How to Read Your First Book in Your Target Language (Step 1: Choosing the Perfect Book)

I’m experimenting with re-publishing some of my more language-learning posts in English, to reach more readers.  / He decidido publicar en inglés algunos de mis artículos sobre aprender idiomas para alcanzar a más lectores y estudiantes de idiomas. Original: Cómo leer tu primer libro en lengua original (Parte 1: Escoger el libro perfecto)

You’ve been studying the language for a few months… you faithfully read the news, blogs, Buzzfeed (seriously, I recommend it)… you’ve read a couple of picture books… you’ve even checked out poetry, only to realise that 70% of poems don’t make much sense even in their original language*… Finally, you decide to read a novel in your target language!

Great! It’s an excellent step toward learning new words and grammatical forms, as well as reinforcing what you already know.

But watch out! When you’re choosing a book in another language, it’s easy to make mistakes that will make it much more difficult, and less fun, than it could be (and it should be fun!).

Once, I was on Reddit, and someone wanted to read a book in Spanish, after a few months of study. Would it be a good idea to start with One Hundred Years of Solitude?

Sure, Gabriel García Márquezis my favourite writer, my role model, my idol (RIP), but…

Noooooo! You will die trying!

The difficulty of reading in a foreign language can really vary, and (surprisingly), this has little to do with the genre, or whether or not the book is «literary fiction».

In my experience, there are certain features that characterise a good book to begin reading in a foreign language:

1. It’s short.

It seems basic, or even lazy. But to begin with, you’re going to be reading veeeeeeery slooooooowly, and stopping to look up words. If you choose a super long book, it will take you forever to read, which will be discouraging (or you’ll have to return it to the library before you even finish it).

It’s better to find a short novel. Even when I was on study abroad, and I had to write an essay about a book in Spanish, I checked the reading list and ruled out books with more than 200 pages**. Even though, at that moment, I was reading Cien años de soledad in my spare time.

You’re about to do something difficult (but fun) — read a book in a foreign language. So, make your life easier, and leave the really long books for later.

In the same vein, you can start with short stories. There are tons on the internet, many of them free.

Finishing a book in weeks, rather than months, will leave you with a positive experience of your first foreign book.


2. It has short chapters or sections.

Reading slowly doesn’t only impact the total reading time. You’re also going to have to read in longer sessions, or stop reading in the middle of a section.

As understanding what you read in a foreign language can be a bit difficult anyway, I think it’s better that you can finish a chapter before stopping. That way, you can read the chapter, then think a bit about what’s happened and anything you didn’t understand, before continuing (or finishing reading for the day).

This isn’t absolutely essential, but it helps. Of course, this includes whatever type of «rest break» a text has: chapter breaks, white space between sections…


3. It’s from a country you know.

Whether you’re there, you’ve been there, or your language teacher or your mum or your tandem partner is from there, or you’ve been reading the news or other texts from that country. If you already know a bit about a country, you probably know more vocabulary than you realise.

Although the pronunciation difficulties tend to be most difficult (at least in English and Spanish), voacbulary varies between countries, too — often subtly. For example, US English and UK English use different names for foods and common items (duvet, sofa, capsicum), different verb forms for everyday actions (take a shower vs have a shower), and different prepositions (a couple dogs vs a couple of dogs).

On the flipside, if you’re already experienced in a language, and you’re travelling to a new country, reading can help you learn common words and expressions from that country.

4. It’s contemporary.

Reading older, classic literature is great — but it’ll be too difficult for your first book. In class or in study, you’ll have learned the most modern form of the language, so it’s better to read a fairly recent book. Cultural and linguistic distance makes older texts difficult, sometimes even for native speakers.

5. You want to read it!

Okay, if you’re like our Reddit friend who wanted to begin with Cien años de soledad, you might have to adjust your goals a bit to start with.

But, in general, you should try to find a book that actually interests you. Maybe it’s an author you’ve always liked, and you can’t read their masterpiece yet, because it’s a book the size of a paving stone with sentences ten pages long. But this author has probably written other interesting things, like shorter, simpler novels.

For example, Relato de un naufragio (a non-fiction novel) by García Márquezis a good example of his singular style, but it’s very simple, in part because most of the narrative takes place in a single scene: a raft that’s adrift in the ocean.

Coincidentally, an excellent book in English is The Old Man and the Sea, a short novel by Ernest Hemingway… and it’s also about someone floating adrift on a small boat!

In terms of genre, fantasy and sci-fi novels tend to be very long (especially in English), but there are also shorter ones. If you’re learning English, the obvious option is Harry Potter — it’s not the shortest, but the style is simpler, and you’ll be familiar with the plot if you read it in your native language as a kid.

Finally, don’t despair and renounce the idea of reading Cien años de soledad, Don Quijote, Hamlet, Midnight’s Children, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, o Преступление и наказание*** (Crime and Punishment).

If you start off with a few easier books, you’ll gain confidence, and soon you’ll be reading the novel you’ve always dreamt of reading, and having the time of your life! 🙂

*I’m joking. I love you, poets.

**If you’re in this specific situation — having to write an essay about foreign literature — I recommend that you at least compare the length of the different books on the reading list. You don’t have to choose the shortest book you find, but if you’re being asked to write any sort of essay, book report, etc., it’s even more important that the text is short enough that you can read it twice.

***Yes, I copied this text from Wikipedia, sorry if it’s actually a swear word or something; I don’t speak Russian.




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