お う a e i o u

words: うえ - fish (ue)
あい - love (ai)

Remember to pay special attention to letters which look very similar, like き、さ、ほ... or even ج خ ح

For chinese characters, try to learn the roots / basic characters first. The other characters will be made up of two or more root characters. ex. 木 tree, 森 forest or: 女 woman + 子 baby = 好 good

You can read this fast in English because your brain is not reading letter by letter - it recognizes the shape of the word / phrase and associates it with its meaning. You'll need a lot of practice to achieve this in another alphabet.


Good luck with arabic


I did the same thing you did with Harry Potter. I didn't want to wait for the fourth book to be translated, so I started reading it in English. It was difficult but after a while I gave up looking up every word I didn't understand and went by context. When I read the translation later I noticed how much I missed, but it didn't matter because I got the gist of it. And it was easier with the 5th, and even easier with books 6 and 7. I now read every book that was first published in English in English not in the translated version.

Now with Swedish I'm trying the same with Harry Potter och de vises sten. The first book of the series. That I know the series so well helps to fill in the gaps I don't understand.


I'm quite surprised that you suggest watching TV series/movies as the first step. Yes, the visual part helps understanding, but still, it's realtime and if your vocabulary is still weak (which it must be at that point), you'd have to pause all the time to look up stuff not to get lost.

But maybe it's just me - I much prefer books.

I'd also suggest romance books to your list, at least for those who are willing to read such topics. I'd read one or two in my target language and it felt even easier than some children's books. (Why? The plot is easy to follow and there's a lot of everyday stuff - home and family, workplace, basic human interactions; it doesn't hurt to learn about clothes, body parts and emotions. In contrast, children's books are sometimes so creative you get lost in the plot.) But of course you need to be interested in the book a bit. That's why I ended my experiment after that. :)


IHad a chat with a german (english speaking) language learning professor in germany this summer.

Unfortunately, since we are both mid-aged, we have already learned and used english for too long to see the beginners perspective properly.

However we did agree, that the next time we want to teach someone english from scratch, the Harry Potter book series is in our toolbox.

It builds up the language from very simple to quite advanced and was written by a former elementary school teacher in England.

Expanding your vocabulary, thus making more litterature accessible is possible in many ways.

I use crosswords, scrabble and the WordFeud app (currently in Leage of Honour, English International Division 7, group 43.) http://wordfeud.aasmul.net/default.aspx The opposition wil crush a beginner in the game, but the words they use to crush You can be looked up in a dictionary

For beginners, learning danish, the first book should always be: Halfdan Rasmussen: Børne ABC. Regards Henrik


I don't actually have any experience with this yet with the language I'm currently working on, Turkish, but I'll tell you what I'm -going- to do: I just ordered "Where the Wild Things Are" and "The Hungry Caterpillar" in Turkish and they'll be here in a couple weeks. I just have the idea that just starting out, it would be good to have super simple children's books that I know and love from my own childhood. That way, they are short, use much easier language, and is actually a story I am familiar enough with to be able to easily figure out what's going on with the text, to be able to figure out how the language works.

I wanted to get some Dr. Seuss in Turkish. As you might imagine (anyone familiar with Dr. Seuss in English), it would potentially be quite difficult to translate Seuss into other languages, the way he plays with English and makes up some nonsense...which is precisely why I think it would be interesting, if translations for his stuff -do- exist in a given language, to see how his silliness gets translated, to see how a given foreign language gets played with. I've found 3 different Dr. Seuss books on Amazon, but they are $25 each and I'm just not -quite- ready to spend that kind of money on any one book in Turkish yet.


Also, reading out loud is a smart way to make connections between the text and corresponding sounds of a given language. I read a lot in Spanish, Arabic, and Portuguese; this aided accent and speak more cogently.


I chose to start with translations of childrens books which I already know quite well, so I have a general idea of the storyline before I start, which can help give me some context.

Then I try to read a paragraph at a time and not worry too much about the words I don't know, then I go back over and look up any words that haven't become clear by the end of paragraph.

Most of the books were written in English and translated to my target language, but I'm also reading Heidi in the orginal German, which is quite challenging in places. The thing I do find interesting is that my current Norwegian book (free on kindle) seems to have been translated by google translate, and after 6 months or so of reading practice I'm starting to see which words have been mistranslated (for example the English word 'tear') and to see both why they are wrong and how the confusion arose. I guess this means I'm making progress...

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