Frustrated With Reading in a Foreign Language? Here’s how to Do It Better

Keith Hayden
11 min readDec 1, 2017
Make reading enjoyable and effective again!

Reading is fundamental.

At least it has always been so in my life. I remember vividly my days as a blissful third grader. I hadn’t quite reached the point where I would have to read titles like “All Quiet on the Western Front” or “The Great Gatsby” like I would years later in high school. So anything that I read it was for my enjoyment only.

In my elementary school class, if you finished your classwork early, you were rewarded with time to go to the library and pick out a book to read quietly. I would eagerly tear through my assignments so that I could read the next book in the “Goosebumps” series. (The Night of the Living Dummy series was my favorite). Reading was an enjoyable reward that I looked forward to almost everyday.

But then college came and reading for pleasure was quickly supplanted by reading for survival. In my college Japanese classes, I only read what I had to in order to pass my next test. Between that class and the other truckloads of textbooks that I had to read for other random subjects, little time was left to read books in English for pleasure, let alone a book in another language.

Reading in a foreign language can be extremely intimidating. Just opening up any document or book and seeing the collection of foreign vocabulary and grammar structures lumped together in the same place is bad enough. But it is the awareness that you can’t capture the plot, subtleties, or even basic action in whatever you choose to read that is additionally frightening and even humiliating. Especially for the novice language learner.

If you have ever felt this way when learning a language, you are not alone. For all of the hassles that reading in a foreign language brings initially, it is ultimately well worth the pain in the ass.

Based on my experience, I’ll give you some of the techniques that I personally use to get the most out of reading. Then, I will remind you of some of the rewards that await, should you endeavor to persevere and slog through those first few clumsy attempts at reading in your target language.

GET THE MOST OUT OF READING BY…

…BEGINNING WITH THE RIGHT MINDSET

I know I write about mindset often in this blog, and that’s because it’s so important to consider before you even get started.

Reading in your target requires immense patience in the beginning. It may take you 20 minutes to struggle through a single paragraph of a news article or an hour to read two chapters of a book.

Don’t start out trying to read something like this

And that’s completely fine.

Your goal in the beginning should not be to discuss the contents of what you read with a local book club or to be able to discuss the latest editorial on Mexican politics with a Spanish speaking political scientist.

Initially, your first goal shouldn’t have anything to do with the mechanics of the language. It should be to increase your confidence with reading in the language.

Start with easily understandable materials, like elementary school readers (many of which can be found online, as well as in book form.)

Or take advantage of technology and use an online translator to translate short utterances. I know that Facebook has a translation feature below conversations, which is a great way to learn how to communicate colloquially. I’m sure other social media platforms have a similar function and if not you can always copy and paste short conversation threads into an online translator to read and learn from that.

Crawl before you walk (or in this case babble like a baby before you speak), and eventually you will build the confidence to run without stumbling over yourself.

…PLANNING FOR SLOW PROGRESS IN THE BEGINNING

As I mentioned above, your progress will be SLOW in the beginning. Several months ago, I can recall taking over an hour to fight and stutter my way through one news article. After that hour, I could hardly even explain what the article was about, besides what was in the headline.

This is why it’s important to give yourself time to read when you first start out. By allocating an appropriate amount of time for reading, you give yourself room to practice reading and screw up as much as you like. You need that space and time when learning to read in a new language.

How much time should you set aside?

It depends on your skill level and what you’re trying to read. I personally like to set a timer for 30 minutes on my phone, then no matter at what point I reach in the text at the end of that time, I stop reading.

This prevents me from going into a frenzy in which I’m just trying to muscle my way through what I’m reading, which hurts my overall progress in the long run.

…HAVING A SYSTEM TO DEAL WITH NEW VOCABULARY AS YOU READ

Vocabulary acquisition can be a point of contention for language learners.

How should you go about learning it?

When is the best time to set aside for learning it?

Over the years, I’ve tried several different approaches to dealing with vocabulary, which I plan to cover in detail in a future post. However, to summarize for now, the best way to deal with vocabulary is…whatever way works best for you.

Having a system for taking notes can be extremely helpful in the long run

Reading and learning new vocabulary go together like peas and carrots because all words are introduced with context, which was how you learned the majority of the words in your native language. Remember?

Trust me, memorizing endless vocabulary lists is not only an ineffective method, but it also sucks because it’s boring as hell. I’ve tried it.

If you are serious about being able to speak your desired language to other people besides people in your language learning bubble (teachers, speaking partners, etc.) and children, you must start learning vocabulary regularly when you read from this point forward.

Here are a few suggestions that I have tried with various levels of success:

  • Write down new words as you encounter them then stop and define them as you read
  • Write down new words as you encounter them, then define all words that you have recorded at the end of the session
  • Write down new words on 3 x 5 cards to immediately use as flashcards for review as you read
  • Enter new words into a flashcard app as you encounter them (like Anki) and define them for future study

All of these methods greatly break up the flow of your reading, but remember enjoying what you’re reading should not be your goal in the beginning.

Learning new vocabulary can be one of the most tedious aspects of studying a language, but the sooner you establish a system that works best for you, the sooner you will be able to actually enjoy and understand what you read in the target language.

…USING THE ONE SENTENCE AT A TIME TECHNIQUE

Reading and translating at the same time is a difficult task and you should not read in your target language with the expectation that you will be able to do this initially.

Be deliberate about reading through one sentence at a time and then going back to read it in the other language. This will ensure that your mind captures the vocabulary and grammatical structure of the sentence, which will make it easier to recognize the same or similar patterns of language in the future.

Does this seem like it will take a long time? Good, that’s because it does!

Give yourself the time to do the work and you will progress much faster than you think.

…READING OUT LOUD IN YOUR TARGET LANGUAGE

I used to read out loud all the time. I especially did it when I was playing my favorite RPGs. Sometimes I even spoke in different voices for different characters…eh hem, anyway the act came naturally to me in the past.

These games gave me plenty of practice reading out loud back in the day

That was until I began studying Japanese. Every time I spoke it in class, I knew how awkward I sounded while speaking it, butchering every word and possibly even offending other Japanese people with stilted and unnatural speech.

So I shut up. And as a result, I held back my progress with the language drastically by several years.

You can’t learn to speak a foreign language by not SPEAKING.

Everyone wants to learn how to speak a foreign language, but few want to do the speaking necessary early on to get to that point of fluency.

Reading out loud provides you with the opportunity to practice forming foreign sounds with your mouth, without the pressure of someone sitting across from you waiting for a response.

I know it’s not possible to read out loud all the time (reading out loud while your GF/BF is trying to sleep is not a great idea), but you should try and do it whenever possible.

You will most likely feel embarrassed initially when you do it, but that embarrassment is nothing compared to attempting to have a conversation with a native speaker and no words coming out.

…DIVERSIFYING YOUR READING SOURCES

Sometimes learning a language can feel like going on vacation to a foreign country. You’re excited to take in as much of the culture, food, nightlife, and whatever else you can fit in with the short time that you have available, but you don’t know where to begin.

With learning a language the question becomes: what part of the language should I focus on? Should I learn the polite form of Japanese or jump right into the more informal and widely used dictionary form? Do I read about history or sports? And where should I read about these things?

There’s nothing worse than having a smooth conversation in your target language, only to have it come to a screeching halt because the other person began talking about popular movies and you had no idea about any of the movies or how to talk about them.

To avoid this scenario, you must begin reading wide in your target language as soon as you begin to feel comfortable with reading.

By “wide” I mean, not just reading from different sources, but also reading various topics so that you begin to understand how the culture of your target language views certain things.

I have 4 separate news apps that I read from throughout the week in Spanish, and that is in addition to reading that I do for my interpretation classes, and other assorted materials that I run across.

Integrating different reading sources into your practice increases your cultural awareness and just overall makes you a more interesting person.

So incorporate it into your training today!

ADVANTAGES OF READING

Reading tends to be a self-reinforcing activity. The more you read, the more you want to read and the better you get at reading. If you’re an avid reader, you know what I mean. If you’re not it’s not too late to become one.

When you first begin reading in another language keep these benefits in mind as you read. This will keep you from giving up and switching back to materials in your native language.

Reading…increases your vocabulary.

  • This is an obvious perk of reading, but only if it is done correctly.

Reading…increases your fluency.

  • It may not seem like your fluency is improving initially when you begin (especially when you’re sounding out words one syllable at a time like a kindergartener), but valdrá la pena (it will be worth it). Think about how many years it took you to say complete sentences as a child (probably at least 3), when you find yourself being too critical on yourself.

Reading…helps you learn the structure of your target language.

  • This is one of the biggest rewards of reading. To truly master a language, you must learn how to “normalize” the ways things are said in your native language into your target language. To normalize, basically means to make it sound normal in another language to a native speaker. Literal translations/interpretations will get you by initially, but smooth and natural delivery that sounds pleasing to native speaker ears is the hallmark of a master of the language. Reading is one of the fastest ways to reach that point.

Reading…provides valuable insight into the culture of your target language.

  • If you were raised in the Western world you probably have heard of the names Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, but have you heard of Miguel de Cervantes or Haruki Murakami? I hadn’t either before I started reading more in my current target language (Spanish). Every culture has masterpieces that have stood the test of time and influence the way that people who read them think about the world and themselves.
Reading books by authors in your target language increases your cultural and language fluency

Culture influences people and people influence language.

By reading in your target language, you become an observer and participant in the ever changing DNA of language. This will make it easier for you to communicate naturally with native speakers of your target language, thus making you a better speaker in the process.

ADDITIONAL ADVICE FOR READING

To conclude here are a few more pieces of advice when it comes to sharpening your foreign language reading skills:

  • Read the same thing that another student of your target language is reading, then get together and discuss it! This will help keep both of you motivated and give you an accountability partner to make sure you get a certain amount of reading done.
  • Change the primary language of your devices to your target language. I don’t recommend doing this until you feel somewhat comfortable with the language because it can rely slow you down when you’re trying to do non-language related things. But if you can handle it, it will help you learn terminology that you probably would not have run into otherwise (like how to say all of those words in your word processing program) so it’s definitely worth it in the end.
  • Only read news in your target language. If you’re not reading, watching, or listening to the news in your target language, you’re missing out on a gold mine of commonly used terms (that are highly repeated!) and a chance to learn about current events in the regions where your language is spoken, which provides great material for conversations with native speakers. Choose one or two news sources, (apps, YouTube, or other online sources) and try to read one or two articles a day.

Reading in your target language can be a huge hassle at the beginning, but by creating a deliberate strategy for yourself it gets easier, and even becomes fun after a while!

I know those first few months can be downright difficult and a little discouraging, but remember, anytime you read even just one word, you are making progress and moving yourself one step closer to your goal of language fluency.

If you enjoyed this post, please like and share with others. Sharing is caring.

Originally published at https://keithhayden.net/ on December 1, 2017.

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