Reading a full-length book in a foreign language without much prior reading practice?
That’s like trying to run a marathon without any training.
We know academic research backs up the undeniable benefits of immersing yourself in a foreign text. For example, one study conducted at the Monterey Institute of International Studies showed that students acquire and retain verb conjugation skills through repeated exposure in written texts.
And yet, so many of us find cracking open a massive volume of text nearly impossible.
What if one simple tool could completely rewrite how you think about reading foreign materials?
Instead of spending long hours trying to deduct meaning from confusing words you’ve yet to master, you could speed through pages and pages of text in about the same time it takes you to read in English. Think this sounds like nothing more than a pipe dream?
Prepare yourself for a revolutionary technique that’ll change your whole approach to learning through books.
One Stupidly Easy E-book Hack That’ll Supercharge Your Language Learning
After that massive buildup, brace yourself for this one word solution: e-books.
Yeah, I know, it sounds super anticlimactic. After all, an e-book is just a physical book in digital form, so what’s the big deal? You see, e-books have one incredible advantage over physical texts—most e-readers support in-line dictionaries.
Do you see where this is headed?
I stumbled upon this incredible language learning hack a few years ago, and I can honestly say it has changed my whole approach to reading in a foreign language. Simply install a foreign dictionary on your e-reader, download a book in your target language and start reading.
As you encounter words you’re unfamiliar with, click the text and an English definition (or, if desired, a definition in your target language) will be displayed immediately. Best of all, many e-readers will automatically save searched words for later reference, making it super simple to engrave those new terms in your brain.
Ready to get the ball rolling?
Follow the 3 simple steps below to optimize your e-reader for your language learning needs and goals. I personally use this technique on a Kindle device and it works like a charm, but the approach is similar for all e-readers. Stop dreaming about the benefits of mastering a new language and start actually doing it.
1. Procure the Right Dictionary
If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably find modern literature a tad bit more stimulating than stuffy prose scribbled down two centuries ago.
Yes, there’s a time and place for Victor Hugo’s long-winded descriptions and colorful speech, but you’ll likely enjoy a recent novel more than “Notre-Dame de Paris.” Not only do contemporary writers tend to keep their stories moving more quickly, but they frequently use slang and everyday language you won’t find in the tomes of the celebrated authors of the 1800s.
While there are plenty of great dictionaries available to today’s language learners, you need to find an option that includes the commonplace words used by modern speakers. In an ideal world, you’d be able to look up WordReference translations and forum comments in a split second, but e-books haven’t quite made it to that point yet.
Fortunately, you can locate a recent edition of a popular dictionary in most e-reader stores. Be sure to read over reviews from other buyers in order to find the right book for you. Also, keep in mind that you may want a dictionary that provides definitions in English! This could be key to helping you speed through your reading. If you’re more advanced or if you feel like challenging yourself, try using a monolingual dictionary (all in the target language).
As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that you can get in-line definitions for text on the web using WordReference’s engine! Plugins are available for both Chrome and Firefox. Feel overwhelmed by news stories or foreign blogs? This free tool is an absolute lifesaver.
2. Choose a Well-liked Book
Let me tell you a little secret: bad literature isn’t any better in a foreign language.
Don’t go through all the motions to optimize your e-reader only to discover you’ve picked up something truly atrocious.
Instead, take your time reading the reviews for available novels and be sure to pick something from your preferred genre. For example, I eagerly devour mysteries and thrillers, which is why you’ll find my Kindle full of foreign titles in this niche. It’s much easier to push ahead if you enjoy the source material.
By the way, if you’re still unconvinced about choosing an e-book over a hard copy, I understand your pain. I still love and cherish my physical copies of my favorite books, and I completely sympathize with readers who feel hesitant to go digital.
It’s worth noting, however, that unless you plan to make a quick jaunt overseas in the near future, you’ll likely have some difficulty obtaining copies of recent books in your language of choice. Not only do you have to contend with limited distribution and international copyright issues, but many booksellers can’t justify importing large numbers of a book in a foreign language. Even if you can find a copy of what you’re looking for, you’ll likely spend a small fortune to purchase it.
E-books, on the other hand, are much more affordable and easily accessible to everyone. You may still encounter limited availability from time to time, but the problem is much less severe in the digital space. If you’re a Kindle reader like I am, you might also want to give one of Amazon’s many independent publishers a shot.
I’m an avowed fan of many authors, both foreign and domestic, who’ve chosen to self-publish riveting stories you won’t find on the shelves of traditional retailers. For example, if you were looking for a great French read, I’d recommend that you check out Jacques Vandroux’s “Les Pierres Couchées”—this supernatural thriller was a favorite of mine last year.
3. Practice Your New Vocabulary
Language learning is immensely enjoyable, but it does represent a certain time commitment.
After becoming immersed in a fantastic foreign novel, I have often found myself guilty of speeding through the text rather than pausing to work on the new words I’ve discovered. Don’t fall prey to this trap, tempting as it may be to read your way to the final page in one sitting.
Instead, try to work through your vocabulary in bite-sized chunks. I’ve personally found it most useful to refer to my new vocab words after completing each new chapter. Many Kindle devices conveniently file every word you define into an app called Vocabulary Builder. You can refer to these words at any time and the devices even support flashcards for your vocab words.
Your mileage may vary with other e-readers, so be sure to read up on the features of a potential device if you’re considering a new purchase.
As much as I appreciate the innovation of digital e-readers, I do have to admit that I still find it easier to retain words with physical flashcards.
I simply copy my vocab words from my e-reader onto traditional index cards. And, of course, don’t forget to feed your reading with other language development methods throughout your day. The ongoing exposure will help take your language skills into the stratosphere!
Acquiring proficiency in a foreign language demands a hefty commitment of time and energy, but the satisfaction of speaking another language makes the sacrifice well worth it.
As you use this simple reading tool to supercharge your retention skills, you’re bound to notice a difference within a few months.
The day you find yourself reading page after page without once referring to the dictionary translation, you’ll no doubt find yourself ecstatic with the progress you’ve made.
Adam Zetterlund is a language enthusiast living in New York City. He spent five years honing his foreign language skills in Paris and London, and he currently partners with a number of international clients in a marketing capacity. Learn more by reading his blog.
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.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.