How to read in a foreign language and boost your vocabulary

By Denise Doty   March 1, 2016


It was my first translation/interpretation conference where I had the opportunity to learn about one of the most important strategies to learn a foreign language. As I handed out pamphlets about the translation/interpretation program at the local college, I engaged several seasoned professionals and asked them if they could give me one piece of advice on how to be the best translator that I could be, what would it be? Over and over again, there was one resounding answer, READ. Read in your native tongue. Read in your target language. Read for quality. Read for quantity. Read for information. Read for fun. Just simply read, read, read!

So why did so many translators and interpreters, many of which also taught languages, suggest that I read to improve my translating abilities? I realized very quickly that it was my language ability that reading was going to improve and thus, in turn, my ability to translate.

What does reading do for you?

Reading increases your vocabulary. By reading you are being exposed to lots of words that you may not hear in everyday conversation and even less likely to see in language textbooks.

Reading demonstrates different uses of vocabulary. Reading allows vocabulary to be used in various ways. Some words can mean different things by the way they are used in a sentence.

Reading contextualizes meaning. Reading drives you to imagine the meaning behind the words causing you to create a picture in your head. This creative process enhances your memorization skills.

Reading teaches you slang/ colloquialisms. One way to improve your language skills is to add slang to your vocabulary usage.

Reading allows you to go at your own pace. You can skim an article or you can dissect it learning every word, every grammar point, and every nuance there is in the article. It’s up to you to decide.

 Reading increases your confidence.  When you read a phrase or a word over and over again, you create an understanding and a familiarity with that phrase/word, it is this understanding, this familiarity, which builds confidence and thus will allow you to use it in conversation.

Reading teaches you how to tell stories.  Reading stories give you examples to mimic on how to tell stories.

 Reading forces you to learn complex words and phrases. Writers tend to be precise and their word choice is elevated more than the spoken language.

 Reading is its own reward. Whether you read for fun or not, reading is rewarding. It is either rewarding by the enjoyment of the story or by the accomplishment of reading and understanding the content, not to mention the increase in vocabulary.

Reading can be accomplished on your own. The nice thing about reading is you can immerse yourself in a book and not rely on anyone else. If you do run into a problem understanding you can research it in a dictionary or online.

Reading teaches you about the culture. Whether you read about a specific holiday, a story about a family or a travel brochure or even the local newspaper you will learn about the culture.

So now that you decided to read to improve your target language skills, what do you do first? I would first suggest that you decide on your goals. What do you want to get out of reading?


What are your reading goals?

To increase vocabulary. Be specific. How many words per day do you want to learn? Is there a category in which you need to increase your vocabulary, such as medicine, law or engineering?

To increase slang/colloquialisms/idioms. Is your goal to sound more like a native by using more colorful everyday speech?

To read fluently. Is your goal to be able to read a foreign text for your job?

To prepare for an exam. If you are planning to take a written exam to prove your language ability focus on reading only that information that will help you excel at the test.

To read a specific book. Is there a book you would like to read, but your target language reading ability is not quite at that level? Practice makes perfect. Read less-advance books on the same topic to work your way up to the desired book.

Before you dive into a book, article, newspaper or whatever you decide to read give some serious thought to what you should read. Think about your current level of fluency. Think about your reading goals. Think about what you are willing to do to reach your goals. Ask yourself how much time realistically do you have to spend on reading?


What is the best text to read?

Children’s books. Children’s books are easy. They introduce words slowly and repeat often.

Newspapers. Newspapers are concise and are written with words that are used frequently in everyday life.

Novels. Novels will teach you slang and idioms. How do people really say that?

Academic books. Here is where you will learn your specific vocabulary on a specific topic. These books tend to follow grammar rules.

Magazines. This resource offers a variety of topics from fashion to trains. The articles are usually short and contain both industry terms and slang, but are tended for the common person, making them fairly easy to understand.


How do you prepare to read in a foreign language?

Read in your native tongue first. If your goal is to learn about immigration than read about immigration in your native tongue before reading about immigration in your target language, this will assist in understanding complex concepts and words.

Understand what you are reading. That is, have a general understanding. If you are reading a novel than read a synopsis of the book in your own language first to understand it better.

Brainstorm. Think about the content that you are about to read. What issues will come up?

Skim. Take a look at what you are going to read. Look for any unfamiliar words that may cause you problems in understanding the text. Look up the meanings of the word and jot them down.

You’ve listed your goals, selected your reading material and followed your pre-reading strategies. Now it is time to dive in and read, so how do you do it?


How do you read in a foreign language?

Read the article all the way through, without looking up words. If it is an article, read it all the way through. If it is a novel, read an entire chapter.

Summarize. Summarize what you just read. List the characters and describe the plot, if it is a novel or list key points if you are reading an academic book, newspaper or magazine.

Read again, look up words. This time reread your material, underline the new words and take the time to research them.

Read again, one more time. You’ve looked up words, you’ve read it twice. Now it is time to see  well you understand without looking up any more words.

Summarize, again. When you summarize, this time, be more specific. Did you understand more?

Read again and again. If the article is short and if you have time, I would suggest reading it over a few times throughout the day. This will help you memorize new words and phrases.


How to remember all this new vocabulary?

Flashcards – Either use index cards or an online site that creates flashcards for you such as

Contextualize – On your flashcards, write not only the new vocabulary in the target language and in your native language but also write the sentence in which, you found it. Also include a picture that represents the word.

Mnemonic devices – are techniques a person can use to help them improve their ability to remember something.







Extra tidbits to help you get the most out of reading

            Establish a reading routine

            Read out loud

            Choose material where you know approximately 90% of the vocabulary

            Record yourself

            Read to someone


            The most important thing to remember about reading is simple to do it. Read for fun. Read for purpose. Read the same verse over and over again. Just Read it!

Reading a book quote


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