foreign language reading strategies

4 Simple Strategies to Read in a Foreign Language Like a Native

Do you ever struggle to read in your target language and wish the words would just translate themselves?

I know I do.

But short of a magic wand (or a translation app), that’s not going to happen, and magic is not always helpful for developing reading skills over the long term.

The best way to improve your reading skills is by, well, reading—which takes time and effort.

Fortunately, techniques exist that make learning to read in a foreign language not only easier, but more fun too.

Let’s take a look at the best tips available to help you read like a pro.

Why Learn a Foreign Language by Reading?

If you want to become fluent in a language, you’re going to have to be able to read it. Whether you’re looking at a restaurant menu, perusing the newspaper, or following directions on a map, reading is fundamental to learning and living in your target tongue.

Depending on the content, reading also provides a chance to get more attuned to the way native speakers talk and write. How often in traditional language learning settings do we recite sentences like, “You and I eat hamburgers on the beach,” and how often do native speakers say such a thing?

Exactly.

In other words, reading allows us to dig deeper and challenge ourselves. Much like impromptu conversation, we are often thrown into the deep end while reading, forced to learn complex words and phrases we might shy away from in a different context.

Reading lets us get to the real meat and potatoes of a language. It allows us to ingest the grammar conventions naturally, without fear of a slap on the wrist from teacher.

What’s more, the benefit of reading is that we control the pace of learning. If you prefer the faster route, you can barrel through a text without looking up every word you don’t know. Or you could also pick it apart piece by piece, taking careful notes. Both approaches have their benefits.

Now let’s take a look at some effective strategies for learning to read like a pro.

4 Simple Strategies for Reading in a Foreign Language

1. Choose What to Read Carefully

Too many language learners skip over one of the most important parts of reading practice: choosing what to read in the first place. Many of us have experience in a classroom where a teacher barks out phrases and chooses reading texts for us, often with not-so-helpful results (see hamburgers on the beach, above).

It’s time to free yourself from the shackles of this approach and make your own destiny. First, we can divide books and other texts into two broad categories: academic and non-academic.

Academic writing

  • Pros: typically follows all grammar rules, more likely to be focused on a particular subject area, useful for learning specialized vocabulary
  • Cons: specialized vocabulary can create a hurdle to learning, less likely to resemble everyday usage of the language, not always appropriate for beginning language learners

Non-academic writing

  • Pros: has more in common with everyday usage of the language, vocabulary more likely to include common words and phrases, readers are more likely to be able to place the reading in context
  • Cons: may contain colloquialisms and be less representative of the “universal” usage of the language

We can see that both types of texts have their place, and deciding what you want to read is a matter of what you want to get out of the process.

For example, if you’re an engineer and your firm is opening a branch in a foreign country, read an engineering-oriented handbook in the target language.

Of if you’re just starting out and want to fully immerse yourself, read your favorite book translated into your target tongue. Books like “Harry Potter” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” have been translated to scores of languages. Don’t forget the power of enjoying what you read.

How do you find these materials? Here are a few resources to get you started:

Newspapers  |  Books  |  Magazines

Also, don’t forget to try your local library for all of the above. The content is free, and those with e-readers can often access extensive digital archives with just the click of a button!

If you want book recommendations and language-specific reading tips, check these out:

2. Read Before You Read: The Importance of Pre-learning Strategies

Once you’ve decided what to read, take the opportunity to brush up on background and mentally prepare for the material. The range of activities involved in this are called pre-reading or pre-learning strategies.

These techniques help create context for what you’re about to read, a scaffolding on which to hang the words, phrases and sentences, and ultimately to understand them.

Effective pre-learning techniques include:

  • Read related articles in English first. Reading an academic article on nuclear proliferation? Find English-language materials about the key issues.
  • Nail down the meaning of the materials beforehand. Tackling a classic novel written in a foreign language? Read a synopsis in English first.
  • Brainstorm. Alone or in a group, think critically about the content you’re about to read. What issues might come up? How do they affect you in your daily life?
  • Skim. Take a dip into the material by skimming it first and taking note of any unfamiliar words or phrases. Then look them up before you start reading in earnest.

Incorporate one or more of these strategies into your learning practice, and you’ll see the results for yourself!

3. Vocabulary: How to Take on the Hardest Part of Reading in a Foreign Language

Ah, vocabulary. The language learner’s arch nemesis.

How many times have you said, “I’m so close to being fluent, if only I knew more words?”

For better or worse, vocabulary is a constant in the struggle to read proficiently. What you choose to read should dictate your strategy, which can often include variations of the pre-learning techniques above:

  • Starting small with your target language’s version of “The Cat in the Hat”? Read the English version first to refresh your memory of the words used.
  • Remember that nuclear proliferation article? While you’re pre-learning the main issues, look up key words in your target language.

But where can you find a reliable dictionary?foreign language reading strategies

Remember the digital library archives I mentioned above? Many have expansive dictionaries you can use free of charge.

Another free tool is WordReference.com, which includes forums that come in handy for defining idioms or other colloquial usage.

foreign language reading strategies

Searching for something even more language-specific? Check out Pleco for Mandarin Chinese, or these awesome dictionary apps for GermanJapanese and Spanish.

Okay, so you’ve found a dictionary or dictionary app, but now what? How do you actually use it while reading?

  • Look up key words beforehand. After you use the pre-learning strategy of skimming (see above), look up any words that stand out as unfamiliar and important. Focus on words that appear in headings or that show up repeatedly throughout the text.
  • Don’t look up other unfamiliar words as you read. Instead, underline them to look up later. This promotes a fluid reading style and pushes you to use context clues to understand the content.
  • After reading through the first time, look up all underlined words. If possible, avoid using English when making note of the definitions. Instead, use related words in the target language or pictures/icons. Remember, your long-term goal is to read with understanding while “thinking” in the language rather than simply translating the words to English.

And how about retaining all of this vocabulary?

Flashcards

Flashcards remain one of the most tried-and-true methods. Spaced Repetition technology (SRS) used in flashcard apps greatly increases learning efficiency.

Contextualize new vocabulary

Place new words in their element using drawings (see above) and as many of your senses as possible. To memorize the Spanish word el bombero (firefighter), you might first draw a firefighter and fire station.

But try to also visualize the firefighter sliding down a pole, think of the smell of smoke, hear the crackling of a fire and feel the spray of a fire hose. The more contextual elements you can draw in, the better you’ll be able to retain and recall the vocabulary.

FluentU

For the most memorable context, the most useful flashcards and a complete language learning platform, FluentU is one of the best ways to learn a foreign language online today.

FluentU is an online immersion platform that takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. You can browse videos by difficulty (beginner to native), topic (arts and entertainment, health and lifestyle, etc.) and format (video blog, news, shows, etc.).

Every word comes with an in-context definition, image, audio and multiple example sentences. You can even click on a word to see how it’s used in other videos across the site. Add any word to your own vocab lists with a single click.

Get the most out of your listening by spending time in FluentU’s unique “learn mode” before or after watching a video to learn all that the clip has to offer. “Learn mode” takes your learning history into account, asking questions based on what you already know, which sets you up for success.

Mnemonic devices

Use mnemonic devices for difficult words. All of us who learn languages know the frustration of vocabulary that just won’t stick. For these problem words, try breaking up the syllables into a story of pictures.

For example, you can remember the German word wahrscheinlich (probably) by visualizing a war between pirates during which one crew member shines the captain’s shoes while battling a blood-sucking leech. Sound crazy? Maybe, but the crazier and more vivid the image you create, the easier it will be to recall the vocabulary.

Finally, repetition is key. Come back to those words every once in a while to freshen up and give yourself an ego boost!

4. Complement Your Reading with Other Learning Techniques

Sure, reading is essential to learning any language, but it’s not the whole picture. You can capitalize on the exercises above by pairing them with other techniques.

Think of these strategies as one-two punches of language learning.

Speaking

When learning to read, many of us practice subvocalization, the internal speech of sorts where our mind “pronounces” the words as we go along. Subvocalization can improve our command of the way a language sounds, especially when accompanied by actual speaking.

The next time you sit down to read in your target language, take subvocalization further and try reading aloud. This will help ingrain proper pronunciation, and build confidence in both reading and speaking.

When you get the hang of this, try recording yourself as you read aloud. Then listen to the playback, and take notes on words and sounds that need work. Bonus points if you can find a recording of a native speaker reading the same text!

Conversation

A language is nothing without at least two people to speak it. You can talk to yourself all day long, but it’s even better to find a speaking partner to share in conversation.

Find a reading partner and practice reading aloud together. Take notes while your partner is reading. What can you learn from the way they speak, and vice versa? You’ll be surprised at how effective two heads can be instead of one.

Join a book club to increase reading comprehension and critical thinking skills. The ultimate goal of reading, of course, is comprehension. You can find an existing group through Meetup.com or create your own.

You might think this technique is best for advanced learners, but try to think critically about what you’re reading from the very beginning. This will help you engage with the text, bring meaning to the act of reading, and make the whole process seem less like a chore.

The next time you set out to read in a foreign language, remember these four simple strategies. Let them be your magic wand, and watch how fast your reading skills improve!


Nathan Heggem is a language enthusiast, cheesemonger and cinephile. He spends his days singing the praises of Portuguese cheese, watching as many Brazilian movies as possible and practicing his vowel sounds. Nathan writes about food and film on his blog, CineMunch.

And One More Thing…

If you’re digging these strategies, you’ll love using FluentU. FluentU makes it possible to learn languages from music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks.

With FluentU, you learn real languages—the same way that natives speak them. FluentU has a wide variety of videos like movie trailers, funny commercials and web series, as you can see here:

FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.

Didn’t catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover your mouse over the subtitles to instantly view definitions.

You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s “learn mode.” Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.

And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses that vocab to give you a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.

Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store.

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.

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