Trials and Tribulations of a Language Student: Reading Foreign Literature

As language students, the importance of reading in our target language is constantly drilled into us. As daunting as it may seem at first, reading foreign literature really is vital for learning a language thoroughly. Having initially struggled with regaining my French competency after a year sans learning and having found immersing myself in French literature to be the most useful aid, I thought I’d share a collection of the most useful tips I have received about starting to read in a foreign language, along with a few of my own ideas. Whether you are studying languages or simply fancy challenging yourself to begin reading foreign texts, here are some tips which I have found really useful so far:

Read something of interest

It cannot be emphasised enough how important it is to read something you are interested in. Whilst the scope for choice can often be limited by the compulsory and often extensive reading list, studies have shown that vocabulary acquisition increases ten-fold when we read something of interest, as your brain is more fully engaged with the text you are reading. This reinforces the need to read beyond the reading list-this way you’ll be picking up new words without even making a conscious effort to do so.

There are also plenty of translations of well-loved English novels out there for all you literary types, so you can enjoy rereading your favourites already knowing the major plot, characters and themes, thus placing your focus upon learning new vocabulary. I recently stumbled upon this blog post, which provides a starting point for wannabe francophones, featuring well-loved Phillip Pullman series ‘His Dark Materials’.

Don’t be overwhelmed

While it can often be really frustrating and off-putting when you don’t understand all of a text’s vocabulary, in my experience it is beneficial to first read through an entire chapter, only looking up the meaning of words when they are either recurring or absolutely vital to your understanding of the text. This challenges you to try and understand the meaning through the context. Although there are proven benefits to looking up unknown words as soon as you stumble upon them, it can often slow down your reading, so it may be useful to look up unknown words after your initial reading of a full chapter.

Lists, lists and more lists…

Be sure to make some form of note of any new vocabulary. Luckily for the majority of us, there are plenty of ways to make this more exciting than simply writing out monotonous lists. Sites like Quizlet.com are really useful for this, allowing you to make flashcards to test yourself and play interactive games to help you learn new words. It can also be beneficial to create pictorial representations of new words if you are a visual learner as this helps meanings stick in your mind for future use.

Use whole text translations wisely

While English translations can really enhance your overall understanding of the text and allow you to grasp the main concepts much more quickly than by trawling through the novel in your target language, it must be said that the quality of expression- and often meaning- can be lost in translation. There can also sometimes be inaccuracies and misinterpretations in the translation which may confuse your understanding. However tempting it may be, it is vital to read the text in its intended language in order to reap the benefits. After all, you aren’t trying to learn English. Therefore, in the case of more extensive texts, such as novels, it can often be useful to read plot summaries and brief analyses of the major themes before embarking on the text itself.

There is a fairly extensive Goodreads page which lists popular French novels translated into English, which can be useful to help practice using English translations effectively in your spare time.

Read little and often

Following on from the previous point, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the length of a text. For this reason it can be beneficial to read little and often, for example a chapter a day-on the bus, between lectures… Breaking the text into chunks in this way also allows you time to fully process and comprehend what you have read. As well as this, it can be useful to make chapter summaries as you go along to help you process and remember what you have read more effectively.

Although it often feels overwhelming at first, with a little practice most people find that their overall language competency improves swiftly with the aid of regular reading: improving the natural flow of spontaneous speech and writing, allowing both subject specific and more general vocabulary learning, improving grammatical accuracies and learning how to clearly express yourself.

Bon chance!

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