How To Learn a New Language By Reading Slightly Beyond Your Scope (And Other Tips)

I have been living abroad for almost ten years. When I first moved to Belgium back in 2011, I was eager to start learning Dutch (or, more specifically, Flemish) right away.
I have always been interested in languages, and having learned and enjoyed German in high school, I thought Dutch was going to be an easy trip down language road. I was very much mistaken.

Dutch is a tricky language, especially when it comes to grammar, and while I learned fast and acquired loads of vocabulary in the first two years, improvement came almost to a halt after that. I was still learning new words and concepts, and I could already communicate properly for the things I needed daily, but my level seemed to be advancing very slowly, especially when compared to how much I had learned in the first two years.

Of course, the simpler the level, the easier it is to learn it, but I quickly became frustrated with the language, and because I didn’t need to learn it in order to communicate with friends, or at work, I started to slack off. 

Fast forward to 2019, when I moved to the Netherlands. My chances of speaking Dutch, however, did not increase in any way. If anything, they became even scarcer; any foreigner here trying to learn Dutch will tell you this same story: most Dutch people love speaking English, and they’ll take any chance they get to do so.

More than once I’ve found myself asking something in Dutch, just to get an immediate reply in English. When I insist on speaking Dutch, the other side will very often disregard it and continue in English. While this can be seen as a funny, and even sweet, approach — many people really just want to try and make things easier for you by speaking in English — here is an example of how it often plays out:

Person: Goedendag!
Me: Goedendag, kan ik je helpen? 
Person: *realises I’m not Dutch*
Person: Where can I get a beer around here?
Me: Daar, aan de bar. 
Person: Oh, on the right side? 
Me: Ja, naast de uitgang.
Person: And where is the toilet?
Me: Op de eerste verdieping, aan de linkerkant. Maar ik zie dat je je been in het gips hebt, dus je mag ook het personeelstoilet onder de trap gebruiken.
Person: That’s really nice, thank you so much!

They then go on with their lives. But I stand there, searching for answers and wondering: is my Dutch so bad that they’d rather I speak English? It is a tricky situation, and it’s very common for non-native speakers to just go with the flow and use English as their main language. I did it too, until I decided to take a leap and apply for the job of my dreams at an indie bookstore.

I sent in an open application letter, and the bookstore owners wanted to give me the job, but they needed me to speak and read in Dutch in order to help clients and be able to recommend books. This was the perfect motivation to try to tame this language. And, I figured, what better way to do it than by reading? It’s now been a year since I’ve gotten that job, and my only regret is having waited so long to start reading Dutch books.

I always thought reading books in a language I still struggle with would take away the joy of reading. In the end, it turns out it gave me (even) more books to read, because with every new reading challenge I set for myself, a whole new range of stories becomes available to me. And yes, I do struggle with them sometimes, but this is also how I gauge my progress, and it’s fantastic. 

I am the first to admit it: it is a different experience reading a book in a language you don’t yet manage, but you win a small battle each time you acquire new vocabulary, especially when you go back to a book you couldn’t pick up a few months prior and now realise you can tackle it without much trouble. You will certainly see improvement if you allow yourself some struggle. 

If you usually read only for fun, my advice is that you turn any book in the language you’re trying to learn into a side read, and find which routine works better for you. Maybe set a few pages a day as your goal, or a timestamp, and take notes of new words you come across.

Get a library card, or find a free online source, and choose themes that pique your interest; if you can understand the context of a book, even if you don’t understand all of the words, give it a try. Most importantly, don’t rush. It doesn’t matter if a book takes you a month — or more — to finish, just as long as you keep going at it consistently.

Reading books that are somewhat difficult, but still manageable, will allow you to improve a lot faster than reading only within your comfort zone. Soon, those books will become your comfort zone, and you’ll move on to something above your current level. Eventually, you’ll be able to tackle (almost) anything.

I still can’t read complicated works of literature, but I am reading literature. I’ve gone beyond children’s books and YA, which means I am currently picking up books in Dutch that fit into one of my favourite genres: literary fiction.

Photo by Nick Fewings via Unsplash

Some Tips That Have Worked For Me

Get a Library Card or an Ebook Subscription

Being able to get free books, which you can easily abandon if you figure out they’re not for you, helps a lot. It takes away the fear of spending money on the “wrong books”, and it allows you to find more reads more easily. Usually, libraries also have an easy reading section, which is great if you’re only just starting to read in that language.

Some reading apps cost less than $10/month and offer you a big selection of both ebooks and audiobooks (for Dutch, I use Storytel). Listening to audiobooks requires more focus, but will ultimately help you understand others better and, importantly, teach you how to pronounce certain words correctly.

Create a Reading Goal and a Schedule

It also helps to create some sort of routine, otherwise your efforts may get lost among all other daily priorities. Maybe take half an hour each day to read in your target language first thing in the morning, or during an afternoon break. 

As for a reading goal, you can use Storygraph to set a number of books, or pages, you intend to read in a year. For 2021, I set up a challenge to read at least 12 Dutch books.

Try to Memorise a Few Words Each Day

I find I have more and more difficulty memorising things (hello old age, my new friend), so I try to memorise just a couple of new words each day, those that can be useful on my daily shenanigans.

Because I don’t like interrupting my reading often, when I stumble upon a strange word that isn’t super relevant for context, I’ll write the word down on my phone and then check a whole list of words at once on Google Translate. It makes reading more fluid, and there’s a bigger chance I will actually memorise some of them.

Persevere

Don’t get discouraged if you pick up five books from the library just to realise that you can’t finish any. There are so many good books out there. Take a step back when necessary, and use those books you still have trouble understanding to gauge your progress.

Reading to Learn

Remember, this is a learning experience, more than a just reading experience, which for some readers can be difficult to separate. As I advised above, read books in your target language as a side read. This way, you’ll still be able to read just for fun as well.

Find a Community

Finding people who speak or are learning your target language is a great way to improve it, and to keep you motivated. You can even read the same books together, form a book club, or arrange some buddy reads.

Go Slightly Beyond Your Scope, But at Your Own Pace

The idea is to improve, not to drive you to give it up. Pick books where you can at least understand the majority of the story. See if you can find a balance between manageable, but challenging. And once in a while, it is great to read those books which are already easy peasy, for a confidence boost!

Most importantly, have fun! Remember: there is no such thing as a “broken language”. Languages are always a work in progress.

For those whose target language is Dutch I highly recommend Welkom Bij De Club by Thomas van der Meer, Het Vogelhuis by Eva Meijer, Meisje van Mars by Anna Woltz and Vicky Jansen, Confrontaties by Simone Atangana Bekono, and Lampje by Annet Schaap. Many of these deal with themes like sexuality, gender, and racism, but they are still very approachable. Lampje is a lovely children’s book.

Leave a Comment