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.