I’ve found that reading for pleasure is one of the most effective tools in language learning. When you read, your vocabulary grows and your understanding of grammar and syntax gets better without much of a conscious effort. Reading is not a quick fix for becoming fluent fast – it takes a lot of time, and you need to consume thousands of pages, but in my opinion it’s the best, if not the only way to truly master a foreign language.
Since I started learning languages, I’ve read quite a few books, either in translation or in their original language. This post is meant to be a list of some of the books I’ve enjoyed the most, and at the same time found most useful for language learning. I’ll keep updating the list regularly as I find new, great books to recommend!
Albert Camus – L’Étranger
This is one of my favorite all time favorite books. When I studied French, I read L’Étranger (in English: The Stranger) at least 10 times in Danish, English and French. I’ve since read it in Arabic too. L’Etranger is the book that won Algerian (French pied noir) author Albert Camus the nobel prize. It’s an easy read, and the book isn’t that long. The novel is characterized by its dry, simple language and its themes of colonialism, racism, existentialism and nihilism and can also be a little depressive, but I think that it’s quite a gem for all of its little details and how it manages to chock and scandalize the reader despite its minimalist language. When I read it originally, I first skimmed the Danish translation in order to get the plot. Then I read the French and Danish version in parallel, one sentence in Danish, then the original French and then the next one in Danish and so forth until I had finished the book. Then I read the French book while following along with an audio book, and I must say that the audio book is really great. The bored, monotonous voice of the speaker perfectly aligns to the tone of the story. I repeatedly read the book with its audio several times and then proceeded to read it without “crutches” only in its original version. Later I have read the book in its Arabic translation too, and I’ve been positively surprised with the quality of the translation every time I’ve read the book in another language. L’Étranger is a classic, so great effort is put into translating it. It’s one of the books that I have no problem rereading just after putting it down. You only appreciate it more for its cold dryness every time.
I’ve also found this English audio book
Almost everything by Agatha Christie (especially “And Then There Were None”)
Agatha Christie was a British writer of classic “whodunnit” literature, or detective and crime novels. Most of her books (and there are many) are about a murder that the protagonist then needs to solve by gradually unearthing past events and getting to know the often eccentric inhabitants of the English countryside whom usually are the suspects. These books are easy to read and understand, and they work a lot with suspense, which is great when you study languages, because you sometimes forget that you’re reading in another language. A good thing about Christie’s books is that they’re very popular and translated into a wealth of languages. Sometimes plots can be a little confusing, so I recommend that you read them in parallel with the English original. Alternatively, you can read the plot (and spoilers) beforehand on Wikipedia, if you can bare it!
Christie wrote more than 50 books, but if I had to recommend just one, it would be “And Then There Were None” which is a real classic. It is well written and with a clear and simple plot that is predictable in a positive way! Oh and there’s a surprise ending!
The Harry Potter series
I were a kid when the first few Harry Potter books were released. They were the first books that I really dug into, and I’ve read them all several times.
Reading a book that you already know well in a foreign language is a great help, if you still cannot read fully independently. When you already know the plot, it goes without saying that it gets much easier to follow along with the story, and you don’t get lost, confused and subsequently demotivated as easily as you would if you were reading something completely new.
If you, like me, have read the Harry Potter series multiple times in English, I recommend that you pick up a version in the language that you’re learning (except if you’re learning Arabic. The Arabic translation of HP is terrible) even if you don’t know the series, it still is quite good for language learning. It gets gradually more complicated from book to book, and the story, although intended for children and young adults, is exciting and not too complicated.
Ok, so first of all, here are all the books in English
Jules Verne – “10.000 leagues under the sea” and “Around the world in 80 days”
Jules Verne, the French science fiction writer, big in the end of the 19th century, has written some great novels that are very useful for language learning. Verne’s writing is simple and widely available in many languages. Among his easiest novels are “Around the world in 80 days” – a story about a rich eccentric and his assistant making a bet to break all records of traveling around the world in just 80 days, and experiencing loads of things in the different regions of the planet. Another popular novel is “10.000 leagues under the sea” which is one of my personal favorites by Verne, who here experiments with futuristic and fantastic technology like submarines!
And then in the English language:
You can find the two e-books in abridged versions here
Hemingway – The old man and the sea
Hemingway is a great writer with an easily digestible minimalist style. His most simple book, which is the one who won him the nobel prize, is probably “The Old Man and the Sea”. It’s a story about fishing, and although it sounds boring, it’s the kind of books that you just cannot put down. It all culminates in an anticlimactic ending, leaving the reader in a strange state of mind. I really recommend this one for language studies. It is easy and it is very well written!
Jean-Paul Sartre – Les Mots
Les Mots (The Words) is the first part of the autobiography of the French Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. It might be on the difficult end of the spectrum of books that I am mentioning here, but Les Mots was another book that I read several times while studying French, and I enjoyed it very much. The book deals with Sartre’s childhood in Paris, and if you have a grain of narcissism in you, you’ll be able to identify. In the book, the young Sartre who is a gifted child, cherished and encouraged by his grandparents, has to come to terms with growing older. He is nearing adolescence and facing great changes in his conception of himself. He believes himself to be an adorable child, but suddenly realizes that he’s a big boy with a lazy eye. He thinks he’s a child prodigy, but when reading his own scripples, realizes that they’re childish rubbish. When I read this book, I couldn’t help but identify with the poor kid. It’s a great book, written eloquently and well, and the French audio book is well made.
And then the English book
I’d love to hear some of your suggestions too! Which books do you keep coming back to? Is there anything in particular you have found useful for language learning?