Thursday, June 10, 2010

side-by-side reading: a foreign-language-learning hack

I honestly think this is a kind of brilliant idea - at least, I would think so if it hadn't taken me so stinkin' long to come up with it when it's really sort of obvious.  In other words, I'd think I was brilliant except for that I'm slow and oblivious. (Also? I'm guessing this has been done before. Which makes me slow, oblivious and behind-the-times.)

Anyway. One of the things I'm doing to work on my Spanish is reading novels in Spanish. At first, I tried El Leon, La Bruja y El Armario, thinking that because I was so familiar with the story, I wouldn't have to resort to the dictionary that often to figure out words I didn't know.

This turned out to be half of a good idea. It did work, to a limited extent. 

But I discovered something even better: if you're reading a novel in translation (and I'm hoping to get to Spanish novels actually composed in Spanish eventually, but I'm starting with the training wheels on by reading novels in Spanish that I've read before in English), the simplest way to look up words you don't know isn't to have the dictionary by your side, it's to have the English version of the novel by your side.

So I'm over halfway through Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal, and the way I'm doing it is by reading the Spanish version, but keeping the English one open to the same chapter (see header picture for an example), so that when I come across words I don't know, I can re-read the paragraph in English and figure out what they mean. Then I usually re-read the Spanish paragraph, to cement the unknown words+meanings in my mind.

I do have to be careful to direct myself back to the Spanish version! I read so much more slowly in Spanish than I do in English, and I'm enjoying the story so much that it's tempting to just go for The Sorcerer's Stone instead of La Piedra Filosofal, but the fact that I'm enjoying the story is really what makes this work for me. I'm motivated to find out what happens next (I haven't read the book in about ten years, and I've forgotten a lot of the plot) and that keeps me nose to the grindstone. It's the carrot.

Hope this is helpful to someone else! It's really a low-pain way to get in some extra practice in the foreign language of your choice. To break it down:

1) Pick a novel you've read before and really like. Something fun, so that you'll be willing to keep going when it's hard. Something you haven't read for awhile, so you want to hear it again. And, most importantly, something that's been translated into your target language!

2) Get a copy of the novel in both your target language AND your native language.

3) Read the books side by side. As much as possible, read only in your target language. But when you come across words or phrases you don't know, reread the paragraph in your native language. Then reread it in the target language, so your brain can practice understanding the unfamiliar words.

4) Be a bit hard on yourself. Before you go to the English translation, try really hard to figure out/remember the definition of the target-language phrases. You might surprise yourself.

Anyone else working on a foreign language out there?

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell


MomCO3 said...

In one of my favorite biographies, Carry on Captain Bowditch, Nathaniel Bowditch teaches himself Latin, French (and maybe a third language, I can't remember) using side-by-side Bibles, beginning with the Gospel of John.

Tienne said...

I have really had quite a bit of success learning foreign languages by watching soap operas. (Though I blush a bit to admit this.) The storylines are simple enough that you can follow them even if you don't understand word one of the language, and I think hearing the spoken word in the way that a native speaker communicates is invaluable. Ideally, you'd have English subtitles at the bottom, but I honestly learned quite a bit of Croatian by watching a Spanish soap opera with Croatian subtitles, even though I didn't speak either language fluently. If you can tolerate all the drama, I recommend El Clon, which is a Spanish soap opera about a Muslim woman in love with a Western man and the trouble they have in finding a place where their love can flourish. Oh, and there's also a clone...hence the title. It IS a soap opera, after all!

Queen of Carrots said...

I love Carry on, Mr. Bowditch!

Right now in Spanish I'm still at the Go Dog, Go! level of parallel reading, but I am noticing a little more comfort with basic verb forms.

Jessica said...

Annie, I just bought myself a proper Spanish Bible! I was amazed because I was able to get a nice paperback one (in the translation my fluent sister approved) for only $5. I'm planning on taking it to church and tracking along with the scripture readings in it.

Tienne - I think that's great! I actually have an acquaintance who learned English by watching daytime TV (she was Russian).

Queen of Carrots - If you're as far as Go, Dog, Go! you're well on the way. Think how many things you're able to say with just those simple verbs and nouns!