Building fluency beyond the basics requires regular, plentiful exposure to your foreign language. And there are few easier ways to get that exposure than through reading for pleasure.
As a lover of books, however, choice can pose a problem. Faced with a treasure of tomes in an overseas bookshop, the bibliophile language lover has a dilemma. Which book should be the one to focus all that effort on for the next few weeks?
It has to be a careful choice. After all, reading in a foreign language takes a degree of commitment and effort we never think twice about in our native tongue. Choose unwisely, and that book might simply end up gathering dust after just a few pages of hard slog and frustration.
Pick a winner, though, and you might end up learning much more than new words and structures: you might get a real glimpse into the heart and soul of your target language country.
It’s a serious business, this reading lark.
Serious, but also fun, of course. With the purpose of rooting out these special books, I like to make every trip abroad a reading expedition. And naturally, top of the list of places to visit on these holidays are bookshops. Bookshops fire me up more than all the monuments, museums and other must-sees in the world can. Most people bring back souvenirs: I bring back a book.
Through the book-hunting years, I have gradually learnt what to watch out for. The top danger is over-excitement: pop out for one book, and come back with five. It is too tempting.
But more is not always better. A surfeit of choice can overwhelm you, and through simply not knowing where to start when you get those books home, you might only read one or two of them while the others sit on a shelf. And clutter is the last thing we need for tidy minds.
That’s why I have a rule, now: only one book per trip!
Books that speak to the heart
Limiting your book-buying to one tightens the criteria for choice. The duty of that single book takes on great significance: it must speak to your heart. Soon after your purchase, you will be on the trip home, just you and your chosen book, all the others another holiday away (or, at least, requiring expensive overseas postage).
Put simply, choose what you want to read – not what you think you should read.
In my first years of studying German, for instance, I had an idea that I should read great, classic novels. I plumped for a couple of Thomas Mann editions, imagining how enriched I would be after devouring these acclaimed works.
You probably see where this is going. Predictably, they were extremely tough work. Instead of feeling clever, the whole process was incredibly frustrating. I even wondered whether I was actually just no good at this languages game after all.
The problem? That kind of material would never be my usual choice when reading for pleasure in my own language, let alone German. It just didn’t speak to my heart.
Letting go of cultural baggage
It can be hard to admit that perceived ‘intellectual’ material isn’t our cup of tea. We are bombarded with all sorts of cultural expectations about what is of worth in learning. If you value education, you can fall into these prestige traps, as I did. I thought that as a ‘serious’ learner, I was supposed to be tackling this kind of stuff.
But then, one day, I discovered Harry Potter – through the medium of German!
I bought the third book of the series, Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Askaban, as a teacher on a trip to Germany with a group of GCSE kids. They had read the books in English, of course. This was 2003 – what teenager hadn’t at that point?
One of the lads spotted the cover of the German edition in a shop, and started raving about it. To see what all the fuss was about, I took a chance on a copy.
A few pages in, and I was hooked.
Now if only I had skipped the Thomas Mann novels and hopped straight to J.K.Rowling. Nothing against Thomas Mann, of course – his novels are rightfully German classics. But the fantastical thrills of the Potter world just spoke to me and my interests more. I love a good fantasy tale – no shame in that at all. Suddenly, reading was a joy again.
Ploughing through all seven volumes really put the stamp on my German fluency. By the end, I was thinking – and dreaming – in German. To this day, I thank J.K.Rowling (and her translators) for that.
Translation versus authenticity?
Now, the purists might grumble. Harry Potter isn’t exactly authentic target language material. Though translators are skilled native speakers, Hogwarts is not the path to cultural familiarity with the German-speaking world.
But what Harry Potter did give me was a springboard. I clearly loved reading that genre in German – so why not seek out the same kind of material from bona fide native German writers? Writers like Wolfgang Hohlbein, Cornelia Funke and Bernhard Hennen, whose books sit comfortably next to Rowling’s as works of great imagination.
Familiar works in translation, especially children’s books, may be a great way in to reading for pleasure in the target language. But they can also be jump points for exploration of home-grown examples of your favourite genre, too.
Of course, sometimes you just want to take a chance on a book, to stray from the beaten path. One of my stand-out reads of recent months was Firas Alshater’s Versteh einer die Deutschen, a quirky look at Germany through Syrian eyes. It is told with such good humour and warmth that I couldn’t put it down.
This was the one, single book purchase I allowed myself on a trip to Hamburg in November. Not quite Harry Potter, you could say. But I picked it out on a whim, just because the character on the cover intrigued me and I liked the sound of the blurb. It paid off – I can now add autobiography, humour and society to the list of German book sections to browse on my next trip.
Read whatever you fancy, and not what you think you should. Let a book speak to your heart before you commit to it. And never question your honest, heartfelt book choices. Believe me, you will fly through your foreign language books if you follow these principles. Happy reading!