I’d like to tell you about a problem I’ve had until about two weeks ago: I absolutely LOVE reading, but during the year that I’ve been learning Spanish I’ve read nothing of any significance in Spanish. I’ve read the usual short paragraphs, bits of homework and other short blah-blahs, but nothing that made me feel proud and here’s why.

Mainly it’s because I’m lazy and I procrastinate, but that’s not what I want to write about today.

In my experience, these are the reading materials available to students of Spanish:

  • Newspapers and magazines (physical and online)
  • Blogs and online articles
  • Spanish Readers
  • Stuff randomly searched for on the internet
  • Children’s books
  • Adult books

Here’s why none of these have been working for me:

  • I don’t like reading newspapers and magazines and I don’t even read them in English.
  • Blogs and online articles. I wouldn’t have a clue where to begin searching for a Spanish language blog that interests me and again, I’m not much of a blog follower or article reader. I tried this once and by the time I found something worth reading in Spanish it had taken me the better part of an hour to find it. Not the best use of my study time.
  • Spanish Readers are one of my pet hates. First of all, the majority of the readers on Amazon are for absolute beginners, but above all, I think they’re just plain horrible. The topics are so mind numbingly boring that I can’t imagine myself becoming engrossed in the adventures of the donkey and the rabbit and I don’t care enough about Chilean folklore to want to read it in the original Spanish. I don’t get the impression that the folks who publish these readers have put any love into them, they simply found some old, royalty free public domain material, slapped a cover around it and called it a reader. The only exception here is the Lola Lago series by Paco Ardit, which I rather enjoyed. Lola is a private detective in Madrid and each little book sends her on a new case that needs solving. Even so, the books are written in very simple Spanish and I didn’t feel as though it was giving my brain much of a workout.  I know I’m being very harsh about readers, but considering what an important function they can serve in foreign language learning, I don’t feel that authors are taking them seriously enough or treating them with the respect they deserve. The better ones are only lukewarm at best.
  • Children’s books. I’m going to start sending ugly e-mails to people who recommend reading children’s books as a way of learning a new language. Why is it that folks think it’s going to be any easier to read? Consider this:  by the time a child can read (or be read to) she’s already fluent in her native language so kids’ books are telling stories to fluent native speakers. When I started learning Spanish a year ago I tried reading a book aimed at 3-year olds – just to see what all the fuss is about. By the time I had looked up the meaning of sentences like ‘a golden light radiated from the spaceship that had landed on the back lawn’ I decided I could just as well have looked up the meaning of ‘the body was found hanging in the basement, riddled with bullet holes and covered in blood’.  Besides, I just don’t want to read Puss in boots and Cinderella and if the three little piggies can’t agree on how to build a house then they must take their chances with the big bad wolf, I really don’t care.
  • Books for adults. Now we’re cooking on gas! I bought the Spanish translation of a Patricia Cornwell crime novel at my local Aldi over a year ago and since then it’s been sitting on my shelf, staring at me accusingly. During the past year I’ve started reading it several times, only to read the first page and realise I’m not yet up to the challenge. So it kept going back on the shelf.

Two weeks ago I decided that enough is enough and I started to read the damn book. The first ten or so pages were painful and I was a bit all over the place with my methods:

  • I started by looking up every word I didn’t know, but I soon gave that up as it was taking too much time.
  • I even had a go at translating all the text into English in my notebook, thinking it would help me understand everything but, that too, became too big a job and I gave it up.
  • Then I found my groove. Now I’m reading only to get the gist of the story and I only look up a few words or phrases on every page and only a few times have I run an entire sentence through Google Translate.

I’m happy to report that I’m absolutely flying through the book – 62 pages in 13 days. OK, not exactly flying, but definitely making very steady progress.2177g

So here’s my advice to you about reading in Spanish. Read something that’s going to interest you and it will leverage your chances of success much more heavily in your favour.

If you like to read romance novels or cookbooks or motorbike restoration guides then go out and buy one of those in Spanish. Be prepared to spend some money on it, but get what you want and don’t make do with something that’s sort of alright, free or simply conveniently available on the internet.

There are loads of websites where one can download free e-books in Spanish, but those are books that are so old they no longer enjoy copyright protection or they’re so esoteric or obscure that they’re simply being given away. Obviously, if reading Don Quixote or Aesop’s Fables in Spanish is your thing then go for it and good luck to you, but it’s not for me.

What can I say, I like reading crime novels and I always have done, ever since reading my first Nancy Drew mystery at the age of 9. That’s my thing.

So here I am reading Patricia Cornwell in Spanish and I can’t begin to tell you how well it’s working for me. In fact, yes I can tell you how well it’s working for me:

  • You know those Spanish words we all know we should know by now but we don’t know them by now? Words like ‘aunque, sino, pues, siquiera, apenas, dejar, sin embargo’ etc. We see them all the time and we know we should make the effort to memorise them, but we never get around to it. These words crop up all the time and each time I encounter one I write it at the top of the page, along with its translation and the meanings are finally starting to stick.
  • I’m starting to learn short phrases like ‘lo que sea (whatever), sea lo que sea (whatever it is), hoy en dia (nowadays) and no se da cuenta de que (he/she doesn’t realise that…)’.
  • I’m completely engaged in the story and I’m motivated to get to the end of the book because I want to find out who dunnit.
  • Above all, I’m feeling helluva pleased with myself that I’m reading a ‘proper’ book in Spanish and I can’t wait to finish so I can brag about it to my friends and family on Facebook!
  • I’ve broken the ice and now there can be no turning back. No more crappy readers and YouTube read alongs and snippets of Hola magazine. I’ve arrived onto the Spanish book reading scene and I plan to remain here forever.

Apart from my obvious happiness at finally being able to say I’m reading a novel in Spanish, there are plenty of benefits to reading in a new language:

  • It’s said that reading is more effective than watching movies. Think about it. We can spend an hour and a half watching a movie in Spanish, but how much of it do we really absorb? A word here and there and maybe a few phrases? I tend to drift off after about 30 minutes because all that concentration is hard work. When we read a word or phrase we don’t understand, we generally have the time to sit and think about it and look up the meaning. When we’re watching a movie it usually goes like this: ‘I wonder what that word means, I should look it up. Ooh wait, they’re about to kiss’. Personally, I very rarely bother to look up the meaning of words I encounter in a movie or TV programme, but while I’m reading I’m writing things down all the time.
  • We learn vocabulary in context rather than with lists of words on flashcards or spreadsheets.
  • We start to experience the language in its natural setting, rather than the artificial environment of a textbook or language guide. In other words, we start to use Spanish the way Spanish speakers use it and we start to understand how it works.
  • We begin to enjoy learning Spanish, because if we’re reading with the primary purpose of enjoying the story then the fact that we’re learning as we read is just a very beautiful added bonus.
  • Have you ever noticed how people who read a lot tend to be more articulate and speak more eloquently and they know the proper meanings of words like proletariat and ecclesiastic? It’s reading all them books whot’s done it.
  • Our brain remembers better when it sees something than when it only hears something. If you really want enormous bang for your buck then read your book out loud. In this way you get to see the words, hear the words and your brain and mouth also practise speaking the words.
  • Variety is the spice of life! The more diversity we build into our learning programme, the better we learn and reading is one of the absolute best tools we can use in this programme.

So go on then, give it a go. Read a book. I remember very clearly the feeling my 9-year old self had when I finished that first Nancy Drew mystery, because it was also the first book I ever read in English (I’m not a native English speaker). I remember reading ‘The End’ and feeling as though my world had suddenly expanded and I was somehow living a larger life. I was this little kid from a small working class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Cape Town, but now I could read about Nancy Drew who lives in America and the Famous Five who live in England and I had the reading and language skills to go and explore the big world outside the borders of my life. I felt powerful. I had to pass the local public library on my way from school to the bus stop and the next day I popped in and went to the MUCH larger English section, where I pretty much remained for the duration of my childhood. I attribute the fact that I speak very good English mostly to the fact that I read so much.

The reason I’ve told you this is because I’m experiencing that same feeling again. I’m excited to finish this book because I think it’s the magic portal that will open the world of Spanish literature for me. If I can read this one book then I can read them all. I did it once before with English and I think I’m busy doing it again with Spanish and I can’t begin to tell you how much it means to me.

Try it. Read a book. You will struggle at the beginning, but probably not as much as you fear you will and it will get easier as you go along.

Here are a few recommendations for reading your first (of many!) books in Spanish:

  • Buy a book you’ll enjoy reading. Spend the money and get the right one.
  • By reading about a topic you enjoy you learn new vocabulary related to that topic. If I were to have persevered with children’s books, Hola magazine and Spanish readers, I’d be learning vocabulary related to children, the Spanish royal family and donkeys. Instead, I know the Spanish words for fingerprints, footprints, DNA, police jurisdiction, bullet casing and forensic analysis and I’m only on page 62.
  • Maybe start with a story you’ve already read in your own language or the Spanish translation of a book you already own in your own language. The latter will be very useful as you can refer to the other book when you get stuck with the Spanish version. I’ve seen the movie of the book I’m reading now and because I know the story it doesn’t bother me so much when I don’t understand something as I know where things are headed in the end.
  • Consider buying a book that’s been translated from your native language, or from English. My book is set in the USA and it was translated from English so its setting and structure are both familiar to me, as is the style of writing. I’ve read most of Patricia Cornwell’s books so I know what to expect from her and I’ve spent my life reading American books and watching American TV so the cultural and geographical setting of the story are familiar to me. I therefore only have to contend with the Spanish language itself and not unfamiliar cultural information and possibly a different way of writing. Obviously I’ll eventually read books by Spanish writers and set in Spanish speaking countries, but that’s further down the line.
  • Buy a printed book so you can treat it like a textbook and make notes and underline stuff.
  • Read for gist. This is only your first book so don’t be tempted to try and understand every word as looking it up may take so much of your time that you start to lose interest. For now, simply be content with understanding the overall picture.
  • Start small. My book only has 200 pages, which is short by crime novel standards. If you’re faced with the prospect of wading through 600 pages then it may just become too big a job for you.
  • Start simple. If you’re a doctor then you’re better off reading a medical drama rather than a medical textbook.
  • I’ve seen it suggested that one should read while listening to the audio book version at the same time and I understand the value that such an approach can have, but it’s not for me. I’m a slow reader at the best of times and my Spanish reading is done at a snail’s pace, with lots of stopping and starting as I look up words and think about things. The audio book would go too fast for me and the whole thing would just stress me out.

I’ve given you lots to think about today but in the end it all boils down to this: find a book you’re going to love reading and then go and read it. Do it, it will change your life.

I hope your reading experience is as rewarding as I know mine will be.

Good luck and enjoy!