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.


  1. Avatar
    Anonymous -  July 15, 2011 - 6:19 pm 513

    What a great exercise! Thanks for the report.

    Once I was on a beach in Argentina with a (now ex-) girlfriend and some friends of her family. The patriarch of this other family was Bulgarian, but spoke English, Spanish, German, and probably others as well. He was reading Alex Haley’s “Hotel”… in German. I asked why he didn’t read it in the native English, since he obviously knew it well, and it was probably not hard to find. His answer: he certainly could read it in English, but he really wanted to keep up on his German. And it was harder to find good stuff to read in German, at least there. Well, by all means then 🙂

  2. Avatar
    SkottieG -  July 15, 2011 - 6:39 pm 514

    I did this once when I was about 17. I worked at a hotel and someone had left a French paperback behind. Even though it had one of those steamy-sexy pictures on the front (I’m a guy and wouldn’t normally touch a romance novel), I forged on. It took me about 7 days with my handy translate book. I was proud of myself when I read the last smarmy sentence. 😉

    • Avatar
      Zane the Experimenter -  July 15, 2011 - 8:58 pm 517

      Haha nice. I have a policy of leaving books for others. When I finished Pirates I gave it away to the first person I could 😉

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    Warmdüscher -  July 15, 2011 - 7:46 pm 515

    Reading novels in german is how I spend the vast majority of my language learning time after hearing of Kato Lombs method. I especially like the “throw away” type of novel you’re talking about- makes language learning feel like a guilty pleasure, which makes me want to do more of it. It really does help you get a “feel” for the language. I also like audiobooks, maybe these could help remedy your listening problems?

    • Avatar
      Zane the Experimenter -  July 17, 2011 - 10:31 pm 526

      I had not heard of Kato Lomb before, thanks for that! I can’t believe I had missed such a wonderful story. Good call on audio books – that would be a perfect next step. I’ve struggled with podcasts in the past for entertainment, there’s not many I am interested in that are not going to have words I barely understand in English 😉

  4. Avatar
    Anonymous -  July 15, 2011 - 11:48 pm 518

    I learned French mostly by reading a ton of books in it. I never came up with such a brilliantly simple idea for tracking my progress, though! But there’s an idea floating around that you should be pretty proficient in a language after having read 1 million words in it. “1 million words” was too abstract for me, but then I heard somewhere that 1 million words was the equivalent of about 10 average-length novels. So I simply set myself the goal of reading 10 average-length novels in French. And it worked! I understand pretty much everything now, though I do still come across the occasional unknown word in books of course.

    • Avatar
      Zane the Experimenter -  July 17, 2011 - 10:33 pm 527

      As much as I love quantification, the whole “X words to fluency” always makes me wonder. I mean, I get the sense in it – it just feels odd.

      Harry Potter is a great idea – actually a good friend and fellow French student started reading it in French just a week or two ago 😉

  5. Avatar
    Jay_Belgium -  July 17, 2011 - 11:16 am 524

    Very interesting idea to track your progress that way. I’m currently experimenting a bit with self-tracking and it certainly motivates me a lot to be able to “see” your progress.

    Reading definately helps a lot in learning a new language. Though technically you could learn it without ever reading/writing a word. However if you want to really dominate a language, you should practise all aspects imo… (reading/writing/speaking/listening, …)
    Due to crossover effects they should compliment each other.

    You could also look up some blogs of things that interest you (in your target language).

    I don’t know if you use anki, but you could use the words you don’t know as input for the system.

    • Avatar
      Zane the Experimenter -  July 17, 2011 - 10:35 pm 528

      I use Anki a lot during my early stages of each language, but later in my studies I find that rote memorization confuses the subtleties. And I certainly agree about the whole “crossover effect” thing. So many “ah-hah” moments come when you suddenly encounter something in a new way!

  6. Avatar
    Max Hydrogen -  July 17, 2011 - 4:45 pm 525

    J’ai tenter de faire ça en Mandarin mais avec “La vraie histoire de Ah Q” et un journal chinois de Montréal mais, comme d’habitude, j’étais occupé avec autres choses et je n’y suis jamais retourné. C’est toujours comme ça avec le TDA…

    • Avatar
      Zane the Experimenter -  July 17, 2011 - 10:39 pm 529

      Haha oui, pour moi aussi, c’est difficil a faire les choses comme cela quand je ne suis pas dans le meme pays quelle parle la langue 🙁 Quand je suis dans le pays, je senti un petit paresseux quand je ne comprends pas les autres.

    • Avatar
      Marie_pierre_guerin -  July 26, 2011 - 2:22 am 574


      Email me at marie_pierre_guerin@hotmail:disqus .com 

      We nee to talk. 

  7. Avatar
    Matthias Steingass -  July 18, 2011 - 4:42 pm 533

    As it happens I just red ‘Pirates’ in english, my second language which I learned almost totally by reading english texts, that where not available in german and hearing BBC World service. Recently I came upon a book by Jacques Rancière, a french philosopher: German title “Der unwissende Lehrmeister”, french title “Le maître ignorant”. It tells the story about a frenchman, Joseph Jacotot, who was exiled to the Netherlands in 1818. There he got a job at the university of Lowen. He was to teach the students french literature but didn’t know a word dutch. He gave the students a book which was written bilingually in french and dutch and told the students to learn french with this. He had a great success. So great a success that he went on teaching a lot of other things he didn’t know. Rancièr’s text  fascinating,  although sometimes even in German, my mother-language, it is sometimes difficult to read. The main theme isn’t so much about learning a language but about how every human being has an intelligence which is capable of so much more then most schools will admit us.

  8. Avatar
    Leah D. H. -  July 20, 2011 - 7:14 pm 551

    Fascinating post, Zane! When my family moved to Denmark and I was 15 years old, I got “tossed” right into school here — immersion in all things Danish was the idea, to get me to learn the language and get comfortable with it as fast as possible. Though it was stressful at first, it did work: by the end of the first school year here, I was comprehending pretty much everything and able to communicate fairly well. I’ve never become entirely comfortable with the language (as in, it’s difficult for me to express myself creatively in Danish, as well as hold deeper or more philosophical conversations) but I am by almost any measure fluent in it. 

    Strangely enough, I sometimes suspect my immersion in Danish has begun to affect how I phrase some things in English. I’d be hard pressed to point out specific examples because it’s all so deeply ingrained by now (9 years later, that is), but I’m pretty sure it happens.

    And to return to the subject of books, Harry Potter was the first book I read in Danish that I really enjoyed reading, and didn’t struggle with too much. 🙂

  9. Avatar
    Fiel Mahatma Sahir -  July 22, 2011 - 3:34 pm 560

    Dude, I haven’t commented for awhile, anyways you are genius! I need to do this, sure, I won’t read for 2-3 hrs like you did, but I’ll read none the less. I spent quite a bit of money on Asterix books, Tintin books, the narnia series in French, and of course, Les Miserables. I got lazy to reading it because reading a chapter in a Narnia book outloud took about 30 mins, sure, i’m reading it outloud, but I wanted to practice saying the words, haha. You are the bomb Zane! I’ll keep this in mind!

    By the way, are you ever going to make a mailing list, I have to go back to your blog to check if you’ve posted anything because I’m too retarded to figure out wth RSS is, and I’m 18 trololol, I might figure it out to keep track with all these other people I follow haha

  10. Avatar
    dbo -  June 9, 2012 - 10:58 am 706

    My biggest problem in learning German is that I have too much formal education on the language and not enough practical use. I can explain and formulate passive sentences in the subjunctive mood, but have a hard time going from German to English. My question is HOW did you read the book? Did you look up each word you didn’t know as you came across it? If not how did you choose the ones to look up? Was looking up time included in the time it took to read the page? Do you think it’s more effective to just read over the words you didn’t know? 

    I’m nerdy enough that there are few things more motivating than a good lookin’ graph, but I have absolutely no system for reading novels and texts, which makes this great idea very frustrating.

  11. Avatar
    Linas -  June 1, 2014 - 6:10 pm 1205

    If your level is not very high yet and you don’t like dictionaries much, a good way to do it is bilingual and Interlinear books. You can find a fair bunch of them on – already in German and books soon coming up in French.

    • Avatar
      Zane Claes -  June 2, 2014 - 3:50 pm 1206

      What a great resource! It looks like you only have one book per language so far, is this correct? I’ll give the German book a try, since it’s the language I’m currently studying 🙂

      • Avatar
        Linas -  June 2, 2014 - 6:02 pm 1207

        Thanks! Yes, only one per language so far, but a lot of plans for expansion in the near future. 🙂 Good to hear that, let me know what you think!

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