What Kinds of Books Are Helpful to Read When You’re Learning a Language?
If you’ve decided to spend some of this strange time improving your foreign language skills, reading can help! This should come as no surprise. I’ve yet to find anything that reading can’t help.
But choosing the right book for your level is essential. It’s easy to get discouraged otherwise, and motivation is maybe the single most important factor in success at language learning and at keeping resolutions in general. In previous life, I was a language tutor — I even wrote a short book about it — and I loved watching my students progress to the point where they were able to read whole narratives.
Abridged and simplified but retaining something of the feel of the original book, these are a great resource for learning a language for anything from advanced beginner to intermediate levels (A2- B1). There’s often a glossary of terms and extra cultural notes to help you follow the story.
These tend to be short and not overly complex in their plot, which is essential for not getting bogged down, and also great for advanced beginner to intermediate level (A2 — B1). They’re also often funny, and I’m a big believer in laughter improving our ability to learn. I used the Mr Men and Little Miss series when I taught, which I could usually get through in one hour-long lesson. For French, I love Le Petit Nicolas — a series about the amusing adventures of a primary school-age boy which helpfully avoids the tricky passé simple tense. (These books have also been translated into Spanish.)
For upper intermediate to advanced learners (B2-C2), I highly recommend parallel texts. On one side, you have the original — often by a classic and well-regarded literary author — and on the facing page, its translation. Also, they are often short stories, which feels like less of a mountain to climb.
Graphic novels are also helpful for visual clues as to what is happening for advanced beginners (A2) and above. For French, I loved the Astérix series. The word play in these makes them ideal for intermediate to advanced learners. Astérix Chez les Bretons is a particular favourite of mine on the word play front, but exercise caution on this one, since the fun is in the incorrect translations of British expressions. You don’t want to speak like that in France, unless you enjoy being ridiculed.
Books you already know and love
Maybe you grew up reading The Little Prince. Or maybe you can’t get enough of Harry Potter. Why not mix it up a little by reading them in another language? Without having to focus so much on what happens, your brain will be free to take in the nuances of language. And it might give you a fresh take on something that feels familiar. Recommended for intermediate (B1) and above.
It’s always best to set manageable goals, so that you can meet them, be proud of yourself, and enjoy a boost in your motivation. I highly recommend you start with short novels. For advanced learners of French (C1-C2), good ones might be Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan or Stupeur et Tremblements by Amélie Nothomb.
When you’re ready for a full-length, new-to-you, adult novel, it’s best to go with something plot-based. For French, once you’ve reached upper intermediate (B2) and above, I recommend Marc Levy and Guillaume Musso, who both write mostly thrillers with elements of fantasy. (Marc Levy’s Et Si C’était Vrai is particularly good.) You’ll get so engrossed in the story that you’ll forget to stop every few seconds to look up a word.
Have you found a book useful for broadening your understanding of another language? Let us know in the comments. I’d also love to help you choose the right French or Spanish book for you — feel free to comment below with your level and interests below if that would be helpful.
Claire Handscombe is the author of Unscripted, a smart read about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan. She also wrote Conquering Babel: a Practical Guide to Learning a Language, and edited a book by and for fans of her favourite series, Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives. She is currently available for remote language tuition in French and Spanish.
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