View Full Version : Question for those who read in their non-native language

04-18-2010, 12:24 AM
I am reading more in French now that I have my Kindle (with the built-in dictionary option!) and have really enjoyed how ebooks have opened this up to me. I am a fluent speaker but have always found reading more difficult because you can't just choose to use only words you know like you can when speaking. I think my reading has become a lot more fluid and I am finding I only need to use the dictionary once or twice every dozen pages. This is great. But I find I am still slowing myself down by getting hung up on the mechanics and I would love some tips from those who read confidently in a language for which they are not a native speaker.

Two issues seem to trip me up. I think I still have a bit of a verb phobia because it seems there are so many more tenses in French (since they have the literary ones you never use when speaking, and these duplicate some of the regular ones). I am not sure how important the distinctions are though. When I look at direct English translations of some of them, it seems like there IS a distinction between, say, imparfait and plus-que-parfait. But they are both forms of the past tense. If I know what the verb is and recognize that it is in the past tense, I have been carrying on and feeling pretty comfortable in the story, but then periodically I will panic that I am missing something and start obsessing over the exact form of every verb. Then I start feeling artificially confused and anxious about the whole thing when probably I was fine to continue with the story and not over-think it.

I also think that sometimes I start trying to translate in my head, and that is probably not the smartest strategy. If there is a word I don't know, I should (and do) look it up and this is why I read on my Kindle. I think I should just be going with the experience of the book since my French IS good enough to just enjoy it. But then I start translating in my head (usually related to point number 1 about feeling the need to nail down which verb tense it is) and then I start panicking when something small trips me up.

Does anyone have any tips for dealing with this? Any French people want to reassure me that recognizing a verb is past or present is good enough for comprehension and I don't need to stress about the exact tenses? Or alternately, pass along any tips for nailing down the tenses once and for all if that is truly important?

Do others who read in non-native languages think that 'translating in your head as you go' is how it must be done? Or do you just go with it and not even think (consciously) about what the words mean, trusting that you;ll recognize new vocabulary when it comes up and that you'll recognize familiar vocabulary on an instinctive enough non-translating way so you can just enjoy the story?

04-18-2010, 02:55 AM
I cannot comment on French, since I really hated that language at school. However, I do read English and German fluently. For me the reading speed is the same as for my native language, Dutch.

When I read, it is the same as when I speak to people. I do not translate everything in my head. I try to think in the language I am reading/speaking. That way I don't have to translate. When I come across a word I do not know, I try to catch the meaning from the surrounding sentences or I plainly ask. That way I avoid translation at all and enjoy it a lot more.

It is something that must grow though. You have to have faith in yourself and it takes practice.

Have fun!

04-18-2010, 03:15 AM
This is interesting, and I have quite a few problems with translating.

I lived the first 35 years of my life in Denmark, and so have now been in an English speaking country for 25 years. I speak and read fluently Danish and English. I still need the dictionary a lot, when reading in English, depending on the subject.

I don't translate either language, I use the specific dictionary for that language, in order to find out what the word means. When I'm in Denmark, I think/dream and do all things in Danish. When I'm at home in Australia I do it all in English.

The thing I find difficult is to tell a person in Danish what I have been doing in English and vice versa.. :rofl:

I would not translate or worry about different tenses of a word - just enjoy your reading.

I know a little French, having studied the language for 3 years, before I came to Australia... In fact, my French was much better than my English at the time. I do so love the French language... Wish there were books to read for my level of understanding.

04-18-2010, 03:57 AM
I learned French as a child, in one of those "écoutez-répétez" programs. (Heck, we got to watch TV in school, as our lessons were televised on the local educational station!!!) At the time, and during subsequent language classes later on in junior high, high school and college, we were told again and again - do NOT attempt to translate. You should try and understand in the language you're dealing with.

Now that I live in France and have to deal with French everyday, I'm immensely grateful for that advice. (Just try mentally translating if you're talking on the phone or dealing with an irate French driver you just flipped off... but I digress.)

As far as looking up the words is concerned, when I was a German major at university, I got a real good piece of advice.

The first time you encounter a word you don't know, read through it and try and figure out what it means from the context.

The second time you encounter the word, do the same, but make a mental note that you've seen this word before if you're still not sure what it means.

The third time you see the word, if the meaning isn't obvious to you by now, go look it up.

It's more or less how most folks seem to deal with new words they encounter in their own language.

04-18-2010, 04:49 AM
Two issues seem to trip me up. I think I still have a bit of a verb phobia because it seems there are so many more tenses in French
Bah, even we French get messed with it. That's why we have that book called besherelle, with all the verbs in it.

I read mostly in English, even if French is my native language. I don't use use dictionary much, even now I have it, most of time, context is enough. It's better to just let it flow. (Unless you fell you really are missing something).

04-18-2010, 05:02 AM
Since my mother language is Spanish and the Spanish verb structure is pretty much the same as in French, I don't have exactly the same problems with French. :D

My first advice would be to relax and not by translating every single word and tense, get the meaning of the sentence instead, but you already know this.

Second, verbs are not really so different in French and English. The difference between imparfait and plus-que-parfait is (more or less) the same as between "did" and "had done". The fact that there are two simple past tenses (imparfait and passé simple) can complicate things, but it rarely changes the meaning, it's enough to consider them just past tenses.

I remember when I was taught English in high school, how the teacher tried to explain all the different kinds of conditional sentences... My classmates used to be very worried trying to learn all the different verb combinations and labelling each sentence as kind 1, 2, 3, or whatever, I could never see the point, because it's exactly the same in Spanish.

When reading French, I am sometimes confused by past tenses ending in "-a", when in Spanish it's present and future that end in "-a", so I somehow get the feel that the story is being told in present, and I have to actively fight this. In English and every other language it's not uncommon that I have to read some sentence again, carefully fitting word by word in order to make sense out of it, because sometimes the structures are unusual, or some word could have different meanings, and I tend to assume only one of them...

04-18-2010, 08:20 AM

Do others who read in non-native languages think that 'translating in your head as you go' is how it must be done? Or do you just go with it and not even think (consciously) about what the words mean, trusting that you;ll recognize new vocabulary when it comes up and that you'll recognize familiar vocabulary on an instinctive enough non-translating way so you can just enjoy the story?
I can't comment on French - I'm not very good at it. But it's interesting to read you find talking much easier than reading. For me it's the opposite*. I think it might be because you're approching texts from a completely different angle. You appear to need to understand the particular before you can understand the whole, whereas I want to get the general idea, the whole, before I can concentrate on particulars. So when I (try to) read foreign texts, I don't need to know all words, just enough to get the general gist of it - and of course I don't care quite much about grammar at that stage. Grammar is for expressing myself, writing and talking.

The first book I read in English was when I was 16, by E. M. Forster. It was a bit above my vocabulary so I looked up words probably twice per page, and didn't get much of the story. I read the book once more, without looking up words in order to understand the story. For years after, I generally didn't look up many words when I read English books, it was more important that I understood the story. Over time, I've simply assimilated words and grammar through by exposing myself to texts, but not because I actively tried to learn it. Now I have my Kindle and it's much easier to look words, and I've made it a point to do it to improve my vocabulary. I'm reading a little German now, as well, for the same reason.

So my suggestion would be, if you can at all, relax more when you read - don't start to think too much about grammar and words you might not know. You'll improve just by reading.

* Did you learn French by speaking it? The foreign languages I've been taught have all started with reading, then writing, then speaking. And as far as I know, most people find it easier to read than to write or speak foreign languages.

04-18-2010, 08:24 AM
The thing I find difficult is to tell a person in Danish what I have been doing in English and vice versa.. :rofl:

It might be because you don't have working vocabulary in those topics in the other language. For example, I find it quite hard to tell people about ebooks and all the things we discuss here without having to look for words and find I only know what to say in English. I've also discussed some fanfiction related things with someone from Sweden. Somehow it was just easier to write in English, even if we could understand each other in Danish and Swedish :p

04-18-2010, 09:03 AM
I can't speak to the french issues directly as I haven't used my french more than a handful of times since my college days (and lately I'm wishing I'd taken russian or japanese instead) but I think I can say something about the mental translation mechanism.

And that is: don't.
Not if you can help it. Not if you aspire to eventual fluency.
I live in a bilingual environment and I've seen it on both sides of the divide; it is the most *natural* thing to do, to compose a thought in the familiar language, translae in internally, and then vocalize it. Or, in reading, to translate the words and rebuild the sentence in the language of comfort.

It works, mind you. It'll see you through the discomfort of the situation. In the short term. And it is better than no communication. But if the intent is to achieve fluency it is best to muddle through the haze of partial comprehension, relying on dictionaries and thesauri when you hit a roadblock, until you build up enough familiarity to directy go from word to concept or vice-versa. To start thinking in the alternate language. You might have to return to the book at a future time for further insight but everything I've seen and heard tells me that the road to fluency is faster through immersion than on-the-fly translation.

04-18-2010, 11:46 AM
* Did you learn French by speaking it? The foreign languages I've been taught have all started with reading, then writing, then speaking. And as far as I know, most people find it easier to read than to write or speak foreign languages.

Yes, I too have heard that most people find reading easier. I am an anomaly that way, I guess :) I learned French by the old-fashioned grammar/translation method (lots of things like 'today we are talking about the past tenses of the verb avoir' and then a worksheet). But we don't really teach that way now. For example, I have never EVER had a lesson with my students about how to say the days of the week and had them do worksheets. What I do is, I have a page a day calendar with stickers and I bring it in and every day we spend two minutes looking at it. After several weeks of every Monday being lundi, every Tuesday being mardi etc. they get it.

My JK students got their first exposure to the calendar just after Christmas holidays and had them nailed by March break, no worksheets involved They actually enjoy it because every day the colour of the page changes and they like to guess and predict what the next one will be. It is a much more natural and context-based way of learning.

I think the way I learned, with the focus on grammar and such, was based more on assessment via trickery---they would be sure to put in ALL the irregular stuff just to say HA! GOT YA! as it were.

So maybe this has carried over into my reading. I'll be reading and it'll be going well and I am not looking up words or anything, and then I'll kind of realize what I'm doing and my brain will just freeze up and go 'Okay, but look at this one...' and start fixating on the little verb issues. For example if I see something like 'il avait parlé' I recognize the verb parler, recognize that this is clearly a past tense, so I should be able to just go on but then I will start doubting maybe it is a plus-que-parfait or maybe it is some other subtle difference, and then I freeze up...

I know this probably all sounds very silly :) I can't think of a better way to explain it. I *think* the problem is that as others have said, translating on one's head is not the best approach and if I just went with it and trusted myself, I would actually be much more fine than I think I would be (i.e. this is a confidence issue, not an ability issue). I definitely want to keep reading and work at it.

04-18-2010, 01:50 PM
a) As long as I understand I go on reading,
b) I do jot down the words I don't know & look them up when I have time, I like to build my vocabulary
c) Tenses in French are more or less like in English : imparfait = preterit and plus que parfait = pluperfect; passé simple = preterit too...
d) you want to think (and dream!) in the language ASAP, so don't translate when you read,
e) From time to time, do try to translate a page, just to check how different it looks and sounds--and how right it is to read in the original language :grin:

04-18-2010, 03:50 PM
Ever since I stayed in the US for a year (as an exchange student), whenever I read English (which is about 99.9% of my reading), I think in English. Often, I even know the word in English and can't even think of the Dutch word! (and as YGG mentioned, try to dream in the language! Which is what I often do as well, even almost 20 years* after...)

I have an English dictionary on my JE100. It's the only dictionary I use. Often, I get the meaning of the words, based on their sentence. Only for those words that you can't distil out of the context, I'll use the dictionary.

*wow, it's almost 20 years, and I remember it like it was yesterday!

04-18-2010, 04:11 PM
Translating is much too frustrating, and it's an approximation anyway, there is rarely an exact equivalent of one word into another language. Looking up words is a good way to lose interest in what you are reading IMO, although it's nice if you can do it on your reader. Sometimes it takes me years of reading the same word again and again and not knowing its exact sense, before I finally look it up. But then I am remarkably lazy :p

As others have said: just read and enjoy. You get a much better sense of the meaning of words when seen in context than in a dictionary. This is also true of tenses, you'll get a feel for them after a while.

Language has to work on an instinctive level, if you start analyzing things you're lost. I'm sure you don't analyze your sentences when you speak. You don't need to do it when reading either. Many people speak their native language without any idea what tense they are using. They just do what comes naturally, and that comes from practice, not theory :)

04-18-2010, 07:47 PM
Hi Ficbot,

I cannot comment on French, since I don't speak it. However, I read fluently in both English and Hebrew. I read a lot of both every day.

I never translate in my head. Translation is hard. Things that sound great in one language just don't work in another. You have to "think" in the language you're currently using, in my opinion. I'm equally comfortable with both languages I use, so it's like flipping a switch in my mind; I can be in one mode or the other.

I think as you continue to read in French, you'll get more used to it. You'll enter that "French" mode, and won't translate in your head.

Translation is rarely a one-for-one, word-for-word exercise. I took some translation classes, and have read several books in both Hebrew and English (the same books, translated from one language to the other). Some sentences that sound great in one language just don't work in the other, if translated word-for-word. Some similes won't work, some slang won't work, etc. Translation often requires mini rewrites, adapting the phrasing and wording to suit the new language.

So if you're reading in French, but translating it in your head to English, it might seem awkward. I think that after a while, you'll start "thinking" in French when you read it.

As for tenses... most people who use tenses daily don't really understand them! They just know how to use them, almost instinctively. It's like how you know to catch a ball thrown your way, without thinking about the physics involved. ;)

Reading a LOT is key here. I moved to the US when I was thirteen, and reading in English was very difficult for me. When I'd read a novel in English, I always had a dictionary beside me. I'd fill up entire notebooks with words I didn't know, then look them up later. After about a hundred books, I only jotted down a handful of words a book. Another couple dozens of books, and reading in English was as natural as breathing. :)