Transparent Language Blog

How To Enjoy Reading In A Foreign Language, Even When You Can’t Read That Language! Posted by on Nov 11, 2013 in Archived Posts

In my “Late Life Language Learning” series I was thinking mostly of older folks – like me – who might have been intimidated – as I was – at the thought of learning a language.  But starting here I’m shifting gears. I’ll begin to cover ideas, thoughts, and experiences that are relevant to any language learner, regardless of age, language, and experience level.

This time around, I want to talk about trying to have always some kind of French-language reading going on in the background of whatever was happening along my learning time line.  I started this early, because to my surprise, I discovered that even early beginner-level ability offers a glimpse behind doors that had previously been closed when I knew no French at all.

What is behind those doors?  It’s a little hard to express, but – without, I hope, getting too esoteric – for me it has to do with the extent to which the beginnings of a picture of the French culture became slowly, but increasingly, visible to me through the ways in which thoughts, ideas, stories – even the signs on the highways and in the parks – are expressed in French.  I’ll leave it there for now, but I think you’ll see what I mean in what I’m about to tell you.

I think it was in the sixth grade that, on rainy no-outside-recess days, my teacher began reading to the class a translation of Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”  We eventually got through the whole book (it must have been a rainy winter!), and I had really enjoyed the story.  So when I saw in a Paris bookstore Verne’s name on a book with the title ”Vingt Mille Lieues sous les Mers,” I thought, “Aha!”, and I bought it.  And I started “reading” it – sort of.  I can’t even guess my comprehension level, but it was pretty low.

But – and this is my point – it didn’t matter!  Particularly since I had known the story since sixth grade, I could identify in the French version the stretches of text where the things I knew were going to happen, actually did happen.  Besides that, I took full advantage of the wonderful fact that there are so many cognates – words in the two languages that both mean (pretty much) the same thing and that look alike.

Helpful Hint:  But to trip you up there are also the “faux amis” – “false friends” –   words that look alike but that might mean quite different things.  “Banc” means “bench,” for example, not “bank.”

But back to my story:  Separately from all that, for me it was just hugely fun to become re-acquainted, in Verne’s very own French, with this great work of early science fiction, which I had first met so many years ago.  And I – monolingual since birth – was actually reading in another language!  Granted, it took me over a month to get through it, and I nearly wore out my dictionary.  (Full disclosure – I also skipped some of the long descriptions.)  But it got me started, and now I am never without having at least a couple of French-language books going as background to whatever French learning activities in which I might be involved – and in the ‘tween times, too, when, I have nothing formal under way.

You understand, I am sure, that the amount of information actually arriving in my brain from that early reading was pretty slim, but it has been increasing as my vocabulary grows and my grasp of the details of the grammar and structure evolves slowly.  I had to accept the certainty that at first I would miss most of the wonderful subtleties and innuendos that good writing offers, and that following, crudely, the basic story line would have to do.

Then, into my life from another direction entirely came “Le Petit Nicolas”!  Think of a French “Dennis the Menace,” though that comparison really fails to do justice to the sparkling prose of René Goscinny and the simple but inspired illustrations of Jean-Jacques Sempé.  It was our first French tutor, Pico, who gave it to us, but it is a well-established classic in France.

Written in the language of the French schoolboy, Nicolas, this collection of first-person narrations of his day-to-day adventures at home, at school, among his friends, and with his parents is a perfect early read for a French learner – and it is screamingly funny!  Because the stories are purportedly being told by an eighth-grader, the formal vocabulary used is not very challenging, and yet it introduces a few words of informal French as well.  The dictionary says that “chouette” (pronounced “sweat” – almost) means “owl,” but it can also mean “cool!” – and it’s a favorite word of Nicolas’!

Helpful Hint:  Meanings change with context. When you are in the butcher shop, the word “tranche” is much more likely to mean a “slice” of something edible than it is to mean a “partial loan disbursement” (another translation).  So – knowing the context is a huge tip-off as to what that intimidating pile of still-foreign-looking text might be trying to convey.

At the other end of the vocabulary-difficulty scale is anything by Victor Hugo.  I’m ashamed to tell you how long I have been carrying around on my Kindle “Notre Dame de Paris” (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), but I am less ashamed to tell you that native French speakers agree that it is a difficult read.

What else?  Well, a daily email of the headlines from “La Figaro” is available, free, and is great practice on current-events-based material.  There’s Flaubert’s boring (sorry, but it is) “Madame Bovary” – it’s a classic, of course, but I get impatient with it.

High on the list for me is “Les Misérables,” a rewarding read, though its length makes it a major challenge.  Read the last chapter, anyway, and if that’s too much, read the last few pages, which contain the short epitaph of Jean Valjean.  I have read those four lines a thousand times, and they still bring tears to my eyes – but only in the original French.  The real sense, message, and feeling in this passage are a perfect demonstration that there are passages in French that are untranslatable to English.

You might not like my list, so feel free to make your own choices. But read, and keep reading, whatever else you might be doing (or not doing) to advance your ability in French.  I promise you, you will learn more than the French language.

So – what would you add to, or use instead of, my list of French background reading materials?


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  1. Lynn:

    Le petit prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

  2. Nathan:

    Great article! I found it via a retweet from the Latin language blog. I must admit I have not studied French since Middle School, but I have been studying Italian since my honeymoon in Tuscany about 8 or so years ago and I have recently added in Latin and I love the idea of tackling some serious reading! I might have to finally get that Italian ed of La Commedia by Dante or the Aenid by Virgil and see what I can make out of them (like you with Verne, I’ve read both several times in English). Thanks for the great tip!

    • Luke:

      @Nathan Hi Nathan,
      Unless you are totally fluent in Italian, I don’t think, as an Italian mother tongue (and a poor English learner :-)), that it is a good idea start reading La Divina Commedia by Dante. It was written in an “old-fashioned” Italian which is very difficult to read and understand even for a mother tongue, and it is not, by far, the language we speak and write nowadays. Having attending a few other blogs and language exchange websites, I already met some Italian learners who wanted “La Commedia” to be even their first Italian reading!!
      I tried to dissuade and to explain them why it was a “bad” idea. Anyway, La Divina Commedia” is beautiful 🙂

  3. David Peter:

    I do this too. Currently I’m working my way through Jean Failler’s Mary Lester detective stories set in Brittany but have recently acquired a couple of books by Philippe Claudel. I had seen his film ‘I’ve Loved You So Long’ with sub-titles and had read Brodeck’s Report in English translation and then happended on ‘La petite fille de Monsieur Linh’ which is excellent for the inexperienced reader. I will follow this with ‘Les Ames grises’ and ‘L’Enquete’

  4. Jim:

    This article is so very true.

    I’m currently reading plays by Anton Chekov in the original Russian text. (A beautiful old book from the 50’s.)
    My level of understanding is not very high, but it’s increasing my vocabulary exponentially and reading Cyrillic text is becoming second nature to me.

  5. Simi Silva:

    At the moment, I am reading this book in Hindi – बाइबल असल में क्या सिखाती है?

  6. Fred:

    Nice article, although I’m working on my Japanese skills which makes your technique quite challenging, but being French I smiled when you talked about Le Petit Nicolas which was one of my favorite books growing up ( I read it like 10 times over which is quite an accomplishment for a 10 years old boy lol).
    If you like challenges, any Emile Zola book is on par with Victor Hugo.
    The ultimate challenge would be Gargantua by Rabelais ( The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel/La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel) which is written in old French. My younger brother, when in junior high, had to read it for his French class. I opened it just to read a few line, didn’t understand a line, told him he should have bought a version in modern French since he wouldn’t understand much. I felt sorry for him when he told me that it was the only version …
    Anyways, great post, loved it. Good luck with your studies.

    ~A French man~

  7. Amy:

    While I do not study French, I grew up with a very fluent French teacher, and as a result ended up reading a bit in the language whether I wanted to or not. One of my favorites when I was little was a series of comic books called “Une Auenture d’Asterix le Gaulois”. If you haven’t ever read any of the books from that series, I would highly recommend them. They are delightful, fun, and, unfortunately for me, a bit of a challenge. There are only two negative things about the series–one, they are getting harder to find (they were originally from the 1960s, I believe??) and two, they are written in a bit of an odd French dialect which is heavily romanized. If you know a little Latin it shouldn’t be an issue, but even French speakers have evidently been known to be stumped by a word here or there. However, you can follow it easily without being overly proficient in the dialect, or even in French (in my case). 🙂

  8. Judy:

    I would include Le Petit Prince, the most beautiful story which anyone can understand.

  9. Richard Mills:

    All great comments and suggestions!
    The mention of Saint-Exupery reminds me of “Vol du Nuit,” a huge favorite, and one that really speaks to me, a former USAF and civilian-life pilot. It is a realistic depiction of a not-unusual tragedy of the era — and is marvelously written, of course. It was an early attempt for me, but I was patient, and I learned a lot of vocabulary in getting through it.
    It’s very re-readable, and I’m overdue for a re-visit.

  10. Paul:

    Yes but this only applies to latin based languages.

    I’m a beginner in Arabic and it is impossible to do as you say.

  11. Jean:

    I started working on my French listening to the music of Jaques Brel and Georges Brassens. When you listen repeatedly, it begins to grow on you what the songs mean, and helps with pronunciation too.
    For books I read detective stories which must have been originally written in French ( not translations) and must be modern – no earlier than Simenon-. the framework of a detective story – policier-helps you to follow the gist of the story, even when there are quite a few words you don’t understand. I then went on to listen to french audiobooks, again policiers….I have developed yhe vocabulary of a tueur-en- serie though 🙁

    • Dick Mills:

      @Jean Jean,
      I’ve just (belatedly) spotted your comment about Jacques Brel, and Simenon, both of which speak to me. I have to re-listen every now and then on YouTube to Brel’s performance of his “Marike” — a great song (though he mixes quite a bit of Flemish into the lyrics).
      Simenon is another personal favorite read, but I know what you mean about becoming better equipped to converse with serial killers than with the general Parisian public! 🙂

  12. Christina:

    I have just purchased by first children’s book “Je suis petite, moi?” from Amazon. I’m just starting to learn French as an “older adult” and though it a good place to start. I has English translation to help. I will have to add Le petite Nicolas to my list of French books.

  13. Tiny:

    This sounds very hopefull. I am a polish learner. Can somebody advise me a titel of a polish book I can read?

  14. ric:

    I was stuck with no reading material in Bali other than a Wallender novel – one of the scandie noir series of detective stories by Henning Mankell – in French. I knew some French but was genuinely staggered by how much I could understand. The secret is to read and then re read – the power of context is amazing.

  15. Rob:

    Excellent article, esp. concerning gradual expansion of vocabulary and grammatical understanding, and cultural revelations. My favourite: Simenon’s Maigret stories.

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