Advice on how to read in the language you’re learning

Reading is a great way to improve your ability and knowledge when learning a new language. Whether this be news articles, poems or full-length novels, exposure to any written text in the language will allow you a great way to practice.

However, language learners often make mistakes when reading in other languages which lead them to not getting as much out of the process as they could. I’m here to give some advice on reading in a foreign language that you’re learning, having read quite a bit in Spanish over the years.

Spider-Man reading

Don’t try to understand every word

This may surprise some people, but this is vital to bear in mind when reading in another language. Especially when reading a novel, the language used is going to be very complex and there will be a multitude of words that you won’t have come across before. Many of these words may even be unfamiliar to native speakers!

Think about when you read English novels, for example. The language can be very poetic, and I know from experience that in every book I read there will be a few words that I have to Google (or look up in my dictionary, if I’m feeling old-school) so that I understand the meaning.

Because of this, to look up every single word would take an extremely long time and would be unnecessary as you will never use many of these words, especially not when speaking.

Instead, try to get a rough understanding of whatever you are reading. This can feel strange as you would never settle for this level of understanding when reading in English. But there’s a big difference – you’re much better at English! So you must approach the new language with the mindset of a learner, not an expert.

Books in library
Photo by Jaredd Craig on UnSplash

For each paragraph, use the words you know to try to make sense of the meaning of the text. If you can do this, well done! Carry on reading, and you don’t need to go searching through any dictionaries.

If you don’t understand what is going on, then start looking up some words. But again, don’t look up every word. Try to look up the fewest words possible that will give you this understanding. To decide which words are most important, I usually use this trick:

Verbs → Nouns → Adjectives

I would first look up the verbs that I don’t recognise, followed by the nouns, and then the adjectives if I still don’t understand. This is because adjectives usually aren’t key to understanding the gist of the text, so it isn’t necessary to look these up. Of course, as you become more advanced you can start to look up more words, especially adjectives, to improve the quality of your language.

The reason I’m giving this advice is that it can be very demotivating if you spend half an hour reading and 20 minutes of this time is spent looking up words. Everybody wants to read perfectly in the language they’re learning, flicking through a copy of ‘Don Quixote’ or ‘Les Misérables’ with ease. But this is the end goal and won’t happen overnight, similar to when you learned English, so you have to take it step by step.

Girl reading Dr Seuss
Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

Read something about a topic you’re interested in

This is another key thing to think about when choosing something to read. As in English, texts are much more engaging when you are reading about a topic that interests you. If you’re really into sports, you’re more likely to enjoy a BBC Sport article than somebody who hates sports, for example.

It can be tempting to read whatever article comes up for the language you’re learning. But it’s worth taking the time to find an article on a topic that excites you. The reason for this is that if you find it difficult to read, you’re more likely to persevere if you like the content than if it is something you are only reading to help with learning the language.

Man typing on laptop
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

In the past, it was acceptable to read whatever was there as we had much less access to content in general and especially in other languages. However, in today’s world, there is such an abundance of content and information out there! And if you can read this post you can access so much of this content as you have access to the most amazing resource in the world, the Internet!

A simple search for publications from countries where your language is spoken will mean you can read an endless number of articles in this language, and most of these publications will have free access. Some Spanish-language sites which are great are BBC Mundo (link), El País and El Mundo. They cover the full range of areas of interest, so there is sure to be something of interest to you.

Finding novels in your chosen language is slightly more difficult to do for free. Check at your local library to see if they have any foreign language novels available. Again though, read the blurb and make sure it is something that sounds interesting to you.

I’ve been speaking about reading in a foreign language, but all of this advice can equally apply to watching content. When I first began watching shows in Spanish, I remember spending almost an hour to watch 10 minutes of an episode, because I was looking up every word that I didn’t know and then also writing all of these words down in my vocab book! This (as I’ve now luckily worked out) is a crazy, unsustainable way to learn a language, so make sure you prioritise understanding and not linguistic perfection. Also, there are more and more foreign-language shows and films available on popular streaming services, so try to choose one that interests you (a very popular show for Spanish-language learners is ‘La Casa de Papel’, which I’m very excited to be starting soon).

Netflix and remote control
Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

I hope this advice has been useful and that it helps you get more out of consuming content in foreign languages in terms of enjoyment and improvement of your abilities! As I said, any exposure to content in the language is great, but this advice should help to improve your experience.

3 Spanish online dictionaries to enhance your knowledge

There are a number of great tools out there to assist you with language learning. Here are the 3 main dictionaries I’ve used over the years to help with my Spanish, and why I think they can be useful for language learners at any stage.

WordReference

This is always my first port of call whenever I need to look up what a word means or find out how to say something in Spanish. It has improved greatly over tim and now includes a great range of uses for each word.

One great feature is that it tells you which Spanish-speaking countries words are used in. This can be great if you want to learn the vocabulary of a particular country, or to know what to use at school (it’s usually best to stick to the words used in Spain for anything to do with school, as this is what is taught).

WordReference Logo

Another great aspect is the WordReference Forum. For any word you search for, there will also be a list of forum entries where people have asked about the usage of certain words or phrases. Some words have very specific meanings in certain circumstances, so this can be a great place to look.

A final feature that people may find useful, especially at an early stage of learning, is that WordReference can give you the full conjugations of verbs in all tenses and moods.

Linguee

On Linguee, type in a word you want to know the translation of, and it scours the Web for sites that have this word in both English and Spanish translations of their page, giving the full sentences the word is used in for both languages. In this way, you can see the different ways a word can be translated in different contexts.

Linguee Logo

Diccionario de la lengua española, RAE

This is a lesser-used site, but one that can be extremely useful in finding out the various meanings of Spanish words. Unlike the previous two sites, this dictionary by the Real Academia Española is only for the Spanish language, and all of the definitions are given in Spanish too – there are no English translations, which can make this difficult to use if you don’t have a good grasp of Spanish. However, if you do this can be a fantastic tool, and one which I find particularly useful when doing translation work.

Real Academia Española Logo

Beyond this, simple searches on Google can often bring up forums that have the information you need. Just always be careful to look at a few to find consistent answers, as some people might say things which are inaccurate or use words only used in certain countries, meaning you may not be understood.

3 apps I’ve used to improve my Spanish

Nowadays there are more and more ways to learn and practice whatever skill you want to online, and this is no different in terms of learning languages. Outside of language learning apps such as Babbel (one of my favourite apps – see our next post about this), here are 3 apps you can use to improve your Spanish in your free time.

BBC Mundo

This app gives you all the news you would normal consume from around the world, but in Spanish! They have long, detailed articles related to all topics you might be interested in, so you can find out what’s going on in the world while improving your Spanish at the same time! If you’re only interested in certain topics, the app also neatly divides articles under different tabs such as ‘Tecnología’, ‘Deportes’ and ‘América Latina’, so you can easily read up on your interests. The app also includes lots of videos to give a more visual aspect.

BBC Mundo logo

Netflix

This is one you will all be familiar with. There is ever more Spanish language content on Netflix, giving you a wide selection of films and shows to choose from. If you are not quite yet fully confident, use subtitles to help you follow what is going on: I recommend Spanish subtitles over English to help you get used to understanding the Spanish for what it is, instead of trying to always translate it in your head which can make learning as you get more advanced more difficult. But if you need to, and this is hampering your enjoyment, of course use English subtitles. Then, to test yourself try to watch small sections without the subtitles to see how much you can understand.

What can also be really fun is watching a series you’ve already watched in English but with Spanish audio instead! It’s very easy to change this setting on Netflix, can mean you already know what is going on in the episode, and can provide a good laugh hearing your favourite characters speaking in very different accents. I’ve watched ‘Friends’ with Spanish audio before, and it was very entertaining.

Netflix on TV

Quizlet

Here we have a fantastic app for practising your vocabulary. You are able to make up your own sets and vocabulary lists and then learn the words in a variety of different ways. There is a flashcard mode, a mode that gives you short tests on the words and others where you have to match words with their translations in a game which is like Pairs. If you use Quizlet on desktop they also have a great game called Gravity. Meteors with words on them are approaching your planet, and you must type their translations out before they crash into the planet and as you go through the levels you have to do it faster and faster (I’ve played it and, trust me, it’s very fun).

Not only can you make your own sets, but you can also access sets other people have made on the site which could save a lot of time. For example, if you want to find lists of word for certain GCSE topics, just type into the search ‘GCSE Spanish’ followed by the topic and lots of results will come up!

N.B. I recommend keeping your sets to 25 words or less, as beyond this they can become too difficult to remember

Quizlet logo

Looking for more recommendations of ways to further your Spanish? Drop us an email and we’ll see if we can help