I am extremely proud to say that I completed all of my New Year’s Resolutions. Three of the four were not that difficult (I resolved to try 50 pumpkin recipes and tried 66), but one was a significant accomplishment.
On the 31st of December, in a plane from Milwaukee (I know, right?) to San Francisco, with only a few hours left in 2012, I read the last page of 哈利泼特与魔法石. I started reading in Cambodia (around New Year’s 2011) and made enough progress to convince me that finishing it was doable. I picked it up again last Christmas and made enough progress to convince me that finishing it was doable in 2012.
Chinese Harry Potter makes a great travel companion; the type and format are not nearly as child-friendly as the English publications, and my paperback copy is only 191 pages. Plus, because I read so slow, I can only make a little progress in a long transoceanic flight! For these reasons it accompanied me to Cambodia, and for those reasons I also brought it to Europe this summer (although scant progress was made).
Grad school is busy and reading in Chinese is a relatively slow, laborious, demanding task, so when Christmas break 2012 came around, I found myself with about 70 pages left and two weeks in which to read them. Even that didn’t arouse my sense of urgency; it wasn’t until I calculated that I had 35 pages left and 5 days – which meant a daily requirement of 7 pages! – that I really got my butt in gear.
By the end of this intense sprint to the finish, my reading speed had increased noticeably. Without looking words up (only underlining them to look them up later), I was reading about 7 pages an hour. Abysmally slow for me, used to reading in English, but lightning speed compared to when I first started reading in Chinese. So that helped, as did the climax of the book and the exciting finish!
I’m really proud of myself for finishing my first full-length book in another language. I had tried to read books in Spanish before, even Harry Potter, and never made it very far. Why did I succeed this time? I don’t think it was simply a matter of language skills. Here are the three main reasons to which I attribute my success:
A balance between reading and learning
If you look at my copy of Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal, you’ll find maybe 50 pages of intensely underlined text, while the rest of the book is in mint condition – because I gave up. I guess I viewed it as a textbook and insisted on looking up every single word that I didn’t know or wasn’t sure of. This slowed my reading pace to a crawl (especially because I was using a paper dictionary and keeping paper lists!) and reduced my enjoyment to exactly zero. This is why I gave up.
On my second try reading Harry Potter, this time in Chinese, I relaxed more. I allowed myself some leeway. Some words I figured out from context, and figured that they weren’t important enough to look up or learn. Some words I looked up – some while I was reading, some later. (I added over 600 new cards to my Chinese Anki deck throughout the book, so it’s not like I was slacking off! ) The truth is, you only learn from books as long as you keep reading them, and if the process is decidedly not fun, you’ll stop reading and won’t learn anything at all!
I also know that, depending on my mood and schedule, my attitude towards this balance shifted. Some days I was very curious and looked up (or underlined) lots of words; some days I went a few pages without marking anything. That would have freaked perfectionist me out when I was reading La piedra filosofal, but I’ve finally been able to embrace this flexibility.
Mimic “the reading experience”
I love to read books. I love curling up on my bed with my body pillow and reading some evenings. I love reading on our couch by the glow of the Christmas lights (that we leave up year round . . . ). I read in cars, trains, planes, buses, boats, subways, and occasionally while walking.
Therefore, if I am going to attempt to learn or study a language by reading, I have to emulate those things that I love about reading as I’ve always done it. Another mistake I made when trying to read in Spanish was to require an elaborate setup for my “reading”. I would have the Spanish book, the English book (for comparison), a dictionary, a notebook (for new words), and at least one writing utensil. This pretty much confined me to a desk or other such uncomfortable place.
At times while reading 哈利泼特 I accompanied it with my electronic dictionary or (eventually) smartphone with Pleco installed, and I always had a pencil tucked into the book, serving dual purposes as writing utensil and bookmark. Especially near the end of the year, when I was trying to get through a lot of pages every day, I merely marked new words to look up later, dispensing with all of the electronics. Then, at its most barebones, I was able to lay on the couch next the gas fireplace at home and power through an hour of reading in comfort and with great pleasure.
Of course, this required me to go back a separate time to look up words and add them to Anki, but I rather liked the separation between “reading” and “studying” times, as it made the former more enjoyable and the latter shorter :)
Good book choice
Depending on your language ability, it may seem impossible to read in a foreign language without aid of a dictionary or the English-language version for reference. Of course, I don’t think reading this way is appropriate for a beginner, but more someone at or above the intermediate level. But even then, I think it’s a good idea to have your first book be something that you’ve read before in your native language.
I say this for two reasons: First of all, the general story will be familiar enough to you that more words will become apparent through context, further saving time with the dictionary. But secondly (and perhaps more importantly), you know you like the book already. Given how slow I read in Chinese, I would be devastated if I got a third of the way into a book only to become bored and give up for pure aesthetic reasons. Think of the wasted time!
Instead, I knew that Harry Potter would keep my attention, even the nth time around. In fact, I enjoyed this time through more than I expected. Reading in a foreign language is a different experience – namely, it’s slower – and I got different things out of the book.
These were important things to learn, and I’m glad after a few tries that I finally figured out some tactics that work for me!