Language Learning Tips: Reading

Language Learning Tips: Reading

My Love of Languages

I love learning languages. To the point where I often spend more time playing with Swedish, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Russian than I do working. Additionally, I’m looking at Hindi and Hebrew, trying to decide how to bring them into the fold without having to find a mythological artifact to add more time to my day.

I blame the Bobbsey Twins. When we lived in Mexico when I was 11, I read every Bobbsey Twins book our library had. They went on so many adventures and learned a bit about several languages in each book. I would make my own little dictionaries for each book, and that’s where my adoration started.

Since then I’ve lived in Sweden and traveled through Latin America, Europe, and parts of the US; as well as pursuing a Masters in Teaching with a focus in Bilingual Elementary Ed. So, I have spent a ton of time not only learning languages, but also about language acquisition.

Basics of Language Learning

Language learning has four parts: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. You’re almost always going to be able to understand more complex sentences than you can create, either spoken or written. It’s because of those context clues your reading teachers were always carrying on about.

You're almost always going to be able to understand more complex sentences than you can create, either spoken or written. Click To Tweet


Let’s start with reading. I’m going to presume you know the writing system for your target language. If not, I suggest finding a Memrise course to get you started.

People will often want to begin with children’s books. And if that’s all you can get your hands on, then okay. Otherwise, I don’t consider kid’s books a good choice. For the most part, the vocabulary isn’t targeted to adult situations. It’s unlikely you’ll need to know how to write about a bunny picking blackberries, so why start reading about it?

Children’s books do have one advantage though, pictures. Pictures are great for giving context, which is why I recommend starting with graphic novels, web comics, and blogs that teach you how to do something.

While graphic novels and web comics give context through images, the vocabulary and story lines are for adults, so they’ll be more likely to give you words you’ll need and keep your interest. One caveat: if your graphic novel (or any book) is sf/fantasy then you may encounter words that are either created (eg: muggles) or not in common usage (eg: spectacles).

Personally, I go to iBooks and change my country to one where the target language is spoken and flip through the available comic books/graphic novels, to find a starting point. If you have an author you love, you can go to the store for your own country and make sure it’s set to ‘all languages’ or your target language, if you’re focusing on one. Scroll down and see what’s available. Note: Availability varies considerably based on language/location. For example, pretty much everything available in Russian is classic literature and no longer under copyright.

Once you’re less reliant on images, try looking for books with pieces that are one to three pages long. They’re a great way to naturally portion out your reading. I’m currently reading La Première Gorgée de Bière et Autres Plaisirs Minuscules by Philippe Delerm (French) and Dyngkåt och hur helig som helst by Mia Skäringer (Swedish). The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is also good and comes in both English and Spanish versions.

I’ve also been known to buy a book in both English and my target language, and alternate reading a chapter in each language. When I’m concerned about learning incorrect pronunciation because I’m relying on my own reading of the text, I’ll buy an audiobook of the text I’m reading. If you go this route, try to find ones that are by the same publisher, or originally written in the target language. Translations from different publishers can vary enough to make this option really annoying.

If you’re a fan of ebooks, take a look at the books available on Amazon in your target language. Here’s the main page for the US store for foreign language Kindle books, sorted by price. Before making a purchase with Amazon, I strongly recommend doing a bit of research into how they treat their warehouse workers, and the independent authors who sell/publish through them. Either way, they are great for seeing what’s available, and some authors choose to offer free books to give readers a taste of their writing style.


How-To blogs are great for picking up vocabulary related to a specific topic and tend to have step by step photos, which again provide context. My favorite way to find blogs is to take the topic I’m looking for, translate it into my target language and run a search on Pinterest. Also, if you go into settings in your Pinterest account and change your language to your target language, it will eventually start recommending pins to you in that language.

Through, you can choose your language(s) and sort articles by topic. Then you choose words from those articles which get turned into flash cards. That way you can review your words later or when you’re reading and need to check a word.

The BBC offers news in more than 20 languages. Some articles are available in multiple languages and some are only in specific ones.

Wattpad is a publishing platform that allows writers to share their work and gain an audience. The stories have a social aspect, in that you can comment, giving the author direct feedback. Some works are published in full, some are released as serials.

Also, check out your library. Mine has Mango Languages, Zinio, OverDrive, and OneClickDigital; all of which have publications in multiple languages.

ps. I have a pinterest board just for you language learners, come check it out!

This is the first of a four part series, come back next week for the next post on writing.

If you have any tips on learning to read another language, please share them in the comments!

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