Why Read in a Foreign Language

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

When I finally made the move to declare Spanish as a second major during university, part of my self-imposed language-studies-in-earnest plan included reading anything and everything I could find in Spanish: not only so-called classics, but also newspapers, shampoo bottles, signage and travel-guides.

Years later, here I am in Barcelona, going through almost exactly the same process, but with Barcelona’s local language, Catalan, in the meanwhile doing my best to continue consuming books in Spanish.

Why do I do it? Because reading in Spanish and Catalan offer a chance to learn vocabulary and syntax that are less common in spoken language; because reading provides the language-learner with a real and useful insight into the culture associated with the language itself.

Reading Great Works in their Original Language

Who hasn’t dreamed of reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ 100 Years of Solitude in its original Spanish, or Rimbaud’s “A Dream for Winter” in French?  Everyone has heard about what’s “lost in translation”, but only a select few who make the effort to read a work in its original language can truly grasp exactly how much. In language, there is too often no such thing as an exact translation, and translators often have to search valiantly for whatever words and phrases they deem as closest to the spirit of the original text–hence the abundance of translated versions of great works of literature. You can verify said abundance by doing a quick Amazon search for English versions of the Odyssey.

What’s lost in translation aside, there’s a certain pride in being able to claim having read Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” in German, because even if you didn’t understand every word, at least you were able to capture a feeling, a glimmer of how a great philosopher thought and wrote in his own language, on his own cultural and linguistic ground.

Improving your Vocabulary, Grammar and Comprehension

Reading in a foreign language improves your vocabulary, grammar and comprehension in a way that even study-abroad and immersion in the everyday culture can’t. The language used in day-to-day speech, on the radio, and on television is very useful, but as a general rule, more limited and less varied than the language you’ll encounter in books, newspapers and magazines, not to mention riddled with grammatical errors.

Just as reading in your native language improves your vocabulary, grammar and language comprehension as a whole, reading in a foreign language does the same for your skill set in that language. This is easily observed in the case of bilingual individuals that use one of their languages exclusively in the home, and the other for public and academic life. While they can converse fluently and talk about everyday happenings, certain vocabulary and grammatical rules escape them, and their writing skills are likely to suffer—this from personal experience. In Barcelona, I’m surrounded by speakers of Spanish and Catalan, but only reading noticeably improves my command of the two languages in their written form.

Widening your Cultural and Literary Horizons

Reading classics in their original language is a great way to widen your horizons in a literature or culture, but it is far from the only way. Any content written in a foreign language will offer a deeper insight into how people think and write in the culture associated with that language.

An interesting tactic for learning more about the differences in culture and literature between two languages is to read books in both original and translated versions. Case in point: while reading Spanish translations of David Sedaris’ books, I was very entertained by footnotes explaining plays on words and concepts that didn’t translate well into Spanish or weren’t present in Spanish culture. For example “Holidays on Ice” isn’t a play on words in Spanish, so in Spain, the collection of short stories was sold as “Oh, Blanca Navidad” or Oh, White Christmas. This type of reading and analysis is particularly interesting with poetry, where in some editions you can read the original and translated poems side-by-side, as well as online versions of bilingual newspapers and magazines where you can read the same articles in two languages.

Have you ever read books or other publications in a foreign language?  Is there a book you’re dying to read in its original version?

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Chris Ciolli: A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

Photo: Some rights reserved by africatrip2039.

6 Replies to “Why Read in a Foreign Language”

  1. I live in South Florida, so I’m always sort of jealous of all the bilingualism around me. I only speak English fluently, and I never really kept up with any of the other languages I was learning in school. I’d like to learn French sometime, seeing as there are so many great French writers out there to admire. I listen to a lot of French singers too, so this would obviously make even more sense. Haha.

    1. Bilingualism is an amazing thing. Did you know the BBC has free online beginners’ courses in French, Spanish, and German? Might be a place to start…. Of course, in Florida, why not pursue learning a little bit of Spanish, too. It’s practical and could spice up your life. There are lots of amazing Spanish writers and musicians as well. I particularly enjoy the Spanish musical groups Ojos de Brujo, Macaco, and Muchachito Bomba. If you want a nice mixture of French and Spanish, try Manu Chao (a French singer with Spanish roots).

      1. Thanks for the suggestions! Spanish was always required in school for me, ever since I was really young. And I think, because of that, I’ve developed a resistance to it. It’s almost too easy at this point. I don’t know it fluently, but I want something different. I’m a difficult person, apparently.

        1. Ha. Well, there’s something to be said for being a difficult person. It may help you look for more challenges in life, and that’s a good thing. French is very challenging, in my opinion. The pronunciation is quite difficult. But I say, go for it!

  2. Knowing something about a foreign language also helps with interpreting your own language. As an example, I was reading a transcript of a letter an ancestor wrote about his life and family members. The original was in script and the transcript was typed. He wrote as he spoke, since he was not well educated. The transcriber typed the word “Clements” which caused a flurry of activity about who the Clements were in our family, since that name was not familiar.

    I have a habit acquired from my school days when I read French translations – I always look up words that don’t seem to make any sense in context and read the original if available. I did a similar thing with the family transcript – what could he have said that would make sense? What word could he have been pronouncing and attempting to spell? I looked at the original document. Those who knew him at the time would have known that he was talking about a family legal dispute, and the word was not “Clements” but “claimants.” Knowing something about other languages is invaluable and helps in unusual ways.

    1. Context, context, context. You’re so right, Cynthia. Context is more than just a word’s place in a sentence. The culture of the language and the person who speaks it, are also important in finding a reliable meaning. When I first started studying languages, I found that the study of another language, made me more aware of how the nuts and bolts of my own language worked….

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