​The Armchair Linguist comments on: Choosing L2 books and audiobooks

One of the many weapons in our arsenal as second language learners is to read books in our target language. When we first start our journey with a given language, we're usually far from being able to read everyday prose in it. We read paragraphs in textbooks, or exercises in learning apps. As we start to acquire a serviceable size of vocabulary, however, reading something "real" is a useful and necessary step and should even start to seem enticing. Reading it gives us a sense of accomplishment and keeps our interest level high. But what can we choose as reading material? How do we find some? We don't want to be hopelessly out of our depth, and we don't want to be struggling with something so dry that the thought of sitting down and reading some more of it fills us with dread.

I have gone through the process of finding books to read in three L2 languages. Three does not make me an oracle on this topic but I am happy to share with you what has worked for me. (I am a learner of more than three languages, but I have only reached the level of reading actual prose books in three of them so far.)

Let me start with an observation about what does not make suitable reading material.

 

Tackling classic literature is motivational suicide.

I have often argued with those who take literature degrees in a foreign language that learning the mechanics of a foreign language and learning about its literature are two separate pursuits. I won't dwell on that here, but they are different. My first and best L2 is German, so using the example of German, ask a Canadian Prairie Hutterite whose L1 is German what he or she knows about Goethe and it will likely be zero. Ask nine out of ten Germans on a commuter train in Berlin to quote a single line of Schiller and they'll have trouble doing so, yet the only language in which they have full L1 competence is German.

My goal is to be able to speak German as poorly as any native speaker on that commuter train. If I could reach an average German's competence in their language, complete with their sloppiness, gaps, accent, and potential lack of familiarity with the Great German Writers, I would be ecstatically happy, even if I never manage to read Goethe, Thomas Mann or Günter Grass in the original. I would never recommend to a learner of English that they start with Shakespeare or Melville.

There's nothing wrong with those authors, but their works are certainly not the first material one should attempt as a learner.

What should one choose then, if not the classics? The answer is: a page-turner. By this I mean something that interests you sufficiently to make you want to keep reading it and avoid the tempation to switch back to reading for pleasure only in your L1. Your selected work should not be at such an elevated level that you end up having to use a dictionary for every second word. You don't want to end up in the situation of still not understanding a phrase in which you have translated each individual word. That can happen when the work uses complex or idiomatic expressions rooted in the rich written corpus of that culture, familiar to native speakers but meaningless to outsiders.

Books written for children are one possible target. But they often don't create the level of interest in the learner's mind that will keep them coming back to read more. Kids' books can be successfully used in a classroom situation where discussion between the teacher and students creates a lively atmosphere of mutual learning, but it's unlikely that an adult will remain fascinated by them. An example from my own experience would be when I was given several books in Dutch (another of my L2 tongues) from the children's series called Mr. Men (with different books featuring Mr. Greedy, Mr. Happy, Mr. Nosey, etc.). I recall fondly that Mr. Messy was Meneer Knoeipot in Dutch. I was amused and delighted to receive them, but after I read a few pages of a couple of the books, I laid them aside and never came back to them. There just wasn't enough substance to them. I would haul them out to show people: "Hey, look! I have Mr. Messy in Dutch!" But they remained a parlour trick.

Comics aren't out of the question, though. Comics are not even necessarily children's books. European culture, unlike North American culture, is replete with high quality, entertaining comics pitched at young teens. Most of them seem to have come out of France or Belgium. Examples are Lucky Luke, The Adventures of Tintin, Asterix and Obelix, Suske en Wiske. These comics have sufficiently complex themes and language to keep many adults engaged. Usually written in French or Dutch originally, they have been translated into various world languages, meaning that you can often find them in your target language, even if it's not a European language. When struggling with unfamiliar vocabulary, an advantage of comics is that you may be able to derive the meaning by looking at the illustrations. If you are forced to (or better yet, choose to!) carry on without looking up unfamiliar words, the visual aspect may be enough to keep you roughly in the picture on what is happening plot-wise. When I was 16 and participating in a high school student exchange for three months in Germany (from my country of Canada), I discovered that my exchange partner had a stack of Asterix and Obelix comics. I had never seen them before but I read several with glee. Asterix is relatively little known in North America, so I also learned about a pan-European cultural referent by reading these. When the 1968 cartoon film Asterix and Cleopatra was shown as a special at the local small-town cinema, I was able to go see and appreciate it. I don't even think I was the oldest fellow in the cinema.

 

What makes a book "easy" enough?

1) Vocabulary

Vocabulary will seem easier to you if it's in a subject area that piques your interest and is familiar to you. One relatively easy target is the book version, in your L2, of a book or movie that you have already read or seen in your L1. In the town centre where I was participating in the school exchange, there was a bookstore. I strolled in one afternoon to see if there were any German books I might have a chance of understanding and which would interest me. I was left completely cold by the books the store had on prominent display. Many of them (and this seems to be true in a lot of European bookstores) were biographies or autobiographies of politicians or entertainers famous in Germany but unknown to me. I was never enamoured of biographies in any case, and was not in the habit of reading them in my native language when they were about personalities known to me. Other books on display were crime novels and romance novels advertised as being perfect "beach novels". I can sometimes get interested in a crime novel but nothing stood out. Then I came across a rack populated with science fiction novels and anthologies. Science fiction wasn't hugely popular in those years in Europe and still isn't, not compared to its status in the English speaking world. Strangely, almost all of the world's science fiction comes from the former British Empire, especially the American offshoot. Culturally, I was attuned to reading science fiction. I saw instantly that many of the novels and anthologies featured British and American authors whose works I had read: Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, John Wyndham, H.G. Wells, etc. I picked up an anthology and started reading a short story that I soon realized I had seen before in English. It had been a while since I read it, and I got a thrill out of being able to recognize what was happening, standing there in a bookstore with no dictionary at hand and reading with 95% comprehension. The protagonist entered a Luftschleuse. Well, I knew Luft was air, and what else could a character on the moon be entering than an airlock? I was able to understand a rare, highly technical term from context.

Note that even if your favourite reading material focusses on a restricted area of interest, the words you learn will have relevance outside that area. By knowing that Luftschleuse was an airlock, I also knew that the locks on the Panama Canal were Schleusen too. Unlike me, you might not care for science fiction. You might like historical fiction, factual history books, gamers' magazines, or even, God forbid, famous politicians' biographies. I would like to suggest, however, that fiction tends to use more everyday language than nonfiction does, so it might offer a better entry point for you. Seeing how characters in fiction speak can also teach you colloquialisms not present in nonfiction.

2) Translations

Don't be afraid that you are "cheating" by reading material not originally written in your target language. You can generally trust that the people who translate the books are experts in the target language and are probably not using wildly inaccurate or non-idiomatic expressions in the translation.

If your goal is language proficiency and not a literature degree, reading sentences that were translated from your own tongue often has a benefit in that you can often visualize the L1 sentence that underlies the translated sentence. When you are trying to communicate in your L2, your mind will constantly come up with idiomatic sayings for which you wish you knew an equivalent L2 expression. I remember reading a story in which it was as clear as day to me that the protagonist had said in the English original, "You can say that again!" This was rendered as "You can say that loudly!" in German ("Das kannst du laut sagen!"). I filed that away for future use and indeed, have used it many times over the years. I don't think this turn of phrase actually occurs a lot in everyday German speech, certainly not as often as "You can say that again!" comes up in English. But I often found that I, a Canadian English speaker, wanted to say, "You can say that again!" and after encountering this translation in a book, I could at last give voice to what I wished to say.

Thus, translations from your own tongue may be particularly tailored to provide you with a set of expressions that are perfect tools for expressing sentences in the way you normally think. If you have reached a point where you want to tackle L2 books by native authors, by all means, go ahead! I only wish to remove for you the imagined stigma of reading material in translation.

3) Inherent Interest 

The definition of page-turner will vary from person to person. I was on a very friendly basis with the professor at my university who taught me most of my French. He was a polyglot and made it his habit to read Harlequin Romance novels (see www.harlequin.com) in all his target languages. He was content to read those steamy, formula-plot, pulp romance fiction books and not at all bothered by the gender stereotype that they were written mostly for women to read. For him, they were sufficiently interesting to be his major reading material and keep him coming back for more. He pointed out to me that they were easily findable in most of the world's major languages. The novels are invariably written in English and then translated, but that didn't matter to him. They were his page-turners.

He tried giving me a couple of Harlequins but I couldn't stomach them. I told him I was grateful but I'd rather be sewn up inside a dead horse than read one. Days later, as a prize after a learning activity, I was thrilled when he gave me a pulp science fiction novel in French about intelligent apes in a lab. Now, that's the kind of thing I would read and it was nice of him to dig one up.

What about audiobooks?

The same reasoning applies regarding leveraging the audio version of translated works. Audiobooks are not just an alternative to written books simply because you might be listening while your hands are busy, say, cooking or driving. The fact that they are presented in the spoken form of your target language is incredibly important to training your mind to be able to divide sentences at word boundaries, and utterances at sentence boundaries. You absolutely cannot acquire those skills from reading alone.

Shopping for audiobooks can still be difficult, even in this day and age. It's difficult to browse online, as we used to do in brick and mortar bookstores. That goes for buying both paper books and ebooks online, but even more for buying audiobooks because relatively speaking, regrettably few of them have been produced. I find one of two problems on foreign audiobook sites. In some cases, there are hundreds of audiobooks but they have been all thrown together in an endless list without subdividing them sufficiently by area of interest. I find myself clicking Next, Next, Next and still being only five percent of the way through the offering, which means to me that I shall never see what's nearer the end of the list. Or the other thing that I often find is that a bookstore purports to sell audiobooks and has only a few dozen to offer, none of which are anything that I would normally be interested in.

For some target languages, such as Dutch and Swedish in my case, there is a dearth of audiobooks in the target language because Dutch and Swedish people are, as a rule, quite fluent in English and tend to listen to English-language audiobooks.

However, sometimes there is a series of books, such as the Jack Reacher series of thrillers, or Stephen King novels, or the Cornwell's Saxon Stories historical fiction series to which I know I would like to listen, whether it's a newly written book or one I have read previously. Go for it, I say! Play to your strengths. Listen to the stuff you know you will like, where you already know character names and character attributes, as well as placenames and other things that will come up in the story. It is so much easier to wrap your head around a foreign language rendition of something you can vaguely remember or almost predict.

Caveats:

 

1) Mother Tongue: I can only write from my own basis of experience. Some of what I have written above presumes your L1 to be English and I know (and hope) that this website will be read by people for whom that is not the case. If you are not an English speaker but are using your knowledge of English as springboard to access English-to-L2 resources, congratulations! You are using triangulation.

2) Linguistic Proximity: For similar reasons, some of what I have written above assumes that you are able to leverage the certain degree of similarity that exists between European languages, as my targets have all been European. Being able to guess meanings of newly encountered words due to cross-language similarity is certainly an advantage. If your L2 is in a different language group than your L1 (for example, if you are going French-to-Arabic), you may need to start with simpler types of books than what I have outlined above.

3) Ancient Languages: If you tackle a dead language (for example, the Old English from prior to 1100 CE) you will have the problem that almost all of the available reading material consists of the body of literature that has come down to us from antiquity. There is nothing that we would consider a "novel" in Old English, nor are there truly any novels in Latin (unless modern day enthusiasts have written a rare few). Learners of Classical Chinese are in luck - there are many fictional tales, but the vocabulary isn't exactly pitched at the novice. There are generally no comics, no books of humour, and no audiobooks in dead languages. I'm not knocking the study of Old English, Latin, Classical Chinese, Ancient Greek — I'm a fan of all of them. But to keep this article manageable and focussed on the needs of the majority of leaners, I focussed on selecting reading material in a living language.

In summary:

If you read and liked The Hobbit in your L1, find it in your L2. If you like to read the Bible (or other religious work), try reading or listening to it in your L2, as it will surely exist. If all you normally read is, say, the news, find the international news in your target language and read it daily. Play to your likes and your strengths, and find your page-turner.

A word of advice on audiobook player apps

There are three features that you should look for in your audiobook player (general audio players can be used, as audiobooks are just like long songs):


1. Adjustable Speed: Find one that allows you to play back the audiobook at a certain percentage of its original speed without changing the pitch. It's amazing how much it has helped me to listen to Dutch stories at 90% of the original speed. You would think that a 10% drop in speed wouldn't make much difference but it does. When I tried lower speeds, however, I got frustrated waiting for the reader to finish sentences.


2. Jump Back: Look for a "jump back 10 seconds" button on the screen. You may often want to rehear a sentence.


3. In-Built Memory: It absolutely must remember what position you were at in the file when last listening to it. If you listen to file A, then switch to file B, then back to A, it should remember where you were at in file A so you can resume where you were.

 

About the author
The Armchair Linguist is Kyle Maschmeyer (armchair@aufbau-bsi.com), a western Canadian control systems IT specialist with an abiding interest in languages. Kyle is neither a professional educator nor an accredited linguist but is a second-language learner like you. Kyle's particular languages of interest are German, Dutch, Swedish, French, Spanish and Russian, but all languages and language groups are fascinating to Kyle in their own ways. Kyle was raised in a monolingual, English family environment. Kyle's travels, most of them through work, have taken him to 26 foreign countries over the years (including one that no longer exists) and the L2 learning has dovetailed with some of that, adding richness to the experiences. Kyle's opinions are his own and should not be presumed to coincide with those of his employer(s) nor those of CI Polyglot, of which Kyle is an avid reader. Kyle occasionally contributes a blog entry to CI Polyglot with his own pespectives and observations.

About Me

My name is Neil and I have been teaching English professionally for almost 20 years, the last ten of which at my language school. 

Apart from a diploma in teaching English as a foreign language (Cert Tesol), I have a BA in modern and Classical Chinese. I also speak Spanish, Italian, and French, and read Latin. 

Besides continuing my daily studies of these languages, I have also set myself a language goal of one new language a year. I’m looking forward to starting Japanese or German on the 1st January 2021.

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