How to Read in a Foreign Language

When I moved to Germany a few years ago, I knew a sacrifice I’d have to make was finding English language books easily. I was half right. There are some pretty big English language sections in my local bookshops, but they’re pretty pricey now so I don’t treat myself to a book as much as I used to. (That hasn’t really stopped me buying them at all, though.)

I had an epiphany a couple of months ago.  If I want to improve my German, which I’ve been trying to do, it’s about time I incorporate it into my daily life a little more. What easier way to do it than try to read a book in German? I knew exactly which book was going to help me on my journey.


I have read Harry Potter and the Philsopher’s Stone more times than I care to count. I can probably recite the first chapter in my sleep, never mind the first line. As I knew it so well, it was the perfect candidate to start with. I wouldn’t have to worry about translating too much, and I could enjoy the story as a whole while learning some new words and phrases.

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"If you want something you've never had, you must do something you've never done." ~ I've been learning German since I was 13, but I've only been intensely living and speaking it for the last two years. I have enough to get by, but now it's definitely time to get a boost. ~ I've heard reading a book in your target language is a really good way to improve. So, I'm hoping it will be a good way for me to improve my German. ~ #German #Germany #HarryPotter #harrypotterunddersteinderweisen #throwbackbooks #booknerd #bookstagram #irishbookstas #bookbloggers #readersofinstagram #readersofinsta #deutsch #deutschland #deutschlernen #languagelearning #languagelearner #germanlearners #bibliophile #bookish

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I did surprisingly well. It did take a little longer than usual to read – maybe a day or two extra overall. But I did still grasp most of the concept (of course) and didn’t stumble too much over the grammar and the langauge.

So, in my very limited experience of reading in my non-native language, I’ve picked up some tips and tricks that might be of help to you if you ever decide to try, too.

Read a book you’re already familiar with

This is not the time to branch out and try a new genre. When you’re just getting to grips with a new language, in terms of reading it’s best to go with what you know.  Whether you go for a book you’ve read hundreds of times, or one of your favourite books as a child, you should definitely re-read a book you know almost back to front. This way, you won’t be too worried about the storyline and can concentrate on just learning some new words.

Don’t translate every word

If there’s a word halfway through a sentence stumping you, don’t grab your dictionary immediately. Instead, keep a list chapter by chapter of words you haven’t understood, and go back over it when you finish the chapter. By the end of the book, you have a tailor made phrase book to dip into.

Don’t stress out if you don’t understand every word

If you’re a learner, there will be words that confuse you every now and then. It’s totally normal. Often, you can make the word out anyway based on the context of the sentence, but don’t panic if not.

Choose a book that matches your language level

We all love a classic, of course, but they’re quite wordy. Not only that, but the language can be a little flowery and archaic. It’s best to look for a more contemporary novel when you’re reading in your second language. It’ll be huge help in picking up the nuances of the language as it’s spoken at present.

Have you ever read a book in your second language? How did you do?

14 thoughts on “How to Read in a Foreign Language

  1. I had to read a few things in French and Spanish for my Advanced Higher- No et Moi (the most difficult but most enjoyable) and two Garcia Lorca plays called Bodas de Sangre and Yerma, which I hated but on account of them being dusty and old with decrepit thinking rather than because I was reading in Spanish!

  2. I also moved to Germany about 3 years ago and have been learning German since I was 12. I am in a Master’s program so I’m using a lot of German regularly, but when I was still pretty shaky with it, I read the first 4 books of Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series in German. In fact, I’ve never read them in English…whoops! I don’t know if you know them, but I started with the House of Night series because they were my favorite vampire series circa 2010. I can definitely attest to reading something you’re familiar with! Where did you move to in Germany?

    • I’ve never read those books in either language actually! Maybe they’;; be another good way to go as fantasy books are another great way to learn some quirky words

  3. These are great advices! I moved to Portugal when I was 17, and even though I learnt Portuguese pretty quickly and read tons of legal text every single day, I still don’t like reading Fiction in Portuguese. I don’t realy have any problem with it, just doesn’t feel the same.

    My first language is Russian, but for the last 5-6 years I’ve been reading exclusively in English. English books are difinetely much easier to get than Russian, and the price of English books is much lower than the Portuguese ones. 😀

    • Thank you! I only hope there’s something in there someone with the same ideas can find helpful.

      Oh wow, it’s for sure not the same story here in Germany – English language books are at least twice as expensive as those in German!

  4. I’m nowhere near fluent enough in my foreign languages that I can speak a little of, but I love the excitement of even being able to read menus and signs that you get when you’re a beginner language learner. And I totally agree with reading a book you’re familiar with in your second language. I’ve read a bit of Prisoner of Azkaban in Italian and another thing that struck me was the different punctuation styles between languages.

  5. These are some great tips! My language skills are rusty where I haven’t had to use my French GCSE in six years. I’ve always wanted to try and read a book in French, but never knew where to start – I might try to brush up and start learning again. I’ve always been better at reading languages than speaking and pronunciation. Hopefully, my Welsh gets good enough to pick up Philosopher’s Stone.

  6. I would love to have the patience to read in a language that’s not my native tongue but I always lose patience and stop halfway through! I’d love to do it for real, though: Harry Potter is a great place to start, especially as I know it so well! Great post 😀

  7. These are amazing tips! I plan on teaching myself Korean in the new year as I’ve always wanted to learn the language and have been putting it off for far too long. These tips will definitely help me after I learn the basics of the language. So thank you!

  8. I’m always reading in a foreign language as my mother tongue is Luxembourgish and let’s just say that Luxembourgish books are more non-fiction or children books than YA, Thrillers, etc and they are honestly not that advertised in my country. So I totally agree that when you read in a foreign language you shouldn’t translate every word. It’s not really helpful and reading with a dictionary besides you to check every single word is a lot of work and will take the pleasure away. Afterwards you won’t read the book anymore because you’re annoyed. When I started reading in German, French and English I started with the ones that matched my language level at that time but then again, for me it was easier to read in a foreign language as all of these languages are taught in our schools and we needed to read books in these classes during our school years.

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