I love to read. I’ve been a bookworm my whole life. When we were kids, my sister and I would take out stacks of library books every week, and then curl up on the couch to read for hours. My mom liked to say that we were holding the couch down, since we each sat on a different side, with the pile of books between us.
(We almost always returned our books late as children. I’m 36 now, and I owe 6 dollars and 40 cents to the library. Some things never change.)
One of the best things about learning foreign languages for me is picking up a book and reading it.
Reading! In a whole other language! How cool is that, right?
I’ve made some mistakes along the way, though. Today I’d like to share my two big mistakes – and maybe save you some headaches in the process!
My big mistake number one: reading something that’s too hard
Like many language learners, I got my hands on a copy of Harry Potter when I started learning Spanish. It was a kids’ book, so it seemed like a good way to start reading in Spanish.
I started with dual copies of the book, one in English and one in Spanish. I figured that I would be able to read it without too much difficulty, using the English book if I got stuck.
I was wrong.
At that point in my journey, Harry Potter was simply too difficult for me.
The text itself was complicated, with verb tenses that I’d never seen before. There were dozens of unknown vocabulary words per page, many of which I had never come across naturally in everyday life:
- lechuza (owl)
- escoba (broom)
- varita (wand)
- hechizo (spell)
I struggled my way through a chapter or two, but it was absolutely no fun. I’d claw my way through a page, and then stop, feeling exhausted and frustrated.
Let me tell you:
Harry Potter is hard.
Solution to big mistake number one: read easier stuff
After slamming Harry Potter shut in frustration (for the nth time), I accepted that I needed to read something much easier – something that I could understand with at least a 95% comprehension rate.
Enter Roald Dahl.
This is more like it!
I started with Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate. This was a book that I knew well in English, so the story was familiar enough to figure out new words like “repollo” (cabbage) through a combination of familiarity and context. Most of the verbs were in preterite and imperfect past tense – verb tenses that I hadn’t formally learned yet – but they were easy to understand using root words and context.
(Confession: I skipped over all of the songs in Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate. They were too hard for me at the time, and therefore boring.)
In all, I read four novels for children over the course of four months:
- Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate, by Roald Dahl – a book that I was very familiar with in English.
- Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo – a book that I knew well in French, and one of my absolute favourites.
- Charlie y el gran ascensor de cristal, by Roald Dahl – I’d read it once or twice as a child, so I had a general understanding of the story. I also knew the characters from the first book, and was familiar with the writing style.
- Las Brujas, by Roald Dahl – this one was completely new to me, but I was well-prepared by the time I cracked the spine.
After reading four books for young readers, I picked up Harry Potter again.
And I could read it! Without looking at the English copy! Without frustration, boredom or feelings of inadequacy and despair! It was a miracle!
Take-away lesson: read easy books.
I can’t stress this enough. Easy books are much more useful than difficult books. You will advance more quickly if you choose books that you can read with 95%+ comprehension. The books that you can read will gradually increase in difficulty as you keep turning pages.
I was able to read a children’s novel as my first Spanish book. My French helped me a lot with that. You might need to start even easier, with easy readers or texts written for language learners. You can get a peek at how that looks for me in Tagalog – a language in which I’m not yet ready to read a novel.
My big mistake number two: reading something that’s too boring
After reading four children’s novels and the first two books in the Harry Potter series, I found a new series: the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.
I really enjoyed the first two books! I liked the main character’s voice, and I thought that the modernization of Greek gods and myths was very clever. It took me several weeks to get through each book, reading most days for 20 or 30 minutes. That felt about right.
Then came book three. And while the books hadn’t changed much, my interest had plummeted. I started putting a timer on for 20 minutes at a time, and I checked the timer more than once each session, waiting for it to ring.
The truth is that I didn’t really feel like reading them anymore. But I’d already paid for them, and my book budget was tight. And besides, I’d already read so much of the series…I may as well finish it, right?
And besides, they’re so colourful…
Life is much too short to read books that don’t grab you. I decided long ago that I wouldn’t finish a book in English that I didn’t love; so why was I reading boring books just because they were in Spanish?
I wasted three months on the last three books of the series. It took me a month to get through each book, and – while they were at an appropriate level for me – I no longer looked forward to my nightly reading.
I’m not saying that the last three Percy Jackson books aren’t any good – just that they weren’t the right books for me.
Solution to big mistake number two: read stuff that’s actually interesting
I happy-danced in my living room when I finished the last page of the last Percy Jackson book in August. I was so relieved!
I started reading my current book, Los Juegos del hambre, by Suzanne Collins.
And within a week, I was three quarters finished. I don’t have to use a timer anymore. If anything, I have to put my alarm on so that I remember to go to bed at a decent time.
Take-away lesson: read books that you like.
A little bit obvious, isn’t it? And yet I fell into the trap of reading books that I didn’t like “because I should finish them“. Never again!
Read books that grab you because you love the story, or the characters, or the world that the author created. If I’d abandoned Percy Jackson a few chapters into book three, I probably would have read a lot more Spanish over the past three months.
Recap: Captain Obvious says read books that you can actually read. And that you actually like.
Don’t make the same mistakes that I made!
What’s next for me?
After the Hunger Games, I plan on reading a Spanish book. That was actually written in Spanish. By a Spanish speaker.
Como agua para chocolate by Laura Esquival is already waiting on my night table. I hope that I’ll love it. But if I don’t like it, I’ll ask myself two questions:
- Is it boring because it’s hard? Then put it away until later.
- Is it boring because it’s boring? Then put it away forever.
What are you reading right now? I hope that it’s something that you love!
¡Buena lectura, amigos míos!