How to read in a foreign language

Feeling fluent feels great. You can go anywhere, say anything, do everything and live your life exactly as you would normally, but in a different language.

I’ve had a fair few fluency breakthroughs with my languages. The first was in Germany when I was 15 and on a two-week school exchange and suddenly realised I was speaking German. Another important one was in Russia, when I suddenly realised I had friends who didn’t speak English.

But however well I could speak, there was always one thing left that stood in my path. I’d encounter it everywhere – in people’s houses, in cafés, on the bus – taunting me and laughing at me. My foe was always the book.

IMG_9994Reading in a foreign language is hard. Unlike speaking to people, you can’t ask the book to rephrase itself so you have a chance of understanding. You either get it or you don’t. And even when you have little victories like reading a page without stopping to get a dictionary, there are always another 369 left to go.

When I started studying German and Russian at university, it suddenly dawned on me that this problem wasn’t going to go away. Books were everywhere, and I was going to have to learn to read them.

In the end, if I could have pinpointed one single activity that’s made a bigger difference to my languages than any other, it would have to be this. Reading broadened my vocabulary, showed me how to tell stories, and built my confidence like never before. And now when some of my languages like Russian start to freeze, dipping into a book is a great way to warm them back up again.

It was hard to get going at first, and I think I gave myself a harder time than I needed to. I thought I’d understand much more than I did, but as I say to my own students now, how can you expect to know a word if you’ve never learned it?

If you’ve always wanted to read books in the language you’re studying but keep hitting a block, then this post is for you. I’m going to explain some techniques, reveal a few hacks, and also point you in the right direction for moving forwards.

The Reading Routine

As you may know, “defrosting” is the theme for this upcoming year of language learning, and I’m starting with a language I used to speak very well: Spanish. Living in Valencia, reading is my top resource for getting back into it, and this is how I’ve been managing things so far.

Every morning I go out and buy a newspaper and sit and read it before I start my day. Sometimes I manage to read most of it, other times I can only skim a few pages because I’m in a hurry. I’m not too bothered about quantity, though. For me what’s most important is that I get into a habit whereby I do this every day.

I read the articles through without stopping. Even if there are words I don’t understand to begin with, it’s highly likely that I’ll be able to guess them from context once I’ve read the whole thing. Sometimes just because a word shows up so often and in the same context, it’s easy to learn what it means and remember it. “Según” (according to), “a pesar de que” (despite), “asunto” (issue) and “se trata de” (it’s about) are some examples of the kinds of words you’ll pick up on straight away if you start reading the Spanish press.

Every now and then, I’ll take a shorter article and after reading it once, go through it again thoroughly. I mark the words I don’t know and look them up. I then read it through again to see how much more I understand the second time. To practise the vocabulary, I’ll read it through again a couple of times a day until the words seem to have sunk in.

Within a newspaper, there is a lot of variety in terms of what you can be reading. Your level may determine the kinds of things you should be concentrating on. Short, factual and descriptive pieces practise lots of the past tense, reported speech and are designed to be understood by the reader, making them a great place to start if you’re at an A2/B1 level.

Opinion pieces, though, are often less edited and more wordy. They talk about complicated issues, and can make important cultural references that you might miss. Reading these is great if you’re at a more advanced B2/C1 level. If you really want to test yourself, have a go at writing them too!

“Readlang” by Steve Ridout

This simple tool has changed the way I learn languages forever, and I can recommend it to anyone wanting to read in a foreign language, but who wants to start out with armbands first.

Turn on Readlang and read any webpage on the internet. Then, at the click of a button, you can get a live translation of any words you are struggling with. This means that even if you are feeling lazy and don’t want to spend time learning new words, you can still read complex articles you like on the internet. Recently, I’ve even been using it to decipher some of the bureaucratic pages on the Spanish government website too!

But be warned: it’s easy to get carried away with this, and if you get too trigger happy and click on every word you know, you may not learn that much. The advantage of reading on paper is that it forces your brain to work things out, and develops the reading skills you need to be able to read around words you don’t know. That’s what you’re doing the whole time in your native language, even if you don’t realise it.

You can download Readlang for free at

“When to look up words” checklist

Feel free to click if:

  • The word has come up at least 5 times.

    That means it’s probably important and will keep showing up and getting on your nerves if you don’t know what it means.

  • The word is causing a blockage.

    Sometimes a single word can stop you from understanding a sentence or even a whole paragraph. If you find yourself feeling pretty lost after reading a chunk of text, go back and try and work out where you went wrong.

What about parallel translation books?

These are popular and easy to get hold of, but I would warn you not to rely solely on them for these reasons:

  1. Translation is an art, not a precise science.

    Particularly with languages like Russian, a lot of the essence of the language is lost when translating it to make sense to an English reader.

  1. The temptation to read the English is overpowering.

    It’s easy to find yourself reading the simple bits in the original, but when the going gets tough your eyes are firmly locked on the opposite, English page. The way to get better at reading is to push through those harder moments with as little help as you can!

  1. You don’t develop an understanding of the words in their own right.

    There are 1000s of ways to translate a single word. One word will almost never fully match up with an alternative in your mother tongue. The advantage of reading in the original is that you are constantly coming across these words in different contexts and expressions so that you start to understand all of its different shades of meaning. If you learn it with a translation, this level of understanding can get distorted.

So what should I be reading?

I’ve mentioned newspapers, but especially at present these aren’t the most uplifting stories in the world. And you want reading in a foreign language to be fun, and interesting!

That’s why for the past few months I’ve been working closely with Olly Richards on producing a German and a Russian version of his very popular “Spanish Short Stories for Beginners”! I’ve personally made sure that these eight quirky tales are written in real language which is not at all dumbed down, and at the end of each chapter you’ll find a summary, a list of key words and comprehension exercises to make sure you’ve understood what’s going on.

You can buy “German Short Stories for Beginners” and “Russian Short Stories for Beginners” now on Amazon! Also check out the French and Italian versions.

Interested in more short story books for beginners? Leave me your email address below and I’ll be sure to let you know when there are updates!

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Otherwise, good luck reading in your new language! And if you’re in Spain, don’t forget to come meet me, Steve Ridout and others at the Polyglot Meetup in Madrid on 17th January.

Want to find out more about how I learn languages?

Come to one of my live events! Richard Simcott and I will teach you:

  • the fundamental techniques required for learning any language
  • how to take your languages to an advanced level
  • how to understand the real language native speakers read in books, watch on TV, and use in conversations
  • how to deal with motivation issues and set realistic goals for your success

Our next event will be in:

logo-blueValencia, Spain | 30th January 2016
London, UK | 27th and 28th February 201
Or… Join us online! Programme starts 4th January 2016

Places are limited, so book now to secure your ticket! Once we’ve sold out, we can’t make any exceptions.

Can’t make any of those events? Don’t worry, we’ll be planning a new one near you very soon!

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