The ChallengeIf you speak a foreign language well enough to puzzle out newspaper articles, you have probably at one time or another attempted to read a novel.
And it kicked your butt.
If you got five pages into it, you did very well indeed. Even five paragraphs is more than I think most people could manage, unless they had a copy of the English translation at hand.
The reason for this is that a strong student finishes a two-year college language program knowing about 2,000 "word-families." (Run, runs, runner, running, runny, etc. are part of one word family.) But to read "authentic" novels (written by and for adult native speakers) one needs a knowledge of about 6,000. The "beginners paradox" states that you can only learn those extra 4,000 word families by reading, but you can't read until you know those 4,000 word families. You end up needing to check every fifth word in the dictionary, and that effort defeats you. One in fifty is thought to be the limit for pleasure reading. That is, you must know 98% of the words on the page without a dictionary--not counting words you can guess from context. (You can find a good summary of current thinking in Paul Nation's "How much input do you need to learn the most frequent 9,000 words?" [Reading in a Foreign Language, October 2014]).
I have spoken fluent (B-level) Spanish for forty years, but despite multiple attempts, I never got past the first page or two of a novel until September 2013 when I attempted a Spanish novel on a Kindle and was astonished to polish it off in four days. In the following twelve months, I have read six Spanish novels, two Italian novels, and I'm 50% of the way through the French novel Cinq semaines en ballon (Five Weeks in a Balloon) by Jules Verne. In this post, I'm going to outline how to do it.
Choosing a KindleFor my reading, I use a Kindle Paperwhite e-reader. This is the version that says "Amazon" (not "Kindle") on the back. I read my first Spanish novel on a Kindle Touch, and, of course it does work, but it's a bit more limited and it's not what I'll be describing here. Update October 22, 2014: I have tested it with the new Kindle Voyage, and it works exactly the same way the Paperwhite does.
A Kindle Fire will not work, nor will any of the Kindle apps for PCs, tablets, or phones. The reason is that, at this writing, none of those allows you to use a bilingual dictionary. As will be clear below, it's the bilingual dictionary that makes this work. Update October 22, 2014. Several people have reported that this does work with the iPad Kindle app. It still does not work with the PC app or the Windows Phone app.
To repeat, you must actually buy one of the dedicated e-reader devices--those black-and-white things that can only be used for reading books. None of the Kindle apps for more sophisticated devices will work for this purpose. (Update: one person claims the reader for the iPhone will now let you choose a bilingual dictionary. Someone else told me about a way to hack an Android device to change the dictionary, but I don't think most people want to hack [and possibly break] their devices.)
Choosing a Book(Update: I have since written a much longer post on finding foreign novels to read. This section is still a good summary, though.)
Because reading in a foreign language is challenging--especially for the first novel you attempt in a language--it's important to pick something exciting. It will be very, very tempting to give up during that first chapter. For that reason, I like mysteries or thrillers. Literature, even if it's your goal, is not the place to start.
Second, I personally avoid novels for children; the grammar is no simpler, the vocabulary will be filled with words of limited use to adults (e.g. tug-of-war), and the dialogue is apt to contain slang expressions found only in the Urban Dictionary. On the other hand, the pictures probably do help.
Third, I avoid translations of English novels. This point is debatable, if your goal it to make it easier, since translators use a simpler vocabulary than native authors. (For example, words like azure, cobalt, or cerulean are apt to become just "blue" when translated.) However, as I mentioned above, I'm going for the "authentic" reading experience, so, for me, translations are out. As are books that were specifically written for foreigners studying the language. I only consider books written by and for native adult speakers of the language.
Fourth, I usually choose contemporary novels, since historical works often use obsolete words and even obsolete grammar. (It will be obvious that Cinq semaines en ballon breaks several of these rules. More on that in a later post.)
Amazon sells quite a few foreign-language books for the Kindle, and although archaic publishing laws mean that recent best sellers may not be available (another topic for a future post), there are still hundreds of thousands of books to choose from, many at prices under one dollar.
As soon as you buy any book in a foreign language, the Kindle will offer you the options to set up the device for reading it. Those options are not available before you do this. If you want to do the setup before settling on the book you really want to read, pick any of the many books available for free in that language. Once you've downloaded it, the Kindle will recognize you as a bilingual reader and you can finish setting up the device. (Update November 19, 2014: It is no longer necessary to do any special setup.)
Choosing a DictionaryA bilingual dictionary is a dictionary with entries in one language and definitions in another one. As I mentioned above, a good bilingual dictionary is essential, I have had good success with the Collins products for Spanish, Italian, and French, which I'll describe in more detail in later posts. The most important thing is to remember that although a physical bilingual dictionary is really two books in one--Foreign-to-English and English-to-Foreign--the Kindle bilinguals are sold separately. Be sure you buy the Foreign-to-English dictionary (definitions in English), since you will be reading in a foreign language; you are not trying to write your own novel in a foreign language!
Note that the bilingual dictionary does not count as a foreign-language book. As we'll see later, the Kindle considers it a book in English, since that's what the definitions are written in.
As soon as you downloaded that first book in a foreign language, the Kindle should have made a huge monolingual dictionary available to you as well for free. For example, a French dictionary with definitions in French. You will actually make use of both dictionaries at one time or another. As you become a stronger reader, you will make more and more use of the monolingual dictionary, but in the beginning, you will only use it for words that are not found in the bilingual dictionary.
Setting up the KindleUpdate November 19, 2014: If you have the latest version of Kindle Voyage or Paperwhite, you should be able to skip this section entirely. If you have an older Kindle, you may still need to do this.
Begin at the Kindle home screen:
Second from the bottom, click "Device Options"
At the bottom of the screen, click "Language and Dictionaries"
You should see an entry for every language represented on your Kindle. Press on the entry for the language you're planning to start reading.
The Monolingual dictionary will probably be selected, but you don't want it to be the default. Instead, click on the bilingual dictionary you just bought. Don't forget to click "OK" or else it won't take effect.
Now you're ready to read your novel!
Reading on the KindleThe basic idea behind reading on the Kindle is very simple. When you see a word you don't know, you press on it and the definition from the bilingual dictionary pops up. For example, here's a page from Cinq semaines en ballon:
So press on accroché and Kindle pops up the definition:
The second definition is clearly the one we want. The professor tied the ballon up to a tall tree.
Update November 19, 2014: If you tap on the name of the dictionary in the dialog box ("Collins French-English Dictionary and Grammar" in the example) Kindle gives you a list of dictionaries to choose from.)
Update December 15, 2014: Be sure the "Vocabulary Builder" option is turned off. There appears to be a bug in it which causes your Kindle to get slower and slower and eventually lock up, forcing you to reset it.
With this, you now know enough, in theory, to read a novel on the Kindle. I have a number of tips for how to make this work better and for how to learn more about the language in the process, and I'll discuss those in the next post. One should actually try reading at least a few paragraphs or chapters now. The suggestions for improving the process will much much more sense once you're done a little reading on your own.
You should definitely be able to read more than five paragraphs this time.