A Socially-Anxious Expat’s Guide to Learning a Language from Books

Many expats move to a new country and have no problem learning the language. They simply immerse themselves in the culture, and start talking to people from day one.
But what is a severely shy and introverted expat to do?
Someone whose meek attempts to communicate with the locals end in confusion, frustration, and anxiety rather than an eagerness to learn from their mistakes?

I would love for this to be an article about how I overcame such silly traits. But, I’m not quite there yet! (Fingers crossed that that’ll be a future post) What I can say though, is that learning a language is not a completely hopeless task even if you have intense social anxiety!
My husband and I moved to the Netherlands less than 1½ years ago. From the first book I picked up (a Donald Duck pocket comic book at ALDI), I was hooked to reading in Dutch. And less than a year after that, I had read from cover to cover the 1,000 pages of “Pilaren van de Aarde” (“Pillars of the Earth,” by Ken Follett).

It’s entirely possible to make progress in language-learning through reading. And here, I’ll show you what’s worked for me!


CHOOSING YOUR BOOK

1. Choose Something Easy

Start from the simplest reading level you can find, and work your way up from there.
Many people’s first go-to book to start learning a language is “Harry Potter.” I personally don’t recommend this.
Although it is a fantastic read, it’s difficult if you’re a beginner. It doesn’t make it easier that, if you’re reading in Dutch, the names of many characters are changed (For example, “Neville Longbottom” becomes “Marcel Lubbermans,”).

I’d recommend starting with the easiest children’s books you can find. Pictures are a bonus, as they might help you understand the words from context!
I was thrilled the day I realized that my fluency had finally reached the “Harry Potter” reading level. But I had to read my way through several simpler children’s books to get there.
The more you read now, the more you’ll be able to read later!

2. Choose Something Familiar

Find a translation of something you’ve already read in your native language! When you do this, you can more easily guess those unfamiliar words, because you remember the story around those words.
I was thrilled when I found some old Disney books my first summer here. Reading about Todd and Copper (in Dutch, Frey and Frank), I already knew the story. So I ended up looking up far fewer words than I would have had it been completely new to me!
I cannot recommend enough searching for translations of your own beloved childhood books!

3. Choose Something Interesting to You

Something might be easy and familiar, but still difficult to get through because you don’t enjoy the story itself!
In my experience, learning came the most naturally and easily when I was engaged with the story. It doesn’t have to feel like studying! The more interesting the content, the less discouraged I get when I don’t understand a word. A good story urges you to figure it out quickly and continue reading!

Find Something That Fits Into All 3 Categories!

The Donald Duck comic book I read is a good example of this:
– It was easy, using simple words, short sentences, and PICTURES! When I didn’t understand a word from the dialogue, there was always a colorful, expressive picture to help me make a pretty accurate guess of what was going on.
– It was familiar. I grew up with these characters on my TV. While reading the book, I already had a good idea that whatever happened to Donald Duck, it would likely be very unlucky. And I knew that when Goofy entered the scene, he would likely do something, well, goofy, and unwittingly make a mess of things.
– And it was interesting. I got to revisit silly characters I’ve loved since childhood find themselves in all sorts of ridiculous scenarios. It was full of humor and Dutch slang, and I got to learn from it!


BUILDING VOCABULARY

Circling Words in the Book

Before I began learning another language, I had always despised the idea of marking in books. Even now, I cringe, but it’s become a necessary evil for me. When I’m reading, and come across a word that I don’t understand, I circle it (lightly, in pencil). I began doing this with Reggie Naus’s book “De Schat van Inktvis Eiland,” seen below.
When I feel an unknown word isn’t completely necessary to being able to follow the story, I can circle it and continue reading, saving the translating for later.
Very often, I’ll learn it from context further down the page anyways!

Writing Translations Down

Another thing I’ve found useful is to keep a piece of paper by my side as I read. When I go into translating mode, I’ll write down the word and its translation. (And as a bonus, I can fold the paper when I’m done reading, and use it as a bookmark)
Writing it down once is often enough to help me remember the words the next time I read the story. But it doesn’t hurt to keep a little “cheat sheet” nearby if my memory fails me!


TIPS TO READING BETTER

Prioritize learning from context rather than from dictionaries

When you stop to look up every word you don’t understand, it can get frustrating quickly.
It ruins the flow of the story.
I recommend first trying to find clues from the context around that word. This also engages you more with the story. And in my experience, I remember words better when I triumphantly figure them out on my own, rather than looking them up!

Focus on how much you can understand, not on what you can’t

Learning a language by reading books does not get you out of the uncomfortable place of not immediately understanding it all. In the beginning, not being able to a little children’s picture book can be quite humiliating. If you let it.
You have two choices when you read.
1. Become self-conscious and frustrated with what you don’t already know.
2. or focus on what you do understand, and use that to keep going!
The first option urges you to quit, while the other encourages you to keep reading, keep learning, and keep growing!

Focus on the story itself

Being engaged with the story can keep us reading more, when we might otherwise feel frustrated with how far we need to go to become fluent. Don’t think about the work ahead. Instead, follow the story. Ask questions. Try to predict what will happen next.
Curiosity is the best seasoning for learning!


THE DOWNSIDES OF LEARNING JUST FROM READING

As much as I hate to admit it, reading won’t get you everywhere in life. And this extends to our road to fluency.

It Alone Won’t Make You a Fluent Speaker

This was my greatest disappointment. After a year and a half of building my Dutch reading skills, I still couldn’t communicate with the locals on those rare occasions I tried!
I could understand novels and emails and various forms I’d need to fill out. But forming very simple sentences of my own? Nope! The part of my brain that can comprehend all sorts of information in Dutch just doesn’t seem to connect to the part that wants to form its own sentences.

It Alone Won’t Keep You From Mispronouncing Words

Every native English speaker knows that written words aren’t guaranteed to sound how they appear. My embarrassing experience of mispronouncing the word “colonel” in a classroom of laughing and mocking kids reminds me of that.
And although Dutch is more reliable in this department, it does still have its dangers where only a slight mispronunciation of one word can change the entire meaning of a sentence from casual to offensive!
And we just can’t pick up all those slight pronunciations from reading.


MY FINAL THOUGHTS

Even if reading on its own can’t get you all the way to “perfecting” a language, it’s still a major part of becoming fluent. Being an expat, I’ve been able to put my reading skills to good, daily use! I need it in order to read the labels on groceries, to follow instructions for cleaning supplies, to fill out forms, to read emails, and to follow street signs (to name a few).

And besides being useful, it’s been a pleasant and satisfying journey as a book lover! I remember the first time I laughed at a joke I read in Dutch. The first time I was horrified (thank you, translation of a Stephen King novel). Or when I was moved to tears by something sad or beautiful. It’s a magical feeling for me, to see that books have gotten me so far that I can connect to the language on an emotional level. It has enriched my life.
(And at the very least, I’ve expanded my options of books to read!)

It also gives you satisfying, visual evidence of your learning progress.
You can look back at circled words that once gave you a hard time, and smile when you realize their meaning is obvious to you now. You can look back to the simplest books you once struggled with, and return to the long novels you fly through now.

I’m still working on the anxieties of practicing by socializing. I have a long way to go when it comes to speaking and listening. But in the meantime, I’m thrilled with the benefits reading has brought me!


And that’s about it!
If you found this helpful, or if you have any questions, feel free let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading!

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