Ever tried reading in a foreign language?
It sounds like a lovely idea.
Fix yourself a hot drink, dive under a blanket and snuggle up with a translation of Harry Potter.
What it actually looks like when I try reading in a foreign language
Find 3 words I don’t know in the first sentence. Get out from under blanket and grab smartphone to use online dictionary. Balance coffee in elbow nook whilst clutching Harry Potter in one hand and smartphone in the other. Spill coffee on blanket.
Decide that Harry Potter was too ambitious.
Buy easier children’s book.
Find 3 words I don’t know in the first sentence…
The benefits of reading in a foreign language
Despite these teething problems, I’ve always had a sneaking feeling that reading is a smart way to learn a foreign language.
And it is. Research suggests that people who read in a foreign language know more words, get grammar right more often, write better and may even speak more fluently. And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spend my Sunday afternoon getting lost in a foreign language page-turner than memorizing vocabulary lists.
But what about all those unfamiliar words? How can you get into reading in a foreign language without feeling frustrated and giving up on the first page?
Keep reading to find out how to:
- Learn a language by reading things you enjoy.
- Use a free tool which makes reading in a foreign language incredibly easy (it’s been under your nose this whole time!)
- Remember the words you read faster.
Why is reading in a foreign language so tricky?
It’d be unreasonable to take a few weeks of Russian classes and expect to breeze through a copy of Anna Karenina. Everyone knows that.
Too many new words and advanced sentence structures which make the sentences almost impossible to decipher.
But what about children’s books? Written for those teeny-tiny human beings who get half their nutritional intake from their nasal cavities. Surely they must be easier to read in a foreign language?
I’m not sure they are.
The problem with reading children’s books in a foreign language
Most children’s books don’t use simple, everyday language. I learnt this hard truth whilst babysitting for my Italian friend’s 2-year-old. I’m fairly fluent in Italian, but when reading lil’ Clara’s bedtime story, I came across more new Italian words than when reading a broadsheet newspaper over my morning caffè.
Children’s books talk about pixies and wildebeests, and if you already know how to talk about pixies and wildebeests in the language you’re learning, you probably don’t need to read this article.
So what’s the solution? How can you start reading in a foreign language, without being overwhelmed by all the new (and sometimes not useful) words?
One way is to use short stories or “easy readers” specifically designed for language learners. With simple grammar and everyday vocabulary, these books are perfect for taking your first steps in reading a foreign language.
That said, I sometimes wish the writers would remember that although I sound like a 3-year-old when I speak a foreign language, I’m not actually a 3 year old. I’m a 31-year-old with a mortgage who drinks Johnnie Walker and enjoys a well-placed C-bomb.
There are only so many “Biff and Chip go to the Zoo”-style stories I can handle before my eyes start watering from boredom yawns.
The ideal way to get into reading in a foreign language
Wouldn’t it be nice to learn a foreign language by reading things that you actually enjoy? Something you care about enough to make it worth the effort it takes to figure out the meaning? A topic you like so much, you’d read about in your native language, just for funsies?
To do that, you’d need a place where you can find lots of interesting things to read in the language you’re learning. Let’s call that the Internet.
You’d also need a way to understand new words, without having to break your flow to look them up in a dictionary all the time.
The Google Translate extension: How to pimp your reading in a foreign language
Did you know that Google Translate has an extension which allows you to turn any foreign-language webpage into an interactive dictionary? That means you can get an instant translation of words you don’t know, just by clicking on them. Here’s how it works:
Once you’ve installed the Google Translate extension, here are some tips that’ll help you get the most out of it.
7 ways to make the most of your reading with the Google Translate extension
1. Start simple
It’s important to choose materials at the right level so you can get into a good flow. Just because you can look up words easily, doesn’t mean you should look up all of them. If normal websites feel too tricky, you could start with websites aimed at language learners, such as Slow German or The Chairman’s Bao.
To find sites like these in the language you’re learning, try doing a search for “websites to read [insert your target language]”, and you should find some lists to get you started.
2. Start small
The Google Translate extension makes reading in a foreign language a lot simpler. But learning to read in a new language is going to take some effort, no matter how you do it. To make it more manageable, start by reading in short bursts and gradually move on to longer passages as your level improves.
The Internet is pretty conducive to this kind of reading. You often hear people complaining that the web has ruined how we read: thanks to the “Buzzfeed effect”, we’re more used to flicking through snippets of information rather than sitting down and concentrating on something for long periods of time. But these kinds of articles are perfect for reading in a foreign language because they give you little bits of text with lots of photos to make it easy on the eye (and the brain).
To see if Buzzfeed exists in the language you’re learning, go to buzzfeed.com, click more, then look for the little box at the bottom right which tells you which version you’re using. Here, you’ll see a list of different versions including Germany, Mexico and Brazil. Now you can get lost in a web of Internet triviality, guilt-free!
3. Read things you care about
It takes effort to decipher a page in a foreign language – if you don’t care about the content, you’ll be less motivated to put in the work.
As your level advances, you can start reading blogs about your interests. To find these, do a google search in your target language for “blogs + your interest”.
For example, if you’re learning Spanish and you’re into travel, search for “blogs viajes” and you’ll find articles like this one with links to lots of lovely Spanish travel blogs.
Or if you’re learning French and you’re into fashion and beauty blogs, try searching “blogs mode beauté” and you’ll be spoilt for choice on the first page.
Alternatively, if you like reading the news online, why not try doing it in the language you’re learning? Just type the language you’re learning + newspapers into Wikipedia (e.g. Spanish Newspapers) and you should see a nice list.
4. Use your judgement
If you’ve been on Google Translate for more than 5 minutes, you may have noticed that it says some weird shit sometimes. The extension has these little quirks too. Just now in French, I was reading a sentence about how wearing tight shoes can give you an ampoule. I assumed it must mean “blister”, but when I clicked on it, Google gave me “lightbulb” (yep, the French use the same word for lightbulb and blister, who knew?!)
The extension isn’t perfect so every now and then, you may need to check the translations in a more reputable online dictionary, such as WordReference or Collins. That said, the extension gets it right most of the time so it’s worth putting up with the occasional glitch.
4. Remember words by hazarding a guess
When you can translate words with a click, it’s tempting to click on every word you don’t know without really thinking about it. But when I catch myself doing this, those words quickly slip through the swiss-cheese holes in my brain.
To build up vocabulary in a foreign language, you need to spend time looking at it and trying to figure out what it means from the context. This creates a curiosity point in your mind: “I wonder if this word means…?”. And being curious is a very good thing for learning.
Think back to school. If you asked the teacher a question, you were invested in the answer, so you’d probably remember it better compared to if a teacher just told you the same information in a lecture.
Creating a question in your mind about the meaning of a word and investigating the answer works the same way. Instead of seeing the Google Translate extension as a tool to translate words you don’t know, think of it more as a way to check your guesses. This way, the words you don’t know will have a better chance of sticking in your mind.
5. Don’t stress about every word you don’t know
When reading in a foreign language, it’s natural to want to look up every single new word. And the Google translate extension makes it very easy to do this.
But when it comes to looking up words you don’t know, it’s important to strike a balance. If you’re constantly stopping to look things up, you can’t into a good flow and enjoy your reading. That said, if you don’t look up any words at all, you might not know what the book is going on.
As a general rule, it helps to only look up the words that stop you from understanding the overall meaning of the sentence. For the others, if they’re common enough you’ll pick them up over time, and if they’re not so common you probably don’t need to worry about learning them yet anyway.
6. Use it or lose it
The more you interact with a word, the easier it will be to remember. You can help yourself remember the new words you come across by storing them somewhere (in a notebook, your phone, word document or excel sheet…) and using them in different ways. Why not try writing a story with your new words? Or thinking about when you might use them in real life, and writing example sentences? Or typing them into google to see how native speakers use them?
Don’t worry about doing this with every new word you see, as that could quickly get overwhelming! Just pick the keywords that you really want to remember.
7. Don’t try too hard
If you’ve got your notebook next to you and you’re feeling motivated to write new words and take notes as you read, great. But don’t feel like you always have to this. If you’re feeling a little lazy and you’d rather just read, that’s fine!
The most important thing is to get into a reading habit that you enjoy enough to keep up in the long term. Do that, and you’ll make some serious progress in the language you’re learning.
What about you?
If you’re planning on using the Google Translate extension to read in a foreign language, I’d love to hear from you! Which language are you learning? Which websites are you going to read? Can you share any good web pages for reading in a foreign language?