Books on a bookshelf

Bilingual books: tips and tricks for free online reading material 📚

Thanks to a recommendation from another polyglot friend, I’ve been exploring bidirectional translation as a new language learning method lately. It involves working with parallel texts in your target and native languages to strengthen vocabulary and grammar. The only snag: it can be difficult to source books with dual language versions of interesting texts.

Now, Penguin offers a good range of bilingual story books available in French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish, but an eager linguist will quickly eat through those and be left wanting.

Blockbuster books – in miniature

However, it is possible to get high quality translations of popular texts in many different languages, completely free. The trick is to use Amazon’s ‘free sample’ feature for Kindle books. This allows you to have the first few pages – sometimes a whole chapter or two – sent to your registered device. Simply browse the Kindle bookshop for foreign language titles of interest, then click ‘Send a Free Sample’ on the product page.

To help root out some titles, you can filter Kindle books by language. You can then filter out the fiction books (here are the French ones, for example), or look for non-fiction books that fit your own interests.

What use is a few pages of a story? Isn’t it frustrating to come to a sudden stop after one or two chapters? Well, it doesn’t have to be. If you choose translations of books you are already familiar with – Harry Potter books are a popular choice – then you already know the stories, and are just enjoying parts of them again in your target language. And, of course, if you really like them, you can purchase the full versions from Kindle later.

Pott(er)y for books

I’m like a broken record on the benefits of translated children’s books – particularly the Harry Potter series – for language learners. But they’re great language learning helpers for so many reasons:

  • the stories are familiar, so you can use gist make educated guesses about new vocabulary
  • the language is not particularly complex, as the intended audience was originally youngsters (particularly the early volumes)
  • the stories are broken up into fairly short chapters – an ideal length for the focus of a lesson or learning session

As a starting point, here are links to the first Harry Potter books on Amazon Kindle, in a range of languages. As an extra bonus, most of these titles can be borrowed in full at no cost if you are a Kindle Unlimited member!

And, of course, you can download the matching excerpt from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in English, so you have a perfect bidirectional pair.

Kindle samples are a goldmine for linguists to root around in. That goes particularly for those seeking texts for bidirectional translation, but more generally for anybody looking for quality, interesting reading material. Have you come across any gems? Share them in the comments!

Colourful balloons

Children’s books for linguists: creative ways into languages

Being a linguaphile and a bibliophile often go hand in hand. I love languages and I love books. Both of these passions go straight to the heart of what it means to get creative with words. Certainly, tapping into creativity (often to the point of being bizarre and fantastical) has helped me to get ahead in languages. And there are few more creative resources in any language than children’s books!

There are some obvious benefits to using children’s books as language learning resources. The language in them will be accessible as a beginner, for one thing. Structure, vocabulary and topic will generally be very straightforward. What’s more, the subject matter can be familiar and predictable, especially in the case of children’s fiction; this is a gift to the active language learner, who likes to make educated guesses at new words rather than look everything up.

Culturally embedded bedtime reading

Native works can be a great introduction to the cultural background of your target language. For instance, children’s stories and fairytales often proceed from a long history of folk storytelling. In some cases, these date back to an ancient oral tradition. The highly popularised work of the Brothers Grimm, for example, draws together hundreds of tales from the collective consciousness of their time. The morals and aphorisms contained within them are echoed in popular culture to this day, being constantly recycled in modern media.

Their themes will be familiar to many non-native speakers, too, thanks to the ancient pedigree of many of the stories. One of my favourite children’s books in a foreign language is this huge tome of Norwegian eventyr. Many of these fairytales seem very familiar to anyone who was brought up with the Grimm’s traditional brand of fairytale, and it is easy to imagine the Proto-Germanic tribes – probably ancestors amongst them – telling versions of these long before they were written down.

Norwegian Fairytales

Norwegian Fairytales

Non-fiction

The place of children’s books in your language learning goes beyond storytelling, too. Reference material in the target language can be a brain-stretching replacement for easier, less challenging tools like Google Translate or a bilingual dictionary. A favourite of mine is this illustrated Icelandic dictionary for children. It is much more rewarding to look up an unfamiliar word here. It may use a little more brain-power, but it adds some valuable target language exposure to your reading.

The Icelandic Children's Dictionary - children's books for reference can be excellent resources

The Icelandic Children’s Dictionary

Children’s books in translation

Children’s books translated from another language might put the cultural purist right off. After all, what is authentic about that? But there are huge benefits for the learner of a foreign language here, especially if you know the original work well.

The Harry Potter books have been my guilty pleasure for some years. I know the stories so well, that tackling them in any new language is a lot easier than facing completely unknown territory. It was actually in German that I read them first, having stubbornly held back from the popular wave of Pottermania. I picked up the third installment, Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Askaban, from a station bookshop near Cologne. I was one of the teachers on a school trip, and the excitable chattering of the kids about heroic Harry finally piqued my curiosity.

Years later, and I’ve read Harry Potter books in several languages now, including Norwegian, Russian and Spanish. Each time, they have been an amazing boost to my overall language competence. It is also quite a fancy party piece to recite spells in a number of tongues. Thanks for that, J.K.Rowling!

You can start with much simpler stories than Harry Potter. For example, here are a couple of Icelandic primary readers that I picked up in Keflavík Airport. They are, in fact, translations of anglophone children’s books, so the stories may well be familiar to many learners. (They are also brilliant for learning the names of animals!)

Icelandic Primary Readers

Icelandic Primary Readers

So there is a peek into some of the – perhaps – more surprising items on my otherwise very grown-up language learning bookshelf. There is no shame in reverting to your childhood reading habits when learning a language. And, being generally quite affordable, books for little ‘uns will spare your pennies, too. Here’s to reliving our childhoods through languages!

Marker pens - a cheap immersion tool!

Four immersion tips for FILLING your home with language!

One of the keys for success in language learning is putting your languages everywhere. Wherever you turn, put learning opportunities in your way by filling your life with the target language. There are some well-known tips for doing this in your digital life, like switching the language of your phone or computer.

No place like home (for immersion)

But some of the best tricks are old school, and involve a few simple home hacks. The home is one of the easiest places to put immersion tactics into practice. Here are some of the simplest, and most fun!

Magnetic Poetry

No longer just a kitschy gift, magnetic poetry can now help you learn a language. Now you can get that immersion effect every time you get hungry (yum).

The great thing about these is the potential for sentence building practice. As well as the usual concrete nouns, you’ll find all sorts of function and connective words too. Using these, challenge yourself to create five original fridge sentences a day. Or, if you’re sharing the fridge with a fellow learner, use them to leave messages for each other!

The fridge magnet word blocks are available in:

LED Lightbox

These tinseltown throwbacks are the ultimate in snazzy home text features. They generally have two or three rows for letters, so you can add a couple of words as a centrepiece. Maybe there are a couple of words that just won’t stick, however hard you try? Pop them on the lightbox and put them on show in your living room. Right by the TV is a great place if you don’t want to miss them!

An LED Lightbox

The LED Lightbox – make your target language a fancy home feature!

The one drawback is that they’re generally only available with English alphabet text – that means no diacritics or special characters. However, I haven’t been shopping for one outside the UK, so it’s perfectly possible that foreign character set versions exist. And failing that, you can get creative with a black marker, or make your own letter tiles with some perspex and a stanley knife.

I picked up a great lightbox from The Works in the UK for just £10 (see pic above). Amazon .co.uk have a few options too, including one with a rating of over 4/5 stars. It even includes emojis! 

Dry wipe boards

Even more back-to-basics than the LED lightbox is the dry wipe board. These are pretty ubiquitous in stationery shops; I picked up a mini one for a couple of pounds in The Works. Alternatively, you can get a slightly larger and more robust version from Amazon for under £20.

Either way, they’re excellent, reuseable means to put your vocab / learning material of the week on display in the home. Display them somewhere prominent – perhaps even on the back of the front door, so you see it every time you leave. Go crazy with colours and illustrations like a Tony Buzan mind map – make sure you can’t miss / forget those lists!

Stickers

Stickers are like marmite – linguaphiles will love them or hate them. If you’re a stickler for a pristine home, they’re probably not for you. However, if you don’t mind temporarily defacing your furniture and fittings with sticky labels, then they can be a great technique for recycling everyday vocab and increasing immersion.

You can grab a pack of white labels and make your own for next to nothing. However, I’m a great fan of the “in 10 minutes a day” series of books, as they come with a whole section of ready-made stickers to label your life with language. In fact, the whole approach of this series of books is to make language an integral part of your daily life. They’re made for immersion!

The “in 10 minutes a day” books are available in a range of languages, including:

Frictionless immersion

Immersion should, at least in part, be frictionless; that is, it should offer a good degree of exposure to language without a hugely off-putting degree of effort. The techniques above are largely quick and easy, and tick this ‘little effort’ box.

In fact, the hardest part of them is probably making them regular habits. To this end, try using weekly goals or to-do / reminder apps to keep the cycle going. The habit-forming is worth it: you’ll make your living space a dynamic, ever-changing language learning zone!

The Houses of Parliament, the seat of British politics

Politics is good for you (and your language learning!)

We’ve all had enough of politics, right? Well, a bit of it might be good for you, if you’re learning a foreign language.

One of the biggest advantages of following politics in your target language is not just in new vocabulary learnt. It’s about the polemic – the skill of explaining and arguing a point. The skill of using language for argument and persuasion – rhetoric – is fundamental if you’re preparing for spoken exams that require you to discuss an issue, for example.

In fact, it’s a vital skill even if you’re not aiming for A-level oral exam stardom. Learning a language truly to communicate means being able to discuss, and not simply state facts. And if politics is anything, it’s an arena for (sometimes very heated) discussion. Introducing some politics into your language learning can provide a communicative dynamic that other topics struggle to ignite.

A new picture – or the wider picture?

So with so much politics about these days, why should we go after even more? Well, if you’re sick of politics in your own country, overseas political scuffles can be a welcome distraction. On the other hand, you can gain a fuller picture of your home country issues by following how they are perceived abroad. It’s truly fascinating as a British learner to see how political parties in other countries approach topics like Brexit. You can gain a unique perspective on your own country that the home media will never provide.

Following overseas political developments pays off in other ways, too. Through widening your own political lens, you appreciate much more the interconnectedness of the world. As linguists, we’re already great at seeing beyond borders. But bringing an explicitly political slant into your learning really plugs you into this global aspect of humanity.

Where to start

As with all authentic materials, the best place to start is personal interest. There’s little fun in only following a kind of politics that you don’t subscribe to in your home country. So begin with the political party / parties you support, and find their analogues in the target language country.

Doing this is as simple as googling “political parties in [your target language country here]”. You should get plenty of results, with Wikipedia articles being amongst the most useful. The following table from Wikipedia, for example, shows not only the current parliamentary parties in Norway, but also lists their ideologies. Great for matching your own politics to a target language party!

Politics in Norway - parliamentary parties listed on Wikipedia

Politics in Norway – parliamentary parties listed on Wikipedia

Once you’ve found a party / parties you’re have an interest in, take to social media to find out more. Major parties will invariably have a Facebook and Twitter account to follow. Their websites may also have blogs or news feeds, which you can add to your news reader if you have one (Feedly is quite good).

It’s always a good idea to follow target language accounts in your daily social media feeds. For one thing, it means that you’ll regularly be exposed to snippets of language, even when you’re not in ‘learning mode’. It helps to maintain a degree of language immersion in your day-to-day, which ultimately will lead to greater fluency.

Politics : the perfect package for new language

Once subscribed, the format of the language can be ideal for learning. Political language on social media is packaged perfectly for this purpose – possibly for all the wrong reasons! For one thing, it regularly consists of largely superficial soundbites. However, these represent concise, condensed nuggets of vocabulary and structure, and can be very easy to memorise. Consequently, you can work them into your own conversations or discussions in the language without too much effort.

Additionally, the format of some social media platforms is perfect for presenting language to learners. Twitter, with its character limit, forces the author to make snappy, impactful arguments in just a few words. Logical argument and rhetoric can often become keener under these circumstances, when the ‘fluff’ is pared down.

Twitter feed of the German SPD

Twitter feed of the German SPD

There is, of course, the danger of the ‘filter bubble’ or ‘echo chamber’. If you only follow parties you broadly agree with, you will lack a challenge to your argument. If you can stomach it – and are a real sucker for political punishment – it can be useful to follow some opponent organisations too.

Alternatively, to supplement all this you can also follow political news on target language news sites. In German, for example, I find that Spiegel.de and the Frankfurter Allgemeine sites are superb for political news and commentary. Their advantage is (at least in theory) being non-partisan with a more balanced overview. The disadvantage is that they contain much weightier, wordier texts – a far cry from the soundbites and slogans of political feeds.

Control the flow and reap the benefits

As with all things, moderation is important. I’ve written an earlier post on the importance of detoxifying your social media feeds. Politics can be frustrating and exhausting to follow. But if you make it work for you as a linguist, it can be a real boon to your language (and wider) learning.

Time is precious

Time to learn? Fitting languages into busy lives

As a language geek, I’m often asked: “how do you find the time?”. My answer: most of the time, I don’t.

Most self-directed learning is an imperfect process. Adults don’t have time to subdivide their day into neat lesson-shaped slots, as others did for us in school. Learning has to fit around sometimes very hectic lives.

Using ‘dead’ time

A strategy I use every day is making use of what I call ‘dead’ time. It’s time standing, sitting, waiting, otherwise just doing very little. These are our ‘engine idling’ moments. Here are some of the things I do when waiting for a train, bus, haircut, or friends to show up for coffee!

Anki decks

The odd few minutes here and there are ideal for Anki flashcards. I make self-testing on Anki a daily tactic, but, like most humans, I’m susceptible to procrastination. Getting this ticked off during ‘down time’ is much better than leaving it until just before bed!

Reading practice

With smartphones, it’s the easiest thing in the world to tap up some news articles to read. You don’t even need to read the whole article – just looking at the headlines in your target language is some great minutes-long language gym. Right now, I’m actively learning Norwegian, and maintaining German and Spanish. A nose at NRK.no, Spiegel.de and ElPais.com is the least I can do to keep them ticking over.

Don’t even have time for that? Then subscribe to a Read Later service like Pocket (my favourite) to queue material for later. These services facilitate perfect browsing and bookmarking for even the busiest linguists. Several services can also recommend potentially interesting articles after learning your preferences.

Socialise

There are myriad social groups for all kinds of interests on Facebook, and other social media. Find a couple that grab you, and lurk for a while. Read what others are posting in your spare moments. When you feel more comfortable, try commenting in the target language yourself. It can be quite a thrilling experience to join a thread for the first time in a foreign language!

Another trick is to search twitter for #yourcountryname. For instance, I sometimes check #Norge or #norsk for Norwegian – you’d be surprised what comes up, and it’s almost all in the target language!

Casting a wider net

Podcasts and spare moments are positively made for each other. The match is so obvious, I’ve left it ’til last. But the trick is not to be a perfectionist. If you only have time for five minutes of a podcast in your target language, it’s still worth it. Don’t think (like I used to) that it’s pointless unless you can sit down and listen to the whole thing.

That said, some language podcasts are made with our fleeting minutes in mind. For a daily dose of listening practice and current affairs, I love ‘news in easy language’ services. Some recommended ones include:

🇫🇷 French: News in Slow French
🇩🇪 German: Langsam gesprochene Nachrichten (News in slow German) by Deutsche Welle
🇮🇹 Italian: News in Slow Italian
🇳🇴 Norwegian: Språkteigen (a show about language – not aimed at new learners, but it’s often easy to guess unfamiliar words as the topic is so familiar!)
🇪🇸 Spanish: News in Slow Spanish
🇨🇳 Chinese: Slow Chinese

Any other favourites, or biggies I’ve missed? Please share in the comments!

Don’t overdo it

Even the most avid efficiency-seekers amongst us shouldn’t downplay the importance of dead time for a bit of rest. Not even the geekiest brain can (or should) be switched on, full steam ahead, 24/7.

I recommend Headspace for ensuring you turn the volume down regularly. It’s a programme of short meditations that fit perfectly into the ‘between moments’ described in this article. The first ten are free, so it’s worth a try!

Fill your spare minutes, but be kind to yourself.
Balance is key for an active, healthy linguaphile brain!