How to Learn to Read Novels in a Foreign Language

I have tried reading books in foreign languages before, such as when I was learning Spanish. Like most, I found it challenging. The number of unknown words and the sheer amount of confusion made it easy to give up, even with simple books. It seemed more like a chore than anything else.

This time around, I accidentally managed to read an entire French novel inside a week – and I enjoyed it! Read on to learn the secret to my success…



A Newsstand Novel

I stopped at a newsstand in Geneva, Switzerland (where they speak French) in an airport on my way to France. I was picking up a snack when the “Best  Seller” wall caught my eye. You know what I’m talking about – a shelf of throwaway novels and quick reads. I saw a book by Michael Crichton (the famous author of Jurassic Park), called simply Pirates! in French. On a whim, I picked it up.

Within hours I was hooked. Sure, I had to have my dictionary handy the whole time. Sure, it took a long time at first. But it was no wonder – these newsstand novels are meant to be addicting, to keep you entertained for a flight, and then thrown away! It ended up taking me exactly 7 days to finish the novel, but it was well worth it. About 3 days an 10 chapters in, I got a bright idea…

Graphing my Progress

It was actually fairly easy to precisely quantify my progress in learning French this way. I just recorded how long it took me  to read a chapter and the number of  words I looked up, then divided by the number of pages in the chapter to get a time/page and words/page average. Then I graphed this over chapters:

As you can see, the progress was immense! I started at about 7 minutes to read each page, and by the end I was at about 2 minutes per page. I read for roughly 2-3 hours per day for this entire week. This is a 3.5x improvement in just 1 week!

A Second Novel (and Beyond!)

I  was hooked, and now I knew the strategy. I grew up on fantasy and scifi novels, so I went to a local bookstore in Montpellier and found that they had a special 3-for-2 deal on this genre. I picked up Homeland by R.A. Salvatore, Magician by Raymond E. Feist and Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton. The total cost was under $20 USD.

I may have read two of these in the past, but it was long enough ago that I barely remember. I’m mostly done with Homeland now, and have been graphing my progress there as well.

Pros and Cons

Anything that you can do to make learning a language fun is a great. Reading books like this has really expanded my vocabulary and even my sense of grammar. I keep Google Translate handy so that even if I don’t know the exact tense being used, I know when it was happening. This has resulted in me developing a  more natural comprehension of the language – instead of thinking “what tense is it?” I have a real sense for it. After all, it was reading these types of books that really honed my English skills when I was young.

On the other hand, books do nothing to help pronunciation, oral comprehension, etc. I have had several occasions where I have had to ask my French host to repeat herself a few times, but then suddenly realized that I knew the words she was using but was having a hard time recognizing them. For me, this is actually the bigger challenge in French. The roots are very similar to English so reading is not hard, but the pronunciation differs enough that words can be difficult to understand or say. The last thing I would want would be to learn to pronounce the language badly because I was just reading it! It is definitely a good thing I am still here in France… though Google Translate’s new “speak” feature does help (the voice is not great, but it gets the idea across).

I’ll definitely be continuing down this road because this technique does something great – it combines my leisure activity (reading scifi/fantasy novels) with self-improvement! I’d also like to start listening to more podcasts and/or watching TV in order to get the oral part  down, too.

I hope you enjoyed this post about how to read novels in a foreign language.

I create video tutorials, articles and other resources for learning skills. Check out my book, The Joy of Craft, and free online courses.

Back to Top