Two woman students reading a book Cartoon

Tips for reading in a foreign language

Are you learning a new language? Well, if you’re not reading in that language, then you’re missing out big time! Don’t believe me?

I know what you’re thinking, “How am I supposed to read effectively in a language that I barely know?”. Well, my friend, that’s exactly what we’re gonna talk about today!

In this article, you’ll learn how to read in a foreign language without feeling like you’re drowning in a sea of unknown words and complicated grammar. Trust me, it’s possible! And the best part is, you don’t even have to be a language expert to do it.

So, what are you waiting for? If you’re not reading in the language you’re learning, then start today by applying these tips.

Two types of reading

There are two types of reading: intensive and extensive.

Two woman students reading a big book Cartoon

Now, intensive reading is when you’re like a language detective, analyzing every word in the text to understand as much as possible. And let me tell ya, there are definitely some benefits to that approach.

But if you really wanna take your language skills to the next level, you gotta mix it up with some extensive reading. This is like speed reading, where you’re just trying to soak up as much information as possible in a short amount of time.

And the great news is, you don’t have to choose between the two! When you’re going through a traditional language learning course, you’re probably doing a lot of intensive reading. But make sure you take some time to do some extensive reading too!

Why does reading in a foreign language seem difficult?

We all know how to read in our mother tongue, right? We skim, we scan, and we breeze through texts like a freakin’ tornado, just trying to find the information we need. And then, of course, there are those times when we read every single word like our lives depend on it, like when we’re signing a contract or ordering a pizza with extra cheese.


But, when it comes to reading in a foreign language, we just throw all those reading approaches out the window and start from the beginning, trying to understand every single word. And let me tell you, it’s a recipe for disaster.

We get frustrated, we get overwhelmed, and we start to wonder why we ever thought we could learn this language in the first place.

However, next time you’re struggling with a foreign language text, why not skim, scan, and breeze through it like the language rockstar that you are?

What should I expect?

Okay, folks, it’s time for a reality check. When you’re reading in the language you’re learning, you gotta accept one thing: you ain’t gonna understand everything. And that’s okay!

I mean, let’s be real here. If you’re reading a foreign language text and you understand every single word, you either A) already know the language like the back of your hand or B) you’re a language-learning superhuman.

But for the rest of us mere mortals, it’s perfectly normal to come across words we don’t know or sentences that make us scratch our heads. And here’s the thing: that doesn’t mean we’re stupid or not good enough.

Nope, it just means we’re in the process of learning a new language. It’s like trying to solve a puzzle or beat a video game. It’s challenging, but when you finally get it, it feels rewarding!

How to deal with words you don’t know

Alright, so you’re trying to read in a foreign language and you come across a word that makes you wanna pull your hair out. Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. But before you freak out, here are some ways to tackle that pesky unknown word:

  1. First up, look at the word and see if it rings any bells. Sometimes, there’s a crossover in vocabulary between languages. And hey, even if you’re not 100% sure, take a guess. You might surprise yourself!
  2. Next, read the sentence over and over again. Use the context and your Sherlock Holmes skills to deduce what the word might mean. It takes practice, but it’s easier than trying to outrun a bear.
  3. If one and two fail, make a note of the word and check the meaning later. But don’t let it ruin your reading flow.

And hey, sometimes you might recognize a verb, but it’s conjugated in a weird way. Don’t let it stress you out. If you can understand the gist of the story, that’s what counts. Take note of the verb and move on. Don’t get caught in the trap of looking up every single word. That’ll slow you down. Instead, focus on the words that keep popping up. They’re the key to understanding what you’re reading.

Alright, now that we’ve tackled the issue of vocabulary, let’s talk about the reading process itself. Buckle up, folks, ’cause it’s gonna be a wild ride.

The five-step process for reading in a foreign language

So, here’s what you do: 

  1. Read the whole first chapter through without stopping. That’s right, don’t even think about looking up any words. Just keep going until you get to the end. It’s like running a marathon, but with your brain.
  2. Once you’ve made it to the end, take a breather and try to summarize what you just read. Who were the characters? Where did the story take place? What were the main events? Jot down a few notes in the language you’re learning to help you remember.
  3. Now, go back and read the chapter again. This time you can read a bit more closely, but don’t stress out about understanding everything. Just focus on reducing your uncertainty, bit by bit.
  4. At the end of the chapter, take some more notes on what you’ve read. It doesn’t matter what you write down, just get your thoughts on paper.
  5. Okay, now it’s time to bring out the big gun: the dictionary. But don’t go crazy looking up every word you don’t know. Just stick to the most important ones and keep on trucking.

And if there are still words you don’t understand, don’t sweat it! Just keep on reading and enjoying the story. You’ll be surprised at how much you pick up along the way.

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  1. The distinction between intensive and extensive reading is particularly noteworthy. As language learners, we often overlook the reading strategies we use in our native language and attempt to understand every word in a foreign text, leading to frustration. Thus, applying familiar reading techniques, like skimming and scanning, even when reading in a foreign language, is practical and liberating. Accepting that we will not understand every word is a crucial mindset shift.

    1. Thanks for highlighting the need to apply familiar reading techniques when learning a foreign language.

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