Do you read in other languages?

Posted August 13, 2017 by Lory in discussions / 41 Comments



I’ve returned from my trip to Switzerland as usual with a renewed wish to learn German, but I generally lose the impulse once I’m back in my English-speaking environment. However, I’ve made some small steps, and I’m now trying to read simple stories.

I never properly learned another language — French was what I studied in school, and I even earned a certificate for it in college, but I would not consider myself fluent. However, I would really love to get to that point sometime, particularly so as to be able to read foreign-language works in the original and appreciate something of their special nuance. This goes beyond being able to understand and translate the literal meaning; I really wonder what it would be like to get “under the skin” of another culture to the extent that one can experience the ineffable beauty of poetry, for example.

I’m curious whether any of you have had this experience. Do you read in languages other than your mother tongue? What is it like? Do you feel like you are still missing something? Do you have any tips for someone wanting to achieve reading fluency?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!



41 responses to “Do you read in other languages?

  1. How I wish I did. I used to have French lessons at work (having to travel to visit rural companies) many years ago, and we used Asterix in French to get a feel for some idioms. But I never went further! I can manage basic Latin and enjoyed bits of Winnie Ille Pu and some other translations of popular children’s books into Latin – but that’s as far as it goes again.
    I wish I had the time to devote to French again.

  2. What an interesting question for discussion you’ve chosen! Especially as it’s claimed that familiarity with more than one language has all kinds of mental and social as well as economic advantages.

    I’m effectively monolingual, with all that implies for a subconscious cultural imperialism, but I wish it wasn’t so. I have a working engagement with French, a smattering of Latin and even less Ancient Greek (which exam II failed at age 16), and have spent time on Italian and Welsh (though I can claim fluency in neither). Still, French is the only language I feel confident in reading silently.

    What I’ve found most useful are those parallel texts, MFL on the left, English on the right. But — and here’s the downside — I need to speak aloud the MFL to get the full effect, a real disadvantage in company. Otherwise I just stick to the translation, which defeats the object of the exercise.

    • I really wish I had done Latin and Greek when I had a chance. And I agree about speaking aloud the foreign language being important, but it’s hard without complete privacy!

  3. When I was younger I was being fluent and able to read Italian. Alas, I did not keep up using it and I have lost much of it. I wish that I had kept at it. If I had I would be reading original works in Italian now.

    Learning another language is a very worthy thing to do.

    • I bet you could brush up your Italian more quickly than you think! When I was in Switzerland I was surprised that I could still read simple texts in French (the comparison to my lack of fluency in German helped make me feel more competent). If you have a basis, I think the details will come back quickly if you’re able to give some time to them.

  4. My son reads poetry in Russian, and translates some of it for us, always explaining how the Russian word conveys more than the English word he’s found to try to get the idea and feeling across.

    • It’s so fascinating how words are more than simple one-to-one correspondences. That’s especially important — and untranslatable — in poetry.

  5. If only this were possible. I can do a reasonable job of reading a French newspaper article and getting the key points but literature requires a far deeper understanding of the tenses and subtleties of expression than i’m capable of

    • When I’m reading an English book lately I’m noticing the parts that would be hard for an English learner to understand. For example, I’m reading a PG Wodehouse book that is riddled with unattributed quotations, idioms, and other phrases that would baffle a basic speaker. Even “light” literature can be very complicated!

  6. Read read read. I recommend finding a children’s book in the target language. Once you know the basic grammar and how to use the dictionary, you’re good. Keep a small notebook of major new words you learn. Baby steps. It’s so rewarding to finish a story in a new language. So much more rewarding than reading a story in your native language.

    • There is a lot in language that can’t be translated. That is something you only experience when you learn a new language. French has a “texture” to it that English lacks, and vice versa. French unfortunately doesn’t translate well into English, so I’m not ever tempted to read most French works in English.

      • No, the “texture” is definitely lost in translation. That’s what I hope I can get a sense of, in time. Thanks for your great suggestions!

  7. I am effectively monolingual. I took Spanish in jr. and sr. high school, but did not keep it up and it is a big regret. I took French and Latin in college, but did not keep up those either. I don’t have any advice for you, but think well of you for your interest!

    • Thank you – I only wish I had taken it up years ago…i.e. before I had a child when time was more plentiful!

  8. English? Haha. I’m ecuadorian, so my mother tongue is actually spanish. We are taught english all through school, but only a handful actually prefer reading in english. I guess it’s a little different because the books I prefer are originally written in english, so when I began noticing the differences between the original and the translations, I found translations positively cringe-worthy. The romance scenes in spanish are just CRINGEEE. So, no, in my particular case, I love reading in english.

    Now achieving that kind of reading fluency is a slow process. But it’s worth it. I lead an english language club in which we do exactly that. A lot of people here experience the same difficulty but with your language XD So, it’s just a matter of familiarizing yourself with the words. Pick a book you really want to read, keep the google translator close (translate only words, never sentences obviously) , read it, finish it, pick another one, and chances are if it’s the same genre, you’ll find you need the translator less often and less often, until you don’t need it at all. Oh, and read reviews in french about it! Blogging was a huge help with my english!

    I totally get what you mean. There’s a difference between being able to read in a foreign language, and getting ‘under its skin’ like you put it. I’m able to read in french, for example, but not at the level I’m with english AT ALLL. So just don’t give up!

    • I like the idea of reading reviews in the target language! That would be a good way to reinforce what one has learned from reading a book. I need to find some German-language book blogs…

  9. Keeping at it! You’ve encouraged me to get back to my own studies. My Mom is from Germany and I studied German in high school. I used to be very proficient in reading and writing German, but have lost those skills. Speaking the language was always the harder part for me, but I can hold my own when we visit (at least to get around and have basic communication–I’m far from being comfortably conversational). I have long wanted to get back to reading in German and just haven’t made the time for it. My fantasy involves reading German crime novels, so many of which don’t get translated into English. My Mom says reading comic books and watching soap operas helped her learn English. Good luck with your studies!

    • Speaking and generating original thoughts is difficult, but just reading without speaking and listening experience is kind of dry and meaningless. I did some audio tape learning first so now I think I could make a further step in reading. It would be fun to connect to other bloggers who are trying to learn German!

    • It’s really hard without having some immersion in the country. I now wish I had used my semester in France better when I was in college – I was too shy!

  10. I wish I could read/speak another language. Alas, despite taking Spanish in school from the age of five, I was never very good and have forgotten almost everything I learned. I always had trouble learning syntax. I think I would have done better if I had learned by immersion instead of in a classroom. I would like to relearn Spanish someday, but for now, I can only read in English.

  11. I wish I was fluent in another language, but I doubt that will ever happen now. I agree that translations probably aren’t the same as the originals, though.

    • Learning a language later in life is not easy – besides not having much time to spare, the brain cells are not so cooperative!

  12. I’ve got nothing. When I was younger I could manage to read Latin, but I doubt that I’m good enough to do that now, and even back in my wise youth, I was translating in my head as I went along. I’ve been doing Spanish on Duolingo for a while now, and although it tells me I’m 40% fluent, that does not translate into me being able to read a book in Spanish. :p

  13. Lots of interesting comments here! I agree that keeping at it is key, and so tough.

    I have no real aptitude for languages: at one point or another in my life I’ve learnt French, Latin, early middle English and smatterings of German, Spanish and Italian – forgotten them all. I’m told my Flemish is now ‘fluent’ (from living here for eight years) but I struggle to read the sort of literary fiction I enjoy most because of course literary language is quite different from spoken language and the amount of time I have to spend with a dictionary becomes disheartening. I can manage detective novels, but even then there are idioms and dialects that I miss, plus of course all those layers of richness that words acquire.

    I am extremely lazy and as I say have no talent for languages, so the only thing that helps me is being forced to learn and speak it. Studying alone didn’t work, I had to go to lessons and pass tests. The single thing that had the greatest impact on my language was foolishly signing up for an intensive teacher training course in Flemish, one of the most horrible experiences of my life but very rewarding in terms of language (and of course getting a qualification and thus employment and income). Now I teach English to adults but they also struggle with written texts. There’s a sort of gap between the level people reach at the end of most language courses and the level required for reading books and poetry.

    Sorry this is so long and rambly! If you’re strong-minded then reading a bit every day will surely start to pay off. Children’s books and thrillers/detective fiction are good places to start since the language isn’t usually too verbose and the plots tend to be compelling. (Also, choose short books because you feel you’re achieving something more quickly.) Some sort of language course or conversation group might be helpful too, even just once a week (I am always amazed at how Victorians taught themselves to read other languages simply with a dictionary, like in Jane Eyre). Contradicting someone above, I’d advise investing in a good dictionary because Google Translate can be very hit and miss, especially for idiomatic or metaphorical language (though perhaps it works better for some languages than for others). Parallel texts for poetry are fab and you can learn a lot from them. Films/television series with subtitles (in the original language, not English).

    Don’t let yourself be discouraged if it takes a long time – it WILL be a big investment of your time but even I, hater of learning languages, must say that it IS worth it. Though I still have a long way to go and sort of would like to brush up my French… Good luck and keep us posted with your progress!

    • Good suggestions, thank you. Of course I am lucky that I have my husband to help me, for example reading a short story together and translating as we go. It’s a nice way to spend time together, when we can manage it!

  14. I studied Spanish in both high school and college, and I am still painfully helpless at speaking it. I can gist it enough to understand the basic meaning when people are speaking, but I have a harder time with speaking it myself or reading. My husband speaks Spanish fluently and when we’re in public, I always wish that I could speak Spanish to him when I don’t want the people around us to understand what I’m saying. 😀 But alas, I am unable. Maybe one day!

    • I know, I wish I could speak with my husband more fluently, but he’s not a language teacher so I just flounder. But we are working on it.

  15. I read in English and Spanish. I disagree. Unless you have a strong motivation to keep learning another language, I think your time is better spend in more reading. You already do this, trying to expand your reading boundaries to different authors from other cultures. I celebrate translation instead of mourning what is lost. I can read English yet I have read some classics in the Spanish translation and loved them. Yes, knowing another culture along with its language, affords a great experience, but traveling and reading affords that wonderful quality that many who know 2 or more languages but don’t read, miss completely.
    You are an amazing reader, and at least from my experience with Spanish, there’s amazing translations in English from some of our literature that will give you a slice of our culture and lots more besides a great written book.
    The comments by all of you who read one language are very humble and lovely. Despite this strong comment, I paradoxically agree with lovely Fariba. Take this with respect, but French always claims to be untranslatable, lol. I’ll never experience that texture, but I love my French authors I have read, and I am most excited to read a few more. Always.

    • Thank you, yes, I think reading in translation can also be beneficial and widen our boundaries, and we should celebrate that. And I think we should not get too hung up on language itself; in fact all languages are “translations” of the wordless realm of meaning that lies behind them, and where we are all connected.

      It’s partly because I’m now connected through family to people who don’t speak English that I’d like to enhance my knowledge of German (and I should brush up my French, too, really). I take your point about using precious reading time for this, but for me I think it’s a good and doable challenge. How I wish I had used my schooldays for this when I had much more time available, but c’est la vie!

    • Point taken. I think it’s a wonderful goal, and like others told you, I think you can do it, Lory.

      I can’t not say all I think about translation in a comment, but I love what you say, yes, all languages are “translations”, and all our readings are also translations. Yes, speaking two or more languages comes for most people with the addition of being part of those different cultures, and yes, there’s something wonderful about being able to read something in the language it was written just because it probably transmits and contains much about that culture and place, and it speaks to our soul, but that happens in one language too, for example, when a person from Kentucky reads Wendell Berry, or a person from London reads Dickens, there’s a connection there, another layer, that maybe others don’t get.

      That’s why it’s so amazing that your connections with people that matter to you who don’t speak English, is motivating you to learn their languages, and, why not, to maybe one day be able to read something in that language.

      I read some Dante in Spanish (I think it’s closer to Italian and closer to me 🙂 than English), but I listened to a bit of his Inferno read in Italian, and even though I did not understand it all, the bits I get are beautiful and satisfying as well.

      My husband and I have watched Korean shows, he is watching a Turk one now, and we listen to those languages and read subtitles, and we don’t know them at all, yet we love the cadence, the rhythm, and how they sound.

      All this to say that any approach to learning more is so worth it, -as someone said-, but if we are not inclined to make any efforts, we shouldn’t feel sad lamenting all we are missing, because there’s much there we can access from just one language.

      • I agree, and we can also try harder to understand those who speak our own language. Sometimes that feels like a monumental enough task , these days!

  16. I used to read a lot in Japanese back when I… still had time 🙂 it was greatly enjoyable, although I can’t say I understood everything (my level was, well, intermediate, maybe even advanced, but definitely not fluid). However, I read (and blog) in a foreign language every day! (English) I read most of my books in English too (cause ARCs)… I now find it more natural to read books in English than in my own language, pretty much 🙂

    • In comparison to learning an Asian language, learning German should seem like a piece of cake — I admire people who are able to learn (or even attempt) such a different language. You don’t say what your mother tongue is, but it’s interesting that you now find it more natural to read in English. Availability of what you want to read is an important factor.