Reading books in another language

I’ve recently been challenged to post 10 book covers on Facebook that have ‘rocked my world’ and it got me thinking about reading books in foreign languages.

Before I start singing the praises of reading books in a foreign language, I have to say this loudly and clearly… it’s really hard! I find it takes me at least twice as long to read a book in another language, and it takes more than twice as much determination to finish reading the book as it does when I read one in English. But then the sense of achievement when I finish it is probably about 10 times as great … so it’s all worth the effort in the end!

However hard it may be, though, I truly believe that reading a book in a foreign language gives you so much more than reading a book in your first language. Here are 5 reasons why it’s amazing to read a book in another language:

  1. The demands on your brain for starters are much greater, so surely that’s got to be beneficial, right?
  2. Reading foreign language books gives you access to worlds that English-language books don’t – what better way to gain an insider’s view into a country than to read a book written in the language of that country?
  3. The same goes for history. As someone who is a bit of a history nerd, I love learning about the life and times of people in other countries through books written at the time in those countries.
  4. It increases your vocabulary 100-fold and takes you away from the common vocabulary regularly listed in GCSE or even A Level specifications.
  5. You get to be a bit smug when someone recommends a great book, or a new film comes out, and you can say ‘oh yes, I read that in the original language’!!

So, here are some ideas for French and German books that I have read and loved. With the exception of ‘Harry Quebert’, they are quite short, so are a great jumping-off point if you’ve never read a book in these languages. (Incidentally, they’re also all available in English, and therefore ideal for ‘parallel reading’, where you have the English and foreign language versions of the books open at the same time and switch between the two.)

On the Facebook challenge, I posted the cover of Thomas Mann’s Tod in Venedig, which was one of the books I studied at university and one that has always stayed with me. Just hearing the name of the novella transports me to the heat of the Venetian summer, the desperation of the protagonist, the innocence of the beautiful young boy he develops an obsession with. To this day, I still can’t see a man with dyed black hair without picturing the tragic end to the story and feeling a little bit sad.

Other foreign language books I have read in recent years, that I would highly recommend are:

Petit Pays‘ by Gaël Faye, which is set during the 1990s genocide in Burundi and Rwanda, and is as beautiful as it is shocking.

La Verité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert‘ by Joël Dicker, a thriller that is so exciting and past-paced, I must confess I switched to the English version of the book halfway through, just so I could race through it and find out what happened!

+UPDATE+ This amazing book has recently been turned into a TV show, starring the very lovely Patrick Dempsey!

Tschick‘ by Wolfgang Herrndorf, about a young boy and his friend, who ‘steal’ a car and drive around Germany in it. I laughed out loud a lot while reading this story and have recommended it numerous times to German learners ever since.

Having said all this, I still think there is a huge amount to be said for reading English translations of books by foreign language writers. You are still immersed in a different world, you still gain insights into the culture and who knows… if you read a book in English first, you could be inspired to re-read it or delve into more books by the same author in the original language!

My next challenge to myself is listening to an audiobook in French, German or Spanish and I’m always on the lookout for great new books, so let me know your recommendations!