“I love books--but I can’t see myself reading a book I don’t love. And given my level of English. . .”
A former student of mine who runs a bookshop here in France told me that the other day.
And I understand completely.
Because who are we really but what we do repeatedly?
The way we spend our days. The time we spend with our families, the work we do, what we watch (or don’t watch) on tv.
We are what we read. More than anything.
Show me the well-worn books piling up beside your couch, the one peeking out of your bag. And I’ll know something about you.
Starting out in English? Be open to New Experiences.
Can I tell you the story of the unusual way I improved my Spanish?
You see, I live my life in French and English, but I dream of feeling at home in Spanish too. Once I even stayed for six weeks in Mexico with the goal of improving my Spanish.
Completely by chance, I rented a room with a lovely woman during my stay. Let’s call her Senora M. We chatted . . . and sort of bonded . . . and before long. . .
I found myself spending evenings with her watching her favorite telenovela (sort of like a soap opera in the US). It was called Destilando Amor (Distilling Love). Senora M would explain the parts I hadn’t seen.
To me. In Spanish. And I understood!
Are you surprised to know that I lived for these evenings?
The funny thing is, in my normal life,
- I didn’t own a TV.
- I had never even seen an American soap opera.
- I’m more of a book person.
You could say that telenovelas, weren’t really me.
But sometimes, when you’re learning a language, you have to be willing try new things. And that can be a lot of fun.
When it's time to make English your own.
Have you reached the point where you just need to be yourself in English yet?
You know that feeling: you study a ‘foreign’ language long enough, (or you live in a ‘foreign’ culture long enough.)
You’re just ready to feel at home in that language. You want the language to finally be yours.
Watching telenovelas was perfect for me while my Spanish was at a certain level. But I couldn’t stop there.
For me, being myself in Spanish meant being able to read books. Books that were “me.” Books that I’d be happy to read in my native language.
Books that are you when the language is not yours.
After years of study, I decided it was finally time to start reading seriously in Spanish.
Easier said than done.
- I read Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel with no problems.
- I finished Twelve Pilgrim Tales/ Doce Cuentos Peregrinos by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (although I often fell asleep reading through sheer fatigue--it wasn’t easy for me.)
- I struggled through The Infinite Plan by Isabelle Allende. I basically understood as much as you can read in the summary of a book. I intend to read it again in English!
I found myself wishing I could talk to someone like Senora M--who had a passion for these books. And who could help me find my balance when my head started to spin during my book adventures.
I’ve learned three things about being yourself when you read in a language that’s not your own. . .
Reading in a language that’s not your own (yet!)
One: All is fair in love, war and reading in a foreign language.
The book police are not coming for you!
You are allowed to do something completely out of character. You are allowed to let the language make you someone new. You are allowed to experience your version of the telenovela.
You are allowed to read books that you wouldn’t normally read in your native language. And you might enjoy it!
Two: Learning to be yourself when you read in a foreign language can be messy!
It’s ok to want to read in second (or third) languages as well as you do in your mother tongue.
It’s ok to struggle with the language, to read a translation in your own language just to check, to watch the movie of a book first. (I’ve done it too).
It’s ok to abandon a book altogether.
Three: Being YOU when you read in English will be important at some point. But can be hard to do on your own.
Finding someone else to read with is not cheating, it’s just fun!
You’ll go farther and do better with friends who want to share the same book.
Sometimes friendships are born out of shared books :)
Where are you on this journey?
So, tell me. . .
- Have you ever done something that is ‘out of character’ or not really “you” while learning English?
- Have you found a way to “be yourself” when you read in English--or another language?
- Have you ever tried to read a book that was too hard? Or is there a challenging book you’d like to read in the future?
I’d love to hear about it in the comments below or at the Vagabond Book Club on Facebook.
Ready to get started?
For the next month, I’ll be blogging about how to start a solid reading habit in English when it’s not your first language.
Because once you start reading and gain momentum, you can make English your own.
So keep reading and don’t hesitate to share your experience, your victories and your frustrations.
Here are two things you can do today to start reading like yourself in English.
If you haven’t already, download a copy of Five First Steps: Read Books and Transform your English. It gives you a five quick tips you can try now--from picking the right book to really remembering new ways of speaking.
Join the Vagabond English Book Club on Facebook and let me know about your questions, frustrations and progress. I’ll do my best to play the role of Senora M.
It’s just better with someone to talk to.