Tag Archives: Books

How To Start Reading In A Foreign Language

Two of my Spanish teachers have come to the same conclusion: there’s one determining factor which divides the mediocre student from the outstanding one, and it’s whether they read books or not.

This may not strike anyone as an earth-shattering insight. I’m sure we can all agree that reading is the best way to expand one’s vocabulary.

However, as I’ve discovered through years of trial and error, it’s not a matter of “just read whatever comes to hand” – a pernicious piece of advice that just refuses to die.

I believe that the choice of reading material can make or break someone’s motivation. Picking up a foreign language book with the best of intentions, only to throw in the towel after ten, thirty, fifty laborious pages is a pretty common experience. Not only is it disheartening, but it can dissuade some people from ever having another go.

So, I thought I’d share a handful of my homespun “rules” meant to minimise frustration and maximise endurance, so to speak. A wedge of cake,  a slab of chocolate or similar armaments have also known to aid in the endeavour.

1. Stay away from The Classics

If you’re passionate about reading, you’ll probably have ploughed through a quantity of highbrow literature in your native language. And you may even have enjoyed it. There are many good reasons why some works come to be regarded as “classics”: The language is beautiful, the insights are profound, the plot is enthralling, the characters are vivid and the author probably transgressed the social taboos of their time.

It’s hardly a surprise that those of us who love to read are itching to access the unadulterated literary riches of any other languages we are trying to learn.

Unfortunately, choosing a classic as your reading initiation is just about the worst possible strategy. I mean… poetic turns of phrase that fell out of use when automobiles had to be jump-started by rolling up your sleeves and cranking a big screw? Long-winded descriptions of items of clothing that you’ll only ever encounter in a period drama? Words so ancient that Google Translate starts to spit out runes?

C’mon. Get real. If your level of comprehension is below that of the average five-year-old native speaker, wrestling with a worthy tome is much like hobbling along an eight-lane highway on a pair of rickety crutches. You are going to run aground on the hard shoulder way before you even see the first signpost that reads “pretentious git”.

Sure, your ultimate goal may well be to enjoy the same kinds of books in your new language as you do in your native language, and maybe even to delve deeply into classic literature, but you’ll have to get on your tricycle first. With an extra pair stabilisers, if need be.

2. Build your reading muscle

Reading a book in a new language, even a fairly short one, is like embarking on a marathon. And it needs to be tackled in the same way. Before you even think about taking a “proper” book to bed with you, you should be capable of reading things like news items, magazine articles, blog posts, etc.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t always understand everything. The point is to try, to get through it and to glean as much as you can on the way. In any case, you should be at the higher end of the intermediate level before you have a serious go at a novel or a biography.

If you’re not quite there yet, start with books aimed at young children. Also, there are bilingual books, which give the text in two languages on facing pages – these can be an excellent way of easing yourself in.

3. Start with short stories

I’m just over two thirds through my first book in Portuguese. (And I’ve been at it for three months – how embarrassing is that?!) It’s a book of short stories, some of them just a couple of pages long. At this stage, I don’t get the point of each and every one of them. But that’s OK. I do understand most of the sentences, and I helps me consolidate grammar structures and vocab. By the time frustration makes me want to eat my socks, I’ve already reached the last paragraph of the tale.

The trick is to counterbalance the growing aggravation caused by wobbly comprehension with the satisfaction of having got to the end of the story. And if you get to the end of enough stories, you’ll eventually get to the end of the book.

Spanish Short Stories

My first book of Spanish short stories. It may look like highlighter pen, but it’s all blood, sweat and tears, believe me!

4. Read what’s useful to you right now.

When I first started to read books in Spanish, I picked a well-researched historical novel by a reputable author, because historical fiction is one of the genres I absolutely love to lose myself in. After all, whatever you read, it’s got to hold your interest, right?

Big mistake.

I had only recently moved to Spain, and what I actually needed at that stage was the appropriate words to dissect assorted family problems with a friend over coffee and complain about water leaks to my landlady, etc, not vocab denoting the constituent parts of ox carts used in 14th century southern Spain. What the hell was I thinking?!

Well, I very quickly got off my ox cart and turned to the very stuff that I’d never touch with a barge pole in English (or German): Romance novels and inane chick lit, where people talk about relationships and domestic disasters in everyday language. Oh, but how useful that trash proved to be in real life conversations! In fact, I’ve discovered that I don’t much mind if the plot is stultifying, because it’s very much like being on a treasure hunt. As I comb through the dross, I keep stumbling across pearls of handy vocab and nifty expressions.

And just a couple more things – in the beginning, choose books that are no longer than 250 pages, and before you commit yourself to any book, sample at least a couple of pages of it. If it’s impenetrable, put it back on the shelf. It’ll keep.

*    *    *    *    *

Let me be clear: Starting to read books in a new language is not going to be a twirl across the village green on a dewy spring morning. The first few books, even if well-chosen, may well make you want to re-grout your bathroom tiling (or engage in any other activity that doesn’t involve looking up yet another unknown word) or turn you into a compulsive gobbler of cheese toasties. There is no way round that. Stretching yourself is always going to hurt a little.

As a rule of thumb (though this varies strongly from language to language), once you’ve heroically dragged your weary eyes (and your even wearier brain cells) through five books, the magical “joy of reading” factor should kick in. You’ve made it out of the swamp and into the open water. Now you just need to keep on reading to patch together your sails and you’ll be off to discover a whole new world.

[If you liked this, you might also enjoy Language Matters: Do You Sound Like Yourself?]

When Dating Is Just Pure Magic!

After enthralling weirding everyone out with my tale of supernerd dating a few months ago, I thought I’d ran out of entertaining dating stories. But then, my dear blogging buddy Debbie of travelwithintent published a post featuring Treadwell’s Bookshop in Bloomsbury, and the memory of another bizarre dating anecdote came rushing back to me.

Like the previous instalment, this happened ten years ago, when I was living in London as a cash-strapped, mature student. I was still pretty new to London, and to create a bit of diversion from the daily college-clinic-job drudgery, I’d subscribed to a fuzzy networking website purporting to serve the dual purpose of kindling of both romance and friendship. I had ticked the latter box, in case you’re wondering.

These sites do yield some colourful characters, and I got chatting to this Brit, who had authored a book on… wait for it… how to fashion your own talisman and imbue it with magical powers. He was due to travel to London shortly to attend some kind of world wizardry congress. He mentioned that he was currently living in an Eastern European country with his Eastern European girlfriend, and that they were very happy together. So happy, in fact – and this was pretty obvious – that he was desperate to get laid on his upcoming London sojourn.

Now, I’m a rather incompetent reticent flirter and I avoid making promises that I’m not sure I can deliver on, so I didn’t agree to anything beyond meeting up for a chat and a coffee. I was keen to meet him, because, you see, I used to be intrigued by people who were slightly out of step with reality. Not the beyond barmy types who might gouge out your liver and then hurl themselves off Beachy Head, wildly flapping their strap-on sequinned fairy wings, but those with a minor disconnect in their reality fuse box. And this happy-relationship delusionist with one foot firmly planted in the slippery cauldron of black magic hocus-pocus fitted the bill. There was also the prospect of free cake.

So, we met on a grey and dank Friday afternoon in Bloomsbury, home to the stunning British Museum, the University of London, as well as countless cafes and bookshops, including aforementioned Treadwell’s, THE global Mecca for junkies of all things preposterous, pagan, and plain potty. If Rupert Giles existed, this is where you’d find him, stationed behind the counter, weighing out ounces of freeze-dried demon gonads.

GilesShortly after having introduced ourselves, my wanna-be wizard whisked me right into this esoteric establishment. Ushering me past the stuffed crow, the crystals and the tarot cards, he proudly pulled the fruit of his hard labours off the bookshelf, parading it before my witchcraft-weary eyes. While forcing myself very hard not to roll them, I produced an appreciative “aaah-oooh!”, and with that out of the way, I finally got to have my cake.

From my perspective, the afternoon went spiffingly. No sexual chemistry bonfire (maybe he’d overshot the target while pleasuring his dating talisman?), but the cake was good, the conversation engaging, and then we parted amicably. I was satisfied.

The seedy sorcerer, however, wasn’t. The next day, he called me and made it quite clear just how disappointing the whole affair had been for him. After airing his disgruntlement, he jinxed me with a bout of the black boils.

So far, except for a few run-of-the mill zits, I remain relatively unblemished.

But you never know… somewhere, in a galaxy far, far away, my warrior princess alter-ego may have come down with a nasty case of suppurating saddle rash.

*    *     *     *    *

If you’d like to read about another vexatious dating experience, The Big Bang Theory Of Dating, click here.

For travelwithintent’s post & picture of Treadwell’s Bookshop, click here.

No Pain, No Gain: My Spanish After Two Years In Spain

This morning, it came to my attention (thank you, expatsincebirth), that today is the European Day of Languages – the perfect opportunity for posting an update on my linguistic toil.

So, I’ve been living in Spain now for two full years. The official anniversary was September 14th. My main reason for moving to Spain was to learn to speak Spanish properly, which had been a dream of mine since my teenage years.

Where am I in this process? Well, in short, not where I’d like to be.

After two years, my command of the language is at a point I thought I’d have reached after year one.

There’s one overarching reason for this: lack of exposure. This may sound ironic, considering that I’m living slap bang in the centre of Spanish-speaking country. But the reality is that I work at home on my own pretty much all day, reading and writing in English. Most of the people I see socially want to practice either their English or their German, for at least some of the time, which is only fair (and fun!), seeing as a shared interest in language learning brought us together in the first place.

I do feel frustrated much of the time about my slow progress, but, as I have to keep reminding myself in order not to lose heart, I am making progress.

My latest milestone: I’m reading grown-up books!

About six months ago, I started reading novels, which is something I wasn’t brave enough to tackle up until then. Having to look up every other word is just not an enjoyable experience, and I think it’s better to wait until you can comprehend at least 70-80% of standard written material unaided.

On that note, I still remember reading my first book in English, I must have been about 17. It was Charlotte’s Web (by E.B. White). It’s an iconic classic children’s novel, and I struggled like hell. I understood just about enough for it to make me cry, though I think I was already crying out of frustration before I got to the sad bit. I didn’t touch another book in English for several years after that.


In my humble opinion, e-readers are the greatest invention of all time ever. And it will stay this way until they start making Nutella in squeezy bottles.

Now, I don’t want zillions of comments about the sanctity of paper books, so save it, people. I love ‘real’ books just as much as you do. But for language learning, the e-reader is a gift of the heavens. It lets me download books in different languages, there’s no waiting around for deliveries (which always come when I’m soaping myself down in the shower, and then I’ve got to waste hours in Toledo’s post office, where one lone middle-aged sour puss dawdles away the days until her retirement behind the counter, while one pointless uniformed oaf just stands in front of it, with pretty much the same objective. Why is Spain in the middle of an economic crisis? Spend one afternoon in that post office, and all becomes clear. Periodically, they run out of stamps – and this is the main PO of Castilla La-Mancha’s capital city!!!).

OK, end of pet rant, and back to e-reader fangirling. A swift download is only the start. The true miracle lies in the power of the integrated dictionaries. (Move over, talking burning bush in the desert.)

I bought my Spendle (actually, it’s Amazon’s Kindle, but Spendle is so much more apt, sigh…), and the gadget came pre-loaded with dictionaries in five languages. These are monolingual ones, though, and so aren’t of much use in languages where proficiency is still lacking. Luckily, bilingual dictionaries in the world’s major languages are cheap, so a Spanish-English one for five bucks was my first purchase.

Now all I have to do when I  collide with an unknown word is to point at it accusingly (frowning is optional), and the translation pops up. Oh my, what a marvel compared to thumbing through a paper dictionary – a practice abandoned sometime during the late Cretaceous period, I realise! – but I remember those days only too well.

What have I read?

El Esclavo de la Al-Hamrá, by Blas Malo Poyatos: An historical novel set in Spain and North Africa in the fourteenth century. I made it to 38%, then aborted the mission. It wasn’t so much that I found the language too challenging, but I just didn’t care about any of the characters. And I can’t get through a 464-pager just for the sake of accumulating vocabulary about the smells of the souk and bloody medieval clobberings between Moors, Jews and Christians.

Suicidio Perfecto, by Petros Márakis: Who-dunnit set in Athens. I’m not an aficionado of crime novels (which is unheard of for a German – they are famously obsessed with their “Krimis”), but this book was on my book club reading list, so I bit the bullet. The plot wasn’t too convoluted, and I found it engaging enough to keep dragging my weary fingertips across every fifth word until I got to the last page. Hurraaah! Success!!!

Maldita, by Mercedes Pinto Maldonado: May the Lord Of The Rings strike me down, this is the kind of tosh that I detest with every fibre of my being. We’re talking damsel-in-distress romantic effluent. BUT for language learning purposes, it was surprisingly useful. Straightforward plot, simplistic characters, you knew exactly what was going to happen next, and to whom. We both made it to the end – me with the utmost relief, and the damsel duly rescued, married and with a bun in the oven. Phew!

La Tumba Perdida, by Ares Nacho: Discovery-thrillery-egyptological lore. Replete with grave robbers, mummies and royal incest. Set in the 1920’s and 1300 BC. I started this last week, am really into it right now, and confident I’ll last the distance.

For language assimilation purposes, as I’m working my way through those books at glacial speed, looking up absolutely everything and highlighting the new vocab and certain sentence constructions, which strike me as useful. The e-reader lets you do that, oh yes! Once I’m done with a book, I’ll go back over the highlighted matter and transfer it into my notebook. A bit labour intensive, but totally worth it.

Apologies for the length of this post! Anyone care to share their foreign language reading exploits, hits and misses? Would love to hear about it 🙂

What Does The World Eat?

Last week, I re-discovered an amazing book I bought a few years ago, written photographed by Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel, a California-based writer-photographer couple, who boldly invited themselves for dinner with 30 families in 24 countries.


For me, the most powerful component of the book is the photographs featuring all the members of a household with a week’s worth of grocery shopping laid out in front of them. The authors also provide an insightful break-down of how much was spent on what, e.g. dairy products, fruit & veg, starchy foods, sweets, snacks, beverages, etc.

I’ve reproduced a handful of pictures, to give you an idea. Excuse the poor quality – the originals in the book are, of course, far superior. (The added captions are mine).

German family

The German Family. What amused me about this shot was how neatly all the food and drinks were lined up – none of the other families managed to do it quite this orderly, lol.

The Mexican family. Mexico has the highest per capita consumption of soft drinks after the US. And sure enough, the picture shows a whole row of Coke bottles in the back.

The Mexican family. Mexico has the world’s highest per capita consumption of soft drinks after the US. And sure enough, the picture shows a long row of Coke bottles in the back.

A family in Mali. Gosh, 15 people and barely any food! OK, there's a few big sacks of grain (millet, corn, rice), but barely any vegetables, and, even more disconcertingly, no protein foods except for a canister of milk and a small bag of dried fish.

A family in Mali. Gosh, 15 people and barely any food! OK, some big sacks of grain (millet, corn, rice), but very few vegetables, and, even more disconcertingly, no protein foods except for a titchy canister of milk and a small bag of dried fish.

If you want to see some more pictures, click on this link from The Guardian.

The book was published in 2005, but it has lost none of its relevance. I cannot recommend it highly enough for anyone who’s interested in food and in the vastly different diets consumed by the people(s) of our planet.