Language Learning: Recommended Reading

I only read short stories.  When you read for pleasure, you’ll start acquiring vocabulary by the bucket-full.  When I read short stories, it doesn’t matter if I start out by looking up almost every word, because I CAN SEE THE END.  I know that when I get to the end, there will be some kind of resolution or realization… unlike news articles, which lead with all the important information and then piddle out into specifics, speculation, and man-on-the-street reactions.  I do read novels occasionally, but if I don’t get some action or resolution within a few pages, I lose interest, and reading becomes a chore.  With short stories, you can read and finish and feel that sense of accomplishment before that feeling of “this is a chore” sets in.  

Here are the short stories I read, when I was studying these langauges:

  • In French I read short stories by Guy de Maupassant, and Alphonse Daudet… and more recently, Le Petit Nicolas.  These are all very charming.  I think I read Pagnol’s full-length novel Jean de Florette to see if I could, but getting through it seemed like a chore and it didn’t stick with me much.  French teachers always want to you to read articles about unrest in the Parisian suburbs; which, while a very important and worthwhile topic, turns me off to reading in French.  And to the French language.  And to France, and French people in general.  I’ll stick with Lettres de Mon Moulin for now, thank you.
  • In Italian, I read Racconti Popolari Italiani, which is basically a lot of folk tales, many involve wish-granting talking fish. I remember reading that while in Rome, and then for the two weeks I had back home before moving to Ann Arbor for graduate school.  After that, Spanish became my dominant language and I didn’t have much time for Italian… I do miss it.  
  • In Spanish, I read microcuentos, micro-short-stories.  These are amazing, because Latin American writers (Denevi, Benedetti, Rulfo, Borges, Cortazar, García Márquez… they all took microcuentos as seriously as novels, so they pack a real literary punch.  Here, just get the anthology.  Or this anthology.  Or this anthology.
  • In Chinese, I’m reading some graded readers:  Tales and Traditions, Chinese Breeze, and a few short stories collections we found in a bookstore in Taipei. I’m not sure what happens when my reading level advances past intermediate; I hope I can find more to read on my kindle.  

Yes, I consume other forms of written media, but short stories are the best, and the shorter the better, for my attention span.  I do watch videos in the target language, feature-length and youtube shorts, and yes, I do occasionally enjoy popular music.  But short stories are the way to go.  At first it seems like you’re looking up every word, but keep at it and before you know it, you’ll be skipping the dictionary.

 One thing:  people who don’t have experience (or don’t remember) learning a second language are always telling me, JUST READ CHILDREN’S BOOKS,  as if they didn’t totally just make that up, as if they knew what they were talking about.  As if there were people in the world who’s grammar, vocabulary, and interest level were somehow served by Clifford el gran perro colorado.  

Here’s my advice:  read for pleasure, and you will become literate.  If that means Bonsoir Lune, then by all means.  But if you’re interested in reading something where the author was trying to entertain and engage adults, then you have my recommendations above.

7 thoughts on “Language Learning: Recommended Reading

  1. I forgot how life changing my first reading of “Wrong Wrong Wrong!” was. And what was the book about the conjoined twins named “Left” and “Right”? Those Chinese Breeze books were effective though: I couldn’t put them down because the plots and the illustrations were so bad.

    The content at Chinese Reading World (http://chinesereadingworld.org/) isn’t fantastic either, but it’s graded, there’s a lot, and it’s free.

    • Nathan, believe it or not, I started with Wrong Wrong Wrong as well, and read all the elementary levels. I tried reading Green Phoenix–actually, I read the whole thing–and at the end I thought, um, I missed something. Now that I’m solidly reading intermediate level I’ll give it another go.

      Thanks for the link to Reading World, I’ll check it out when I get home. Thanks for reading!

      • My thoughts too… once I finish these books I plan to move onto the non-abridged versions of those short stories, should definitely be some electronic formats of those out there.

  2. I LOVE Le Petit Nicolas! C’est chouette! I totally agree with your approach and will definitely check out your other recommendations. Any thoughts on dual-language books? Easy to read on-the-go, but I find they make me a little lazy so I’m torn about getting more. Thanks for the suggestions!

  3. Thank you for another great post JP,

    I am currently learning French (Intermediate) and Spanish (Beginner) simultaneously (English, Italian and German before that thoughout my education), and what I’ve decided to do is to get the same book of short stories or a novel, and read it in these different languages, compare translations, stylistic choices etc.
    At the moment, I am reading “The feast of the Goat” by Llosa in English and would love to be able to read it in original (however, I am on my fourth lesson of Spanish, so I am probably overenthusiastic 😀 ) Even though I am just a newbie in Spanish, it amazes me how much easier it is for me to understand written Spanish, than French, I wonder why that is? And how much easier is learning Spanish after learning French for a while.
    Anyway, thanks for the reading suggestions, I will definitely check out Marco Denevi.

    And a reading suggestion from me: books by Junot Diaz, all three of them, lot of Spanish words inside, sometimes it was quite a challenging read.
    I love his approach to this, in an interview, he said he put lot of Spanish words in his text, without translation, footnotes etc., because he trusts the readers to be able to understand the context, and hopefully, interest them to look deeper.
    A reader shouldn’t receive everything served, sometimes reading can(should?) be approached as studying, not only leisure.
    An example from his book “This is how you lose her”:
    “Both your father and your brother were sucios.”
    Ok, so, I know a sucio is nothing good to start with. A bastard, a prick, a cheater, but what exactly?
    Great way to learning dirty words used by Dominican men. Well… 😀

    Melisa

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