I am not a language expert by any stretch of the imagination. I speak and read pretty well in Spanish and French, so-so in Italian, and wretchedly in German. However, I do think that learning languages is a blast, and books have always been the key.
What I want to do in this post is give you the reading progression that has worked best for me.
That said, reading has certainly not made me into a great speaker of any language. Confidently making it through a Stendahl book in French does not suddenly mean you speak French. Disclaimer over.
Some brief background.
I learned Spanish as a Mormon missionary. My religious affiliation didn’t last, but my love for the language did. So I kept reading in Spanish, hoping that it wouldn’t fade too quickly, and it didn’t. What a relief it was to put down The Book of Mormon and jump into everything from The Wind in the Willows to Don Quixote.
I did fine with most of it. Generally, when I couldn’t pick up on everything from context I was getting too ambitious and trying to tackle elegant and ornate writing like Garcia Marquez, wonky semiotics discussions like the characters have in Bolaño novels, or the more archaic pastoral bits of Cervantes.
I got interested in learning French because I was going to go to Paris for ten days.
I got into the other languages because the travel bug bit me on that trip and hasn’t let me go.
Now then, here’s the reading progression that has worked well for me so far.
- Choose books that you’re familiar with. Preferably, very familiar with. Once you have even a primitive vocabulary, it’s possible to limp through something like Winnie The Pooh, provided that you know the story well enough. If you know the song the bear sings when he’s holding onto that balloon, you can look at the words in another language and really see how it translates.
- From Winnie The Pooh, I generally move on to Charlotte’s Web. It’s more advanced, but the language is simple and few of the sentences are constructed in a more complicated manner than sentences you’d find in a grammar primer.
- Once I’m confident in Charlotte’s Web, I’ve been ready for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Adventures of Pinocchio. One of the greatest things about Alice and Pinocchio is that you’ll pick up all kinds of words you wouldn’t encounter anywhere else. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m speeding through these. I take my time and try to understand how each sentence works. One of the only downsides to knowing a book so well is that when you read it in another language it’s easy to speed along and feel like you’re comprehending more than you are just because you spot an illustration you’re familiar with.
- After Alice, it’s Tom Sawyer.
- Once I’m confident with some of the lighter Twain, I go to Jules Verne. The language isn’t complicated, but books like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth have a fair amount of scientific terms in them, which has done a lot to expand my vocabulary in an area I might not venture into otherwise.
- As long as I’m honest with myself, once I’m comfortable with Jules Verne, I’ve been able to move into Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut is usually where I first encounter abstract thinking and philosophy. Up until this point, despite the rich philosophical underpinnings of Twain and even Verne, those books can still be read purely for story. Not quite so with Vonnegut. His novels are a way, in another language, to start grappling with concept of esoterica and religion without having to jump into the original Voltaire or Umberto Eco.
At this point, as long as I don’t think I’m fooling myself, I’m usually in the clear to try whatever else I like. It’s always slow going, but it’s nearly always enjoyable.
One particularly bittersweet realization was when I realized that reading in another language forces me to read with the care and attention that I used to give to every book. In a way, it’s helped me reconnect with a joy that I’d let slide in some ways, despite still reading constantly.
Regardless, there’s no downside.
Do any of you have a touchstone book that helped you break through a barrier in a foreign language? Please fill the comments up with suggestions and we’ll see how big of a list we can build.