Daily Learning Journal · The Unlikely Expat

How to Read in a Foreign Language

When I moved to the Netherlands, books were my primary language teachers. I built a respectable collection of books in Dutch, and taught myself how to read them. And within that year, I would go from struggling to understand children’s pictures books to reading whole novels. My last book of that year would be a 1,000-page novel (“Pilaren van de aarde” by Ken Follett).

Reading in a foreign language has been an incredibly rewarding experience. And here, I’ll walk you through how you can start doing it yourself.


STEP 1: GET IN THE RIGHT MINDSET

Just being a book lover didn’t make me qualified to learn a language from books. My past failure to grasp the Turkish language proved this. I’d spent years studying that language, and with what felt like no progress.

What I needed was to change two ways that I approached the reading process:
1. Learn from context
2. Prioritize the story, not the translation.
It wasn’t until I grasped these two things that I really started learning from books.


Learn from Context

Sometimes the story and your current knowledge of the language will be enough to learn new words. 
But if you can quickly look words up online, why go through the effort of learning from context?

It’s more effective for long-term learning. When I learn a word on my own rather than from a dictionary, the word sticks out in my mind. I remember it longer than those words I learned from quick online searches that same day. They often stick out so much that I remember which books I first saw them in. 
For example: 
• The word “verpleegkundige” (nurse), I first read in “Thuis in Virgin River.”
• I learned from context the word “asiel” from reading “Papegaai vloog over de IJssel”
• The book that taught me the word “monnik” was “Pilaren van de aarde.” 
And so on. 

It gives you a sense of pride and satisfaction. When I learn a word on my own, there’s a small jolt of excited pride that follows.
This feeling is addicting, and keeps me reading further than I normally would have. It’s like finding a piece to a jigsaw puzzle, and putting it satisfyingly into place. It’s no longer just an item on a long list of translated words. You figured this word out yourself. And that makes each word feel special, more meaningful to you.

It keeps you in the flow of the story. When you look up words online, you’re leaving the book, probably getting distracted with other things while your phone is out, and forgetting the story. Looking up every unknown word gets frustrating quickly. 
But when you focus on learning from context, you’re sticking with the story. You’re observing it more closely, going over what’s happened so far. It doesn’t feel like a chore, but rather an encouragement to engage in active reading and learning. 


Prioritize the story, not the translation

When you first start learning a language, reaching fluency seems like a worthy goal to focus on. But in the long run, it can be demotivating. 
As a beginner in Dutch, I struggled to understand children’s picture books. This is, of course, entirely normal in the beginning. But with the wrong perspective, it can turn into a disaster. 

When I read with the intent on becoming fluent: not understanding a simple story can feel humiliating. I get discouraged by the slow progress, and the road to fluency looks increasingly daunting. With all of this piled against me, I’m more likely to give up and postpone the language-learning for later. Then repeat the cycle.

When I instead focus on reading the story: learning comes easier and more naturally. Translating no longer feels like a dull task, but instead a way to continue the entertainment. The unfamiliar words become a series of small mysteries. Each time I unlock a new word, I reveal more of the story. The focus shifts from what I don’t understand to what will happen next. And the more I focus on the story, the easier it is to learn from context.


STEP 2: CHOOSE A STARTER BOOK

Now that you have a better understanding of how to read in a way that makes learning easier, you’re ready to choose your books.
To find your ideal starter books, there are a few important qualities to look out for.

Choose Something Simple

(Picture of “Mijn Eerste Groot Leesboek”, by Richard Scarry)

A book that’s simple is one with:
• Elementary-level words
• Short sentences
• Easy enough for small children to read
The best starter books are those designed for children just beginning to read on their own.


Choose Something With Pictures

(Picture of “Frey & Vixie”)

When a book gives you pictures to accompany foreign words, you have a better chance of figuring out the words’ meaning. Pictures give you hints of what the story is, and where you are in it. And the more pictures you have to work with, the more help you have in releasing that burden of looking up the translations online.
You’re learning from context, and getting more involved in the story. 
Sometimes it’s easier to remember a word or phrase when you can connect a picture to it. This is where comic books really shine in language learning!


Choose a Familiar Story

(Picture of “Frey & Vixie”)

I had a better chance of learning foreign words when I already knew the story that encompassed them. I’d find familiar character names and places, and use those as guiding posts for where I was in the story. 
Although, if you’re learning Dutch, be prepared for familiar names to be entirely different. 
For example, when I read Harry Potter in Dutch, I didn’t read about Hermione Granger and Neville Longbottom watching Quidditch at Hogwarts. Instead, there was Hermeline Griffel and Marcel Lubbermans watching Zwerkbal at Zweinstein. 
When you’re choosing your first books to learn a language, try to skim through them for familiarity.


Choose Something Engaging

(Picture of Donald Duck Megapocket: zomer editie)

Even if I’m reading a book that’s simple, familiar, and full of pictures, I might still struggle to learn. Often, that’s because the story is dull. The more naturally I can keep my attention on the story, the better off I am in staying with that book and learning from it. 
I first learned the word “muggen” (mosquitoes) in an engaging part of a story in the Donald Duck comic book. Animal rights activists were protesting the use of bug spray which harmed the poor mosquitoes. So they released thousands of mosquitoes on people. 
This was nothing like simply coming across the word “mug” somewhere, and checking it on Google Translate. I’d have had to look it up several times before actually remembering the word. 
Here, there was humor, vivid pictures, and a ridiculous scenario. My attention was hooked, I learned from context, and I never forgot the word “mug” after that. 

Now What?
So you’ve grasped the right mindset to go into learning, and you’ve chosen your book. 
Next, I’ll show you how I went about translating.


STEP 3: TRANSLATE NEW WORDS

This process prioritizes keeping the flow of the story.
Because when you have to set your book down to Google every unfamiliar word, the reading starts to feel like a tedious chore.
And from there, your interest and focus wavers, making you more likely to give up early.
Keeping with the story is the best way to make this practice a long-term habit.
Here’s how I do it.


Reading Stage

I’m going to suggest something I’ve hated for most my life: writing in books.
It’s proven to be too valuable a tool in my language-learning journal to overlook.
So yes, write in your books. But please, for the sake of the books, write in pencil, and lightly.
To start: When you’re reading, and you encounter words you don’t know:

Circle each unfamiliar word. Since we’re prioritizing keeping the flow of reading, you won’t look these words up yet.
The point of circling unfamiliar words is to acknowledge them, mark them, and continue reading.
You don’t have to circle every word you don’t know. Just those you feel might be important to the story or spark your interest.

Not every word is worth knowing. At least not in the beginning. You’ll have plenty more chances to expand your vocabulary.
Just focus on what you feel is essential to the story and your current level of fluency.


Try to learn the word from context. You might feel you need an unfamiliar word’s meaning before you can continue reading.
If that’s the case, rather than defaulting to Google Translate, try to figure the word out yourself.
Sometimes the context of the words or story surrounding that word is enough:
– What is the rest of the sentence saying?
– Do the sentences before or after this one give any clues?
– What’s going on in the story right now?
– If this is dialogue, what is the character’s personality like? What are they likely to say here?

And if the story isn’t giving you enough clues, your current knowledge of the language might help.
For example:
Say that I already know that the Dutch word “twee” means “two”.
And I later come across the word “tweeling” in my book.
The main character is talking about their sibling, but referring to them as their “tweeling.”
Since it has the word “twee” in it, I can guess that the word has something to do with “two” or “double”.
And since it’s about a sibling, it’s reasonable to assume “tweeling” refers to a “twin.” 

You won’t be able to figure out every word from context, but that’s okay. Each one you do figure out makes it worth all the effort.


Write down your guess. Each time you have an idea of what a word might mean, write down that guess in the margin. Add a question mark beside it to show that it isn’t a finished translation.
The point of this is to be more active in the self-learning phase, and remember your guess for later.
Because this still isn’t a good time to look the word up.


Continue reading. The goal is to keep the reading and translating phase as separate as possible.
Unless understanding the word’s meaning feels absolutely essential to the story, let it remain a mystery for a bit longer.
Only when you’ve found a good stopping place in the book should you move on to the next stage.
A good stopping place might be the end of a paragraph, a page, or a chapter. Whatever feels more natural to you.
Once you’ve found a good stopping place in your book, it’s time to start translating.


Translating Stage

Look up the word. Now you can go back to the words you’ve circled and guessed translations for.
For individual words, I prefer Reverso Context over Google Translate. It lists all the meanings this word can have, as well as sentences this word is included in to understand it in context.


Write down the translation. After you’ve found the translations for your new words, write them down.
You can do this in the margin of your book, are on a separate piece of paper. I recommend the latter. It allows you to keep all your new vocabulary in one place for easy reviewing later, and it can double as a bookmark.
Keep your notes as clear and short as possible, and note the page number you found each word on.
This paper will come in handy when you’re reading later and come across a word you feel you’ve already learned, but can’t quite remember what its translation is.
If you find multiple translations for one word, just write the most appropriate for the context of the sentence you found it in.

(Note: If you plan to donate or sell the book after you’re finished reading it, remember to erase those pencil marks first!)


STEP 4: DEVELOP A STUDY ROUTINE

Once you have a list of new words, you might be intimidated to remember them all.
This is where developing a learning routine and organizing your accumulating knowledge can come in handy.

Keep a language-learning journal

Learning a language is an immense task, and it’s best done with time and repetition. Having a place you can record what you learn and visit daily for reviewal is a tremendous help. You can keep a paper notebook, or use my free TIL (Today I Learned) Journal template in Notion. The template will help you to keep your entries highly organized and easy to access.
If you want advice on how to keep a daily learning journal and structure your entries, my post Guide to the TIL Journal in Notion—as well as my other posts on the TIL journal—can give you an idea on where to begin.



Choose your words, and record them in your journal. For a day’s entry, record the words you’ve learned. Not all of them though. You don’t want to overload yourself with 50 translations in one day.
Choose the ones you consider more important and likely to come across later. Or just choose words that interest you. Or words whose meaning you guessed correctly and want to remember with pride.
Choose what you most want to remember.


Give your words context. This is where a little creativity is needed on your part. 
Find a sentence (either from your book or Reverso Context) that has your newly learned word. 
Then write around it to give it more context, so your memory of the word can be better triggered when you revisit the page. 

For example: 
Say you find a sentence with an unfamiliar word: “hoestje.” 
The full sentence: “Het is niets, alleen maar een hoestje.” 

You might already know the rest of the sentence: “It is nothing, just a _____.”
You look the unfamiliar word up, learn that “hoestje” means “cough,” and write it down. 
But will you remember that? 

What if you added more context to this sentence?

Roger came into work hacking and wheezing with the rattle of a clunker car. His nose burned bright red, and his eyes watered. His colleagues kept their distance as he stumbled to his desk and sat down. It was flu season, and no one wanted to get sick. 

The man in the cubicle opposite him poked his head over the wall.
“Are you sick Roger?” he asked. “Wouldn’t you like to go home and rest?” 
Nee,” Roger’s raspy voice replied. He waved him off, giving a few close-mouthed puffs as he suppressed another hacking fit. 
“I’m not sick. Het is niets. Nothing to worry about. Alleen maar een hoestje.” 

Now, you have a story you can connect this word to. A familiar place for it to settle down in inside your memory.
Obviously, this takes more effort than a simple writing the word and its direct translation. But if you really want a word to stick, I recommend giving it your own context!


Review your notes consistently

To get those words to your long-term memory, review them every so often. Even if it’s just five minutes a day.
If you’re using my TIL Journal template in Notion, you can set which entries you want to review, and find them on the study view. 
After you’ve studied one, it goes to the bottom of the page, and those that haven’t been seen the longest go to the top.

When you keep your notes on your phone, this also makes for a perfect substitute for social media scrolling. Whether you’re waiting in line, taking the bus, or just bored and have that urge to grab your phone for some kind of mental stimulation, you can choose that moment to look over your language notes.


STEP 5: INCREASE YOUR READING FLUENCY

After some time of reading colorful children’s books, you’ll eventually get restless to advance to higher-level reading.
Be patient, you’ll get there in time!
Here’s some advice to help you level up in your books:

Choose books that aren’t too hard, aren’t too easy, but just right. You can figure out if a book is too difficult for you by reading a few pages or so. Circle every unknown word you come across. This gives you a visual of just how much you know and don’t know.
Can you still follow the story well enough before translating these words?
If the whole page gets filled with circles, take that as a hint that this book is beyond your current optimal studying level.
Having too many unfamiliar words that you can’t grasp from the context of pictures or story will feel like a chore, because you’ll have to look them up one by one. And the more you have to translate, the more the flow of the story is jolted, and loses its appeal.

Stick with familiar books. I’ve mentioned sticking with a story you already know when choosing your starter book. This still applies as you advance to more difficult reading. If you were a bookworm from childhood, you have the advantage of having a wide range of familiar stories at different reading levels.
For example:
After I read simple Disney storybooks in Dutch, I “graduated” myself to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” books. Later, I’d reach the “Harry Potter” reading level. And several books later, Ken Follett’s “Pilaren van de Aarde”.

Set reading goals. Like many beginner language learners, I wanted to read Harry Potter first. This would prove to be a more challenging starter book than I was ready for, and I had to set the book aside. But instead of this being a wasted effort, the book served as a goal book.
Every so often in my first months of reading in Dutch, I would refer to my Dutch translation of the Harry Potter book. I’d skim a few pages to see how much more I could understand. And seeing just a little bit of improvement was a huge encouragement!
Setting a goal book is more motivating than the vague and massive goal of “I’m going to become fluent in Dutch.”
This is smaller, with clear signs of how much progress you need towards understanding it.
When you get a book and realize that it’s beyond your current fluency, don’t get discouraged.
It’s just a new goal book to reach later down the road!


GOING BEYOND BOOKS

Have reasonable expectations from reading. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but reading alone will not make you a fluent speaker.
Reading in your foreign language will help you in many ways. You’ll improve your vocabulary. You’ll get better and better at reading. You learn to consume the language better.
But forming your own sentences and actually thinking in the language cannot be improved by reading alone. Practicing writing improves writing. Practicing speaking improves speaking. So if your reading motivations are fueled by social anxiety and the determination to improve speaking skill while avoiding speaking, I’m sorry. Reading won’t get you there.

Expand beyond reading books.

• Combine reading with listening to an audiobook.
Set the audiobook to a slower speed, one you can follow easily. Try this with something you’ve already read before to make this even easier, so you can prioritize listening to how each word sounds.

• Watch children’s shows in your target language.

• Use Duolingo to get a sense of the grammar rules, the sentence structure, and common words.

• Use apps like Tandem to practice the language by texting or talking with people who are native/fluent in it.

• Watch Youtube tutorials to get free grammar lessons and a grasp of the pronunciation.

• Talk with locals in person if you’re in the right country for it. 

Final Words

Reading alone doesn’t get one to perfect fluency in a language. One has to practice listening, writing, and speaking as well. 

But reading is still invaluable, especially as an expat. I use this skill daily to read labels on groceries, follow instructions for household appliances, read notices, fill out forms, check emails, follow street signs, review our local newspaper, and so on. 

And besides being useful, it’s also been a 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 in Dutch (thank you, translation of a Stephen King novel). 
And when I was moved to tears by a movie’s dialogue in Dutch. 
It’s a magical feeling to see that books have gotten me so far that I can connect to a language on an emotional level.

And not only that, but it’s also expanded my options of books to read! A couple I’ve read haven’t even been translated to English yet. It’s like unlocking a second life, where not everything can entirely overlap with the first.

I still have a long way to go in other areas of language learning. But in reading, I’m thrilled with how far books have taken me!
I hope you all enjoy your journey as much as I have.
If you have any questions or comments, let me know below!

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