Een goede vrijdag allemaal!
Please tell me I didn’t butcher that too badly, Dutch people 😅 Your language is so similar to German that it’s been confusing the heck out of me, but I’ve been trying my very best to not be that arrogant neighbor and learn at least a few phrases. And, let me tell you, it hasn’t been easy, because Duolingo seems bent on teaching me stuff like Je bent langzaam, net zoals een schildpad… When am I supposed to use that in an actual conversation and still appear friendly???
But yeah, in case you couldn’t already tell from me disappearing almost altogether this week, I’ve been having a great time in the Netherlands! I’ve absolutely fallen in love with this country, I’ve been catching up with one of my closest friends, and I’ve discovered that stroopwafels and bitterballen with mustard constitute a huge gap in Bavarian cuisine that should immediately be filled. If you put international news aside, this week has been one of the best ones of my year, and I can’t wait to see what still awaits me in my next few days here!
Here are just a few impressions of some of the things I’ve been up to…
Anyway, since I’m currently abroad, I thought this would be the perfect time to talk about a topic that I’ve always found really interesting (and simultaneously frustrating): Reading in foreign languages!
(Okay, fine. I actually had this idea before travelling here. There’s no way I would have been able to write more than a few words with everything I’ve been up to this week. But I was inspired by the anticipation of coming here, so now I proudly get to present a discussion post that was, except for this intro, written more than just two days ahead of me posting it! That means I’m getting better at planning, right?)
Since our book blogging community is so international, this subject is probably familiar to many of you. According to my blog’s statistics, only about half of my readers are from English-speaking countries, so I’d say chances are pretty high that roughly 50% of you are not reading this post in your native language right now. And chances are that all those English books we gush about together in the comments were not written in your native language, either.
For all my fellow statistic-nerds, here are some specifics 😉 One of my biggest blogging goals is to eventually have the entire map colored in, but I also think this blog might not be accessible in North Korea, so who knows if that is even a possibility…
Sure, technically, I could say the same thing about myself. English isn’t my mother tongue. But since I spent a big chunk of my childhood in the United States, I’m about as fluent in it as in German. When I speak English to people who don’t know me, most of them automatically peg me as American… 😅 I’ve mastered the art of being a bilingual chameleon, so I don’t think English really counts as being one of my foreign languages.
Instead, what I’m talking about in this post is reading books in languages that we are still learning. Ones which don’t feel as fully comfortable expressing ourselves in as in the languages we speak on a daily basis. Ones which, no matter how fluent we might be, will never feel truly native to us.
For some of you, English might be one of those. For some of you, it might not be.
But no matter which language it is that you’re learning, I have tons of admiration for anyone who picks up a book in a language that is not their own. Because it’s hard!
First, there are always going to be words you don’t know, especially when you’re just starting out. And obviously, you can’t go look up all of them, because you’re never going to be able to immerse yourself in a story if you’re constantly running to the dictionary.
So reading becomes a big guessing game, and you’re never really sure if you’re getting everything from the context. Especially once those metaphors start coming. You have no idea how confused I was the first time I read Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry… It took me watching the movie to become completely sure that, yes, the little prince did have a conversation with a snake in the middle of a desert about being heartbroken over a flower. It wasn’t my mediocre French skills.
Then, reading in a language you’re not fluent in yet is just so mind-bogglingly sloooooooow 🙄 In German and English, I can easily read a 200-page novel in one to two hours. In French, I can manage maybe 50 pages an hour. In Russian, as Dutch Duo would say, ik ben langzaam, net zoals een schildpad. I get a headache after about ten pages, and those probably already took me over an hour to read.
Even if foreign language texts only include words I know, I am way slower reading them than I am in languages I speak fluently. In German and English, I often see entire paragraphs as “blocks” and read them almost simultaneously. In French, I can maybe do that with sentences, but usually not on a paragraph level. And even though I would consider myself very comfortable with Cyrillic by now, I guess my brain refuses to accept anything that isn’t the Roman alphabet as truly natural. For longer words, I sometimes still have to resort to sounding them out syllable by syllable, rather than being to recognize them in one quick glance. And when you’re used to effortlessly speed-reading things, being reduced to turtle-speed can be quite frustrating!
However, it’s not just the language itself that can be confusing. There’s the cultural stuff as well. If a book is based around customs that are unfamiliar to you, it’s not that unlikely for you to misunderstand something or to think you did. A girl in my Russian class was extremely puzzled when we read a story in which the protagonist’s family climbed onto their oven to turn in for the night – she was sure she must have misread something or misremembered the word for ‘oven’. She had never seen or heard of the traditional type of Russian stove that people used to sleep on. Add cultural differences to the language confusion already going on, and it’s not surprising that people get a bit muddled.
This is what I mean, just in case you also have no clue what I’m talking about…
(Picture from: pln24.ru)
Basically, reading in foreign languages can be frustrating. It’s slow, you may not understand half of what you’re reading, and in the meantime, some barely walking, snot-nosed native speaking kid breezes through books you barely grasp the title of… So why do it?
Why do it?! Well, because the positives outweigh the negatives by a landslide! Reading in foreign languages has so many benefits!
The most obvious one is, perhaps, fluency. Even in our native languages, people who read more tend to have a much broader vocabulary. Even though I left the US shortly before I turned twelve, I don’t still run around speaking like a sixth grader. I kept improving my language skills through books, and why should that be any different in other languages?
You’re never going to learn a language properly if you don’t immerse yourself in it, and reading is one of the easiest ways to do that. You don’t need another native speaker to get authentic input, you don’t need to be social, and you can go about it at your own pace. I have books to thank for a significant portion of my current French, Russian, and Spanish skills, and, even better, since I tend to read things that actually interest me, the words I learn actually help me talk about stuff that matters to me. Which is really motivating!
Furthermore, if you know the language a book was originally written in, you can avoid translations! Don’t get me wrong – I really appreciate you translators out there. Without you, there’d be so many amazing books I never would have been able to read. But anyone who has ever read one and the same story in the original and a translated version can attest to the fact that the original is, without a doubt, always going to be better. There are just some concepts and expressions that are nearly impossible to translate, and even things can be translated word for word, they will never hit the same way in a different language.
Like, once, my brother and I were watching this movie where this boy was about to take an important test and his sister told him she wanted him to do well because he was her brother and she loved him. Now, this sounded relatively normal in the original American version. But in the dubbed German one, it made us shudder and cringe. Maybe Germans just aren’t as good as expressing their feelings, but I just can’t picture anyone here saying that to their siblings. [Except for us, that is. Ever since we watched that movie, “Weil du mein Bruder bist und ich dich liebe!” has become one of our staple inside jokes, and I make a point of saying it to my brother whenever possible 😁]
Sometimes, though, it’s not just the cringiness of translations that has you turning to the original. Sometimes, books simply don’t get translated at all. If they’re not popular enough or publishing companies don’t feel like they would be as marketable elsewhere, they might never be published outside of their homeland. And sometimes, translating them simply isn’t possible because whatever the books are about wouldn’t even make sense in another language… If you’re interested in seeing some examples, you can go and check out my Lost in Translation post, where I talked about this in a bit more detail, but let’s just say: If a book’s concept relies heavily on wordplay, a translator has already lost their battle. So if you want to read these kinds of stories, you’re just going to have to reach for the original!
Besides, reading things in a language you’re not fluent in just gives you such an immense feeling of achievement! “I read a book” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as, say, “I read a book in Japanese”. After working though all those language struggles, there’s nothing more gratifying than flipping that final page and actually having understood something. And at the same time, you learnt so much – both about the language and about the cultural mindset of the people who speak it!
So, what to do if you’re learning a language, want to get into reading books in that language, but aren’t sure where to start? Here are a few suggestions that have worked well for me:
#1 Start out with picture books. Honestly, guys, pictures can be so helpful when you’re trying to guess words from context! They make it way harder to interpret something completely far-fetched, and besides, these books are usually short and give you a quick feeling of accomplishment. Don’t let that fool, though… Little kids know a surprising number of words they never teach you in language classes, so it’s not necessarily guaranteed that picture books are “easy”. For example, Умная собачка Соня expanded my previously non-existent Russian “types of trees” vocabulary quite considerably this year…
#2 Pick books with short chapters. Reading in foreign languages can be exhausting, so easily digestible chunks of material can be very helpful!
#3 Read translations of books you’ve already read in your native language and know well. True, this might go against my “the translation is always worse” philosophy and not really help with the cultural immersion aspect of reading, but it’s probably my favorite tip! Because if you already know the story, you will be able to follow along without constantly having to look stuff up. It makes the reading experience so much more immersive, and you can have quite a bit of fun comparing 😂 Like, did you know Hufflepuff was called Poufsouffle in the French versions of Harry Potter?
#4 Don’t look up every word. If a word is important, it will occur so many times that chances are it will click eventually anyway. And if it doesn’t, you can always still look it up once you’ve realized you’re truly lost. But: If you’re getting the gist of what you’re reading despite not knowing a word, don’t reach for your phone every single time! That just stops you from getting immersed and makes the reading experience tedious.
#5 However… if you’re really confused about something, Google Translate’s picture recognition software is your friend. Just show the passage to Google, and it will give you a translation! Albeit awful, it will probably give you enough clues to piece together what you couldn’t make sense of, and help you read on quickly if you’re stuck. Just don’t do this too often, since the whole point of reading in a foreign language is trying to understand things through that language.
#6 Supplement your reading with movies and TV shows. Since you also get visual input, movies are usually much easier to understand than books, and they help you get a feel for the language and what it is supposed to sound like. Watching foreign media – preferably without subtitles – is going to improve your language skills a ton, and make reading a lot easier, too! Netflix especially has a lot of options, at least as far as dubbing is concerned. Original foreign language movies are another story, but at least Netflix is still miles ahead of Amazon Prime…
To sum it up, there are loads of strategies that can help you out, and you’ll never know how much you’re really capable of until you try!
And that was already it for today! Although I’d love to know your thoughts on this topic, too! 🤗
Do you speak any other languages, and do you read books in them? If so, what has been the biggest struggle for you? Which tips have you found the most helpful? Do you agree or disagree with anything I said? Do any of you have any French or Russians book recommendations for me? Let me know in the comments!