When we’re looking for things to read in our language, we’ll often think in terms of stories. After all, stories can draw us in and keep us turning the page. They stimulate our imagination and provide context to help us remember. If we’re still beginners or at the lower intermediate level, we might go for children’s books or grab a “graded reader” (a text written – or adapted – for leaners at our level). Or, we can lighten choose illustrated texts such as comics to help us along. All well and good, but let’s mix it up a bit! Don’t be a slave to narrative! What about factual reading? Getting into factual texts in your foreign learning also makes sense. Read on to find out what you could read and why you should get factual.
“Landeskunde, bitte!” Read about the history and culture
You’ll never get really fluent in a language until you’re fluent in its culture.
Make it your task to discover more about places where your language is spoken….by reading about it in your new language.
Such reading will help provide you context in your wider understanding by introducing people, places, key customs and events that may well unexpectely crop up in conversations “in the field”.
Plus, it will like as not increase your appreciation of the richness of the culture you’re vying to join.
It’ll give you points of common understanding with native speakers and things to ask them more about.
Learning about the culture one of the aspects of what I call “tuning in” to your target language (one of my “Four Fluency Principles”, no less).
You could start with a straigh survey of the the history of the country….
This doesn’t have to be a “national” overview. You could also find material about a specific region you’re going to be visiting. You may discover that the it has its own history. Italy was only united as one country in 1860 and Germany in 1870, for example. You may even discover that it’s a different nation altogether: think Barcelona or Bilbao are just “Spanish” cities? Think again!
If you don’t fancy straight history, maybe an an introduction to the creative culture of the language group is the way to go. I have several overviews of German high culture in German, for example. I also have an introduction to French literature through the ages. These are the sort of topics where books aimed at children might make sense, simply because the amount of text and vocab is likely to be more manageable (and it’s not going to be all baby language or magic cats or whatever else you could encounter in fiction).
You could even “ladder” by reading about your target language community through a third language, as I’m doing with this general intro to all things Basque.
If you are about to go to “the country” you could dip in and out of a general tourist guide in the language. That’ll not only help to get you in the mood, but it should contain a lot of practical info too (and of course there’s lots online, such as the sites of national tourist boards that you could be reading, either on screen or by printing off to mark up).
Feed your interests by reading about them in your foreign language
Another aprorach is to read factual material about things with no particular connection to your target language that just happen to interest you.
If you’re into fishing, pick up a book on that.
If you’re a beginner or lower intermediate learner, once again look out for children’s introductions (or any graded factual readers aimed at learners – most, though, do tend to be stories).
At the very least you’ll be developing a specialist vocab in an area you love talking about. The amount of exposure to the words and phrases should be higher than if you were reading fiction, even where the narrative interweaves your favourite hobby (read those as well, though!)
For me, erm, maybe language learning would be the field. What about you?
Factual reading of this type will help If you move on to join groups – whether online or in real life – of people who share you interest or passion through the language.
That’s a great way to get drawn into a natural community, a context in which you’ll be motivated to use what you’re learning. want to meet people through far quicker than you would if reading creative literature.
At best you’ll be widening your actual knowledge of the topic, something that will have intrinsic worth for you aside from the linguistic benefits.
Educate yourself in something new…read all about it!
Learning a language? Kill two birds with one stone by getting your teeth into to a topic that you wish you knew more about, or feel you should.
Start with books aimed at children and teenagers. As a non-techie, I for one, would certainly have things to learn (or remind myself of) from a guide to the oceans or the planets or “how planes, trains and automobiles” work).
For me, this might be a “how to” book or two on art – or photography – in Russian.
I could improve my maths in German.
Or maybe not….
What we might call the “Renaissance (wo)man” approach makes sense at the upper-intermediate and advanced levels too.
It’s great to make conscious attempts to broaden your vocab into areas you don’t necessarily just “need” and wouldn’t normally even talk about.
A good newspaper or the sort of news site that also covers a wide range of “society”, “technolgy”, “lifestyle” and “culture” might be worth a regular look.
Facts not frills….?
In comparison with high literature, factual books are less likely to be pushing the boundaries of creative expression in “the war against cliche”.
For us as a learners, that’s a good thing. Let’s take it one stage at a time. Imitation of well-worn cliche would not at all be a bad thing for us to master.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we ignore style when choosing our factual books. Awareness of register (jouralistic, academic and so on) is an important skill as we move into upper intermediate and beyond. We want to be finding texts with crisp, clear, accessible style. We want to avoid academic obscurantism or archaic language.
Here are two books I’ve recently been reading in German: one is a Der Tod in Venedig/Death in Venice and a selection of other Thomas Mann novellas. The language is very creative both in terms of structure and vocab. The other is an overview of German high culture in the twentieth century. It’s also a sophisticated work, of course, but the language, while advanced is much more relevant and approachable.
Now, I’d love to be sharing my literary appreciation of Thomas Mann, auf Deutsch, with a German sophisticate and I’m in no way saying don’t get into the literature you love, as soon as you can. That, after all, is one of the major motivations for aiming to master a language to a high level.
As you climb the magic language mountain, though, just don’t undervalue the benefits of reading about the books you aspire to read….
…..and of factual reading across a wide range of other topics as well.
Check out the other posts in this series on reading: