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The Joys of Reading in Your Second Language

I have always loved English and whenever I got the chance, I watched films and series with subtitles to hear the language, to drink in the atmosphere that sometimes can be conveyed only when what’s coming out of the actor’s mouth is his or her original voice. Nowadays, it’s a rule! Original language and no subtitles for a good measure. That said, watching a South Korean film, subtitles are still a must.

As far as books are concerned, though, I have to admit that it wasn’t until about 5 years ago, when I was 19 and working as a summer au pair in Denmark, that I picked up a book written in English and dived into its pages. To be even more honest, it was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, a beloved novel that I had already read five times in Czech, my mother tongue. (One of the reasons I decided to read it was probably the fact that I had already devoured all Czech books that I brought with me but hey, who needs to know that). The point is that I knew the book almost by heart so reading it in English for the first time wasn’t as hard as I expected. When you’ve read something several times, you don’t necessarily need to understand every word to enjoy reading it in a different language. People were telling me that they always underline words they don’t know and look them up. Well, ok, good for you but I won’t be scribbling into a book! Nevertheless, I spent a good amount of time looking up words and phrases and idioms that baffled me.

Soon I got fed up though. You simply can’t have a good time reading when you are flipping through the dictionary or bothering people around with questions like ‘What does he mean by ‘go boil your head’?’ half the time. Also, chances are you come across that particular expression more than once so you’ll eventually get the meaning from the context without spoiling your bookish moments with dictionary interludes.

And so, by means of understanding things from the context and, in this particular case knowing the novels from cover to cover, I had managed to read first four Harry Potter books in the month that I had left in the stunning part of Denmark.

Afterwards I jumped right into The Lord of the Rings series, which I had read seven times in Czech before (I am a Tolkien freak and I am not afraid to admit it!). Then, finally, I ventured into the unmapped waters and while spending another summer away, in Ireland this time, I read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Oh well, even though I knew what the book was about before I started, I found it quite difficult to follow – due to it being written in English and my reluctance to resort to dictionary for every word I didn’t recognize. But it got better. As I was working my way through the book, words and phrases I perceived as completely alien when I first saw them, became familiar and soon they made as much sense as any Czech word would.

My advice would be to take it slow when you decide to pick up a book that isn’t written in your mother tongue. Even if you’ve been learning the language for years, it’s always going to be an utterly different experience reading in that language than in your own. Do look up words you don’t understand if you need to but all in moderation. Otherwise you may find that your nose is buried in the wrong book or screen for that matter. As with everything, practice is essential. The more books I’ve read in English, the more films and series I’ve watched, the more people I’ve talked to, the more confident I’ve got. Having said that, English is a wonderful language with a rich vocabulary and so, even though I started with English when I was 8, I sometimes find myself wondering ‘what was that supposed to mean?’. Even so, I am now so used to reading in English that I find it strange to read in Czech…or write…or watch TV…or speak (but shh, don’t tell my parents!). 

Posted in Blog by Carmen Jimenez