Reading in a foreign language

I have been reading in what to me is a foreign language (i.e., English) for over ten years now, so it has become second nature. Before that, I used to read (some) French literature in French, and recently I have started reading YA novels in Chinese. In this post, I would like to quickly summarise why reading in a foreign language is not only useful, but also immensely enjoyable for me, an activity I would recommend to any language learner who has achieved an intermediate level of the language studied (and who enjoys reading, of course).

Firstly, reading helps me see the vocabulary I have studied (for example in class with a teacher) in a new, authentic context. When I first encounter the vocabulary in class, it is usually artificially added to a specific text in order to teach the given word — which is OK, this is why we have textbooks. However, while reading a book or article, it happens that this same item of vocabulary comes up in its most authentic, “spontaneous” context. What is amazing is that I have noticed that, once I have met a new word or phrase enough times in reading, I find myself using it in productive activities (such as speaking and writing) almost naturally. It’s a truly effortless way of expanding my vocabulary, and learning how to use it appropriately.

Secondly, reading in a foreign language immerses me in the language, habits, and world of the speakers of this language. Of course, in a book or article it is mainly the world of the writer, but more generally I start to notice how this language expresses certain feelings, ideas, situations, in a way that is different from how I would express the same in Italian, for example. This effect starts to fade away as I start reading more and more in the language — e.g., I tend to no longer notice this in English, since about 50-60% of what I read is in English and therefore the language sounds “natural” to me almost as much as Italian does. Yet, I love this phase of reading in a foreign language, full of a-ha moments in which I realise a certain thing is said in a certain way in this language, and speculating about why this is, and what this tells me about the way the language functions more generally.

In addition to all this, of course reading in a foreign language gives me access to a whole new literature written in that language, which I can approach directly, without the interfering help of a translator. This is of course not to disparage the essential role of the translator, without which I could never have read One Hundred Years of Solitude or I could probably never read War and Peace. But reading directly the text that was created by the author gives me the sense of being directly in dialogue with them, just like speaking to someone directly in their language, without having to resort to an interpreter or a common foreign language gives the impression of communicating more directly. Maybe it is just this, an impression, but I simply love the idea of being able to read the exact words Melville wrote instead of Cesare Pavese’s (masterful) interpretation of those same words.

And finally, reading in a foreign language gives me the great pleasure and satisfaction of saying “I’ve read this book, cover to cover, in this language”. I still have and cherish the first book I have ever read in English (Everything’s Illuminated by J.S. Foer) and in French (Le Petit Prince by A. de Saint-Exupéry), and look with pleasure at my bookshelf filled with books in four different languages. Maybe this is just a language-nerd point, but I think the possibility of reading in a foreign language is one of the factors which motivates me to study it in the first place, and which gives me the push to keep learning and improving.

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