Reading in Your Target Language: What Should You Pick?

With January being one of the months the Tadoku challenge is running, I’ve been talking an awful lot lately about reading (and haven’t been doing so much of it, myself). One of the most important questions, especially if you’re just starting out on this extensive reading thing for the first time, is what, exactly, should you start with?

I think there’s really a two ways to split this topic: by the level that you’re at in your target language and by whether you should read a translation or try and get your hands on some native materials.

Harry Potter und der Feuerkelch

If you’re a beginner, of course, it’s going to be a little difficult. Children’s books are a good place to start (if you can find an interesting one, which I can’t always), but so are dual-language books because although they can be harder, if you get lost, you can refer to the English (or your native language) to try and get back on track again. Alternatively, searching ‘beginner’s reading + your target language’ should bring you a few results.

Once you’re at an intermediate stage, you can of course start branching out a little. Searching for topics that you know quite a lot about in your target language will throw up a lot of results that can help to expand your vocabulary. This is about the stage that I usually start trying to read young adult books, like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. I like these because I’ve read them in English so I know the stories really well, which means that even if I get lost in the language, I can sort of work my way through the gist of it and pick it back up later on. If you like the idea of intensive reading, the site Readlang is very useful because it lets you import texts and if you click on a word you don’t know, it shows you the translation of that word. It’s still in quite early stages so there are some features that need fixing (Mandarin, for example, is not yet fully supported), but overall it’s a pretty stellar resource.

The advanced stage is obviously where you can find your own things to read quite easily, because although some native materials might still be difficult for you to use, you can generally work out the gist of everything (unless it’s really specialised) and so it basically means that the world is your oyster. I still usually look for books I’ve already read in German because I’m really worried about just losing the whole point of the story (I’m hoping to change that this year), but there’s literally so much. Not just books, but the entire internet! Wikipedia is obviously great if you like reading non-fiction because there’s always something interesting on there; there are blogs too, news sites… Anything.

So obviously, it gets easier the better you become – and the more you read, the more you’ll improve at it. The good thing with extensive reading is that it means you pick up the more common words quickly because you see them over and over again in context so you learn them in much the same way as you learned your native language. There can still be difficulties at any stage with vital but rare vocabulary of course, which is why I tend to read translations over native materials (for the most part). The advantage of a translation is that if you have the book in your native language, you essentially have a dual-language system; and if you’ve read it and know it well (I’m looking at you, Harry Potter), you should have a vague idea of where the story is at all times.

The problem of course, comes with bad translations. Sometimes they’re just not up to scratch, or don’t sound as good – and the advantage of native materials, aside from being new and interesting (it can get boring reading the same thing over and over), is that they automatically have more culture of the language you’re studying in them. Of course a translation will try to portray that, but whether that’s as successful as a native book is an entirely different question.

The most important thing, however, that I think you all should take away from this post, is that all the above advice can absolutely be disregarded in favour of this one point:

Read something you enjoy.

Yes, you could be learning Russian and want to read Tolstoy’s entire works, or attempting to slog your way through Hugo’s novels in French, but the fact of the matter is, if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t do it.

Simply put: if you’re still in school then yes, they’re going to give you books and yes, you’re going to have to read them. If you’re not, then what’s the point on wasting your time on something you’re not enjoying? That’s the real beauty of being a self-learner; you get to do all the things you enjoy and don’t have to do any of the things you don’t*, but you still benefit from all of it!

So, go read something. Like, a page. It’ll only do you good!

Harry Potter und der Feuerkelch inside

*except grammar. Inevitably, you’ll have to look at some grammar. Sorry.


  1. I just got a housekeeping/fashion/gossip magazine in mail – from Ukraine, all in Russian language.I can’t wait to get to reading that! Reading is a great way to learn a language and I agree, it is important to read different things, whatever inspires you!

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