A great German book is like the meat and potatoes of learning.
Study guides and homework are the vegetables.
Without the healthy staple foods, you’ll only know casual, colloquial German without understanding the fundamentals of the language.
Without a little sugary sweetness, you’ll sound stiff, formal and boring.
While you can’t totally forgo that green roughage (which comes from dictionaries and textbooks), you definitely need to eat some protein to complete your diet.
Reading novels in German is a fun and enjoyable way to improve your language skills.
You can pick up new words, become familiar with syntax constructions and see grammar in action–often without even realizing it. Getting through a book in German is an accomplishment you can hold in your hands and a reason to high-five yourself in the mirror.
Here’s 10 tips, dear reader, to help you choose the right book and get the most out of it.
Balance Your German Learning Diet with These 10 Tips for Happy, Healthy Reading
1. Old Faithfuls: Choosing Stories you Already Know
There are a lot of words in German.
You’re not going to know all of them. Heck, if you’re properly challenging yourself, you’re still not going to know most of them. Sometimes you’re going to feel a bit fuzzy about what’s going on.
Reading a story that you’re already familiar with can give you a big contextual advantage when the language is unfamiliar. It can grant you a big confidence boost besides that. It helps to have a general idea of when Alice is going down the rabbit hole.
Looking for a challenge with a safety net? Choose a book that you haven’t read, but which has a movie adaptation. Start the novel first and if things get too hairy, just pop in the flick for an hour and a half revelation.
2. Thingamajigs and Whatchamacallits: Avoiding Books with Jargon
Unless you have ambitions to become a farmer, consider avoiding “50 Jahre erlebte Landwirtschaft im Osten Deutschlands” or manuals on tractor maintenance.
Books that are heavy with industry-specific terms, even novels, can be overwhelming and throw a lot of vocab at you that you probably won’t use anytime soon. If you’re reading a murder mystery, hopefully the murderer is keeping it simple with a kitchen utensil and not an 18th century whale deboning flensing knife.
Sorry, Harry Potter. We might not be ready for Hogwarts yet.
3. White Space and Fast Pace: The Benefits of Page Turners
While white space may intimidate the writer, it remains the reader’s best friend–especially in another language. Books with short paragraphs and lots of dialogue have less words on the page.
This can make the text more digestible and less overwhelming, allowing you to focus more closely on words you don’t know. It also (he says with a cheater’s grin) means that you’re getting though more pages faster, which can be good for the ego. A crime thriller set in Berlin might be an easier task than Kafka turning into a bug.
4. Be Kind to Yourself and Your Kindle
Okay, it doesn’t smell like a book nor look like one, but it’s the way they come now.
Our modern times have ushered in the technology of Kindles and e-readers and, for the language learner, there are some specific benefits to taking advantage of these (in addition to free books from the German Amazon).
Online Dictionary. Remember when you used to ask your mother or teacher what a word meant and she handed you a big old dusty hardback that you could barely carry? Our arms may have grown thinner these days, but we do have the benefit of being able to find out what a word means instantly by simply tapping on it. Many e-readers allow a German-to-English dictionary to be downloaded for free, offering immediate epiphanies.
Vocab Builder. A common feature with many e-readers is being able to collect words you didn’t know before on a separate list. You can create your own study aid to look at before and after your reading sessions, giving you some tangible proof that you’re gaining knowledge in the language.
FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. I know, I know, we’re talking about reading German books here. It might seem weird to add video content to the mix, but trust me, you won’t regret it!
That’s because FluentU doesn’t stop at videos, it’s all about active learning. You can download transcripts to practice reading, create running lists of newly-encountered vocabulary, study personalized flashcards and read along with interactive subtitles, pausing at will to view on-screen definitions, translations and pronunciations. All of this gives you added context to help improve your reading skills, vocabulary and overall German comprehension.
MosaLingua can enhance German reading you do online with its web version, which allows you to pick words and phrases you don’t recognize out of native content, translate them, then create flashcards (which can sync up across all your devices).
5. The Context Challenge: Waiting Until the End of the Page
Having the power to translate most German words at the speed of thought, now you must resist it (be strong, Frodo).
Central to being successful in language learning is being able to determine the context from the words you do know and stay present in the conversation.
Looking up every single new Wort as you run across it won’t only bog down the reading process to the point that you’ll never finish the book, but this also won’t allow your brain to build the necessary analytic muscles. A good rule of thumb is to read through to the end of a given page and then choose which words you want to look up. You’ll find that you’ll be able to figure a lot of them out on the fly.
6. What You Don’t Know Can’t Hurt You: Pushing Through
Learning a language takes ambition and many of those who take up the sword were always good students in control of their studies. You might not be used to being in the dark. But have no worries.
You’re not going to understand everything and you’re not supposed to.
Part of the benefit of reading a novel in German is getting used to seeing various terms and grammar constructions. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t figured them out by the end of the book. When you do learn them you’re going to remember them. Your brain is doing a lot of subconscious work. It’s time to give it credit. All you have to do is keep reading.
7. You Can’t Score Without a Goal
A problematic thing about being human is that we’re easily distracted (this doesn’t apply to the robots reading this).
Our best intentions make it easy to pick up that book for the first few days and then the resoluteness fades away. That’s why it’s necessary to have a plan before you open the cover. Is your mission to finish the book before the end of the month? Is your daily target 30 minutes of reading before bed time? A weekly page count?
One helpful way to stay committed to finishing that novel is to mark your progress on a calendar, whether it’s recording the number of pages read or minutes spent or simply putting a big ol’ check mark on the date to signify you hit the mark that day. Seeing a tangible record of your progress is both rewarding and motivating.
8. Dear Diary: The Vocab Journal
If you don’t have a Kindle or want to go Old School with something more than an e-reader vocab builder, consider making a word journal.
Choose a few words from your readings every day and write them in a notebook with their corresponding definitions. Then write the date, the book, the page number and perhaps the whole sentence you found it in. These extra data help provide a good, solid context for the word. Remembering where you saw it will help you remember what it means.
Boom. You have a personalized study aid.
9. Blast from the Past: Reading (Parts of) the Book Again
The most wonderful feeling in learning a language is the realization that you’ve made progress.
It may seem a little laborious (heck, maybe even torture) to go back to the beginning of the book once you’ve finally finished it. But when you see how much easier it is to understand it now, after all your hard word and dedication, you’re going to want to give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back. Reread the first chapter and be amazed at how much more sense it makes.
Enjoy the fruits of your labor, Ambitious Reader.
10. We’re Going to Have Fun, Damn It!
When it comes to reading novels in German, this goes without saying (so I’m definitely going to say it): enjoy them!
The advantage of improving your German by reading novels is that it’s more fun than those dusty grammar books and shouldn’t feel like work. No tests, no pressure. Consider it productive leisure time.
So, make a cup of tea, kick off your shoes and happy reading!
Ryan Dennis was a Fulbright Scholar and previously taught at Pädagogische Hochschule Schwäbisch Gmünd. He writes The Milk House, which appears in four countries.
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