I often note that the more I read in a given language the more at ease I become speaking it. And this unofficial observation (which many polyglots would subscribe to) is supported by tons of research on second language acquisition.
Reading in a foreign language helps to increase one’s vocabulary, develops spelling intuition and results in superior writing skills. In fact, learners can read books in their target language from day one (if its writing system allows to do so). After the first couple of weeks full of frustration, they as one begin to understand what they read and have fun.
There is only one problem with this approach. How can you find foreign language books that would be both interesting, easy to understand and accessible?
In this post, I attempt to resolve this mystery. I share 5 resources I use to ensure that I always have stuff to read in a language I learn.
Explore the public domain
Acquiring books in another language may seem like a solid investment. However, it is not always the case, especially, if you know where to find them for free (and didn’t break the law on the way).
Under the US copyright law, all books published in States before 1924 are in the public domain. It means that you can download hundreds of thousands of books, some of which are real masterpieces of the world’s literature, absolutely for free.
What all of this has to do with language learning?
Not all works published in the US are in English. In fact, websites like Gutenberg.org contain a huge collection of public domain books in other languages. Currently, the Project Gutenberg offers free literature in more than 60 tongues. The most extensive collections are in French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Swedish, Tagalog, Esperanto, Greek, and Latin.
It means that you can read Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo in French, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis in German and Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote in Spanish – as well as Aristotle’s On the Soul in Greek – without having to buy the actual book. Moreover, the website actively replenishes its audiobook inventory – so sometimes you find both a book and an audiobook of the same title.
Translations of good old English classics – Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Poe, Robert Luis Stevenson – are also out there in the public domain. And I found reading the Spanish translation of Stevenson’s The Treasure Island to be easier than reading, say, Cervantes.
Find foreign language books in a library
Yes. Library. No joke.
Living in the most multilingual city gives me a leg up when I need to find foreign language books. Toronto Library System has a huge collection of titles in all sorts of languages. So I can borrow books, audiobooks and even full language programs, such as Pimsleur, in whatever language I am interested in.
So if you didn’t step in your hometown library since high school times, maybe it’s time to reassess the situation and pay a visit.
But what can really change the way you look at libraries is OverDrive.
For me, it is like having a library in my pocket. With this service, I can borrow foreign language books right from the screen of my e-reader. (I have Kobo Aura ONE that fully supports OverDrive). My library card number is all I need to start searching through an immense collection of titles in German (200 thousand), Russian (150 thousand), Spanish (110 thousand), Chinese (85 thousand), French (50 thousand), Japanese (40 thousand) and many more world languages.
The “Library-Kobo-OverDrive” combo is surely a better way to find multilingual reading than perusing the public domain catalogs. OverDrive gives you access to more modern literature. And New York Times bestsellers such as Educated in its numerous translations are more likely to keep you glued to the screen of your e-reader than, say, The Letters to Atticus by Cicero.
Get a digital copy
Feeding your language learning bug with borrowed national bestsellers may sound appealing, and it is so. But obviously, there is always that other side of the coin:
#1: your choice really depends on your hometown library system. If it doesn’t have the book you want to read in a language you want to learn, you are off.
#2: you often have to wait for weeks to get a popular title. And ironically, it is the case even for digital copies of books.
That’s why I prefer to buy foreign language books: both digital and paperback.
Sadly, bookstores rarely have anything similar to what could be called “full-fledged foreign language section”. So the major supplier of all my language learning books is typically the good old Amazon.
The American website offers almost a hundred thousands titles on different tongues. If you can’t find a particular book in a specific language, there is always a chance to dig it out in another locale. For example, you can go to .es (or .mx) for Spanish titles, to .fr (or .ca) for French ones, and to .jp for Japanese.
Buying a Kindle version of a book is probably the best deal. First of all, you’re not paying for delivery – which saves you between $10 and $20 when you order from another locale. Second, on Amazon, owners of a digital Kindle copy get a good discount on the Audible narration of the same title.
This last option is perfect for language learners. WhisperSync not only allows you to switch between reading and listening but also do both at the same time (see the Double Input method).
Download an audiobook
Not all titles on Amazon would have an accompanying audiobook. But the opposite is also true. Not all Audible audiobooks would have Kindle or even paperback counterparts.
How is it even possible, you might be thinking.
Let me give you an example. One of the best deals on Audible at the moment is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection narrated by Stephen Fry. Four novels and five collections of short stories comprise more than 70 hours of professional narration of literally the best detective story of all times. This collection simply doesn’t exist as a separate paperback or digital edition. Instead, you would have to buy all the titles separately: A Study of Scarlet, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles and so on. But with Audible all Sherlock Holmes is yours!
I wish this offer existed when I was learning English.
Nevertheless, similar deals exist on other languages. For example, learners of Spanish can pick up 20-hour long Criadas y Senoras (which is the translation of the brilliant American novel The Help). And learners of French will certainly enjoy 17-hour long translation of Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.
Whatever your target language is, start your search from Non-English Audiobooks on Audible.
Go analog: get a paperback copy
I love my Kobo, I love WhisperSync and I would love to save trees. But none of this can stop me from buying foreign language books in paperback format. To justify myself I’ll do what I usually do and just cite Kato Lomb:
“I still recommend buying your own books for language learning. They can be spiced with underlines, question marks, and exclamation points; they can be thumbed and dog-eared, plucked to their essential core, and annotated so that they become a mirror of yourself. And what shall you write in the margins?”
Kato Lomb, With Languages in Mind: Musings of a Polyglot
True, an e-reader may be a more convenient option for language learning. Kindle and Kobo models can translate words from most European languages with just one click. Translating words from a paperback book would be a more time-consuming enterprise, since you would have to use your smartphone. E-books are also easier to integrate with audiobooks, as it has been successfully proven by Amazon’s WhisperSync. Finally, digital books are cheaper.
So, logically, there is absolutely no reason to buy foreign language books in paperback format (to the exception of severe cases of bibliophilia, such as mine).
But if you share my love for real printed books, you’ll want to have your foreign language reading in paperback. And this, again, would lead you to the Amazon’s foreign language books department with its 90 000 titles. Delivery will cost you, but it would still be cheaper than buying the same book in some international airport.
Where to find foreign language books
For some, reading books in other languages is a major language learning strategy. For others, it is just a way to maintain their knowledge of that tongue. In either case, using the following resources will help you to achieve your goals:
The Project Gutenberg – to download free public domain books;
Overdrive – to borrow specific titles from a library;
Amazon – to buy foreign language books in digital or paperback formats;
WhisperSync – to get both a book and a audiobook for simultaneous reading and listening;
Audible – to boost up your listening skills with audiobooks.
You don’t have to stick to just one option. Switching between different reading styles (from a book to an audiobook to simultaneous reading) helps to keep things simpler. So stay flexible.
Image Credits: Photo by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash