How I learned to read a book in a foreign language

Let’s go back to 2015. I had just finished taking the French language courses at Swarthmore. This means that I was able to hold the most basic of conversations in French, often with generous assistance from my professors. My knowledge of French literature, French culture, French politics, anything really, was limited to whatever my instructors had taught us in class. And because my instructors taught only in French, my knowledge was really centered around what little I could actually understand. It was in the summer of 2015 that I first decided I would study abroad in Senegal during my junior spring. In order to prepare myself, I prepared an independent course of study with my advisor on West African literature, with an emphasis on Senegalese literature. I’ll link the syllabus here.

Prior to this independent study, I read my first novel in French outside of class, which was Ousmane Sembène’s Xala. As to be expected, I did not understand much of what I was reading. I found I was getting frustrated with my inability to make sense of the plot, mainly because I didn’t know what half of the words meant. I had the bare fundamentals of French grammar, so I could roughly tell you how the sentence was working, but I couldn’t really tell you what the verb meant, and therefore the sentence was partially void of meaning. I kept reading, expecting that with time I would improve, but I can’t say that this happened. However, I went into the independent study knowing that, because this was the first time I’d be reading novels in French, I decided to take notes and consult my advisor on the best course of action. I have since committed what she’s told me and what I’ve learned to memory, and cannot really report what I learned then to you, since it’s been assimilated into my general approach to literature more broadly. Nevertheless, it’s four years later and I’m reading French novels every week, often at the same pace and with the same degree of rigor with which I read an English novel. And I’m here now to give you some tips on how to do this.

Why read in another language?

I made an Instagram post a few weeks ago about how a lot of people say they want to learn a language, but then give up when things get too hard or when they exhaust their resources. The resource process is an unfortunate circumstance of linguistics research and pedagogy, since there will always be more resources dedicated to the acquisition of languages deemed to have some sort of “value.” That means trying to learn a language like Bajan Creole will be quite difficult, since Bajans themselves are at odds over the utility of their language in relation to more worldly languages, like English. My only advice for this is to find different kinds of resources, like song lyrics, poetry, radio dramas, etc. with which to study the language and become familiar with its functions. I’d also go to the places where its spoken, if this is within your power and ability. It isn’t always, though.

We read Les jeux sont faits (English: the chips are down) when I was in French 14

I’m going to focus primarily on the former part of this problem: things get too hard. Like anything worthwhile, learning a language is not easy. Many people see apps or programs like Duolingo and Rosetta Strone and think “ah, here’s how I’ll learn Mandarin!” And these apps will give you a head-start, sure. But once you’ve exceeded their utility and need something more advanced, things often get too hard. You become frustrated with your inability to express yourself in the most mundane and meaningful of ways, despite the feeling of progress you’ve developed using the program. Enter media. Acquisition tools will only take you so far, and after a certain point, you’ll need to venture out and consume media as it’s being produced and used by the actual speakers of this language. And this can be startling! I remember being in high school and feeling like a total Spanish language hotshot, and then sitting for the AP Spanish Literature entrance exam and not being able to make sense of anything I was reading. This was a blow to my ego, and I didn’t get into the class, mainly because I wasn’t prepared for it. My knowledge of the Spanish language had been mainly utilitarian. I could hold my own if you dumped me in the middle of Perth Amboy, but I wasn’t equipped with the tools to navigate a Spanish-language novel. This is mainly due to the fact that I didn’t do any extra work when learning Spanish. I simply did my homework and relied on my generally decent language skills to master conjugation schemas and memorize which verbs take prepositions and which verbs do not. I didn’t watch telenovelas or converse with Spanish-speaking people on a regular basis, nor listen to Spanish-language music or try my hand at Spanish-language novels like the classmates who made it into the class. And I wasn’t bitter, because I wouldn’t have been prepared for the class had I gotten in. The professors were doing me a favor by rejecting me from the course.

Riene Pokou is a historical by Ivoirian novelist Véronique Tadjo. I read this during my independent study, four years ago.

I suggest to all of my friends who want to learn French or Spanish or any language with a rich written literary tradition to read novels in the language. Preferably novels that match the person’s reading competency. This means that you can’t expect to get much of Dostoevsky after finishing your second year of Russian. When I was learning French, I read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince in the original French. This book is, of course, for children. But my ability to read was literally at that of a young child, and therefore I had just as much ease reading it as an 8-year-old French-speaking child would, for our reading skills were roughly similar. The child’s language skills would likely be more elastic than mine, but I still had English to rely on when I did not know what a word was, whereas the child had no such resource to lean on (presuming they don’t speak another Romance language or language into which French words have been calqued/borrowed.)

A good text for people who want to improve their French is Albert Camus’ L’étranger. I suggest this because 1) many people have read it in English, and therefore know the story 2) the novel is written in a style which is accommodating to non-fluent speakers. It doesn’t use the French historic/literary tense, for one, and is rather dry in its description, to both stylistic and linguistic effects. It’s also a bit easier to read this in public than Le Petit Prince, although I don’t see why you’d be embarrassed. Most people look at the cover of the books you’re reading, see it’s in another language and say “woah, look at him!” and go back to spacing out on the train.

Reading in another language is useful because it familiarizes you with phrases and idioms you may never hear in spoken language, therefore broadening your knowledge of the language and its multiple usages. The utilitarian usages of French may get you to the bathroom, but you’ll find that conversations are relatively stale if you continue to use the most direct of approaches towards self-expression. This isn’t bad, but it’s also not good. If someone says something like “pêle-mêle” to you in a conversation, and you do not know what that means, it may cause unnecessary turbulence or confusion, precisely because you haven’t broadened your knowledge of the language and its uses.

Tip #1 –  read without a dictionary.

So you’ve picked up a German text and you’re ready to get to reading. Bet. You’re three sentences in and you come across a word you’ve ever seen before. You use all your tools (context clues, breaking the word apart into its segments, etc.) and you still don’t know what it’s saying. You get out your dictionary (or Google) and find out what the word is. Great. You continue reading, and three lines down, another word comes up. Rinse and repeat. Before you know it, you’re starting to feel tired of reading the text, finding that the process of searching words is taking away from the experience of reading. You’re on the verge of giving up, saying “this is too hard!” What to do?

The urge to define unknown words is something we’ve all experienced as children. I have not-fond memories of my parents telling me “look it up” to any vocabulary inquiry. Generally, I wouldn’t look the word up; I just stopped asking them. Nevertheless, what I find helpful is to avoid looking up words. I rarely look up words I don’t know in French, even to this day. And this doesn’t mean I don’t come across words I don’t really know, but that I’m attempting to make a mental image of what the word is without relying on translation or definition. I begin to make note of how the word is being used in different contexts, and based on the environment and syntax of the word, I build an image of the word in the French language. (egotistical aside: this is a very Sausserian way of reading, and I kind of pride myself on having done this before having even read de Saussure) What this means ultimately is that I can’t really tell you what a word like frétiller means, because telling you this would mean a kind of translation activity I’ve avoided. Nevertheless, I know what frétiller means within context; I’ve read about bodies which frétillent to rhythms or dogs with frétillant tails or fish which frétille on the quays -> it means something like wiggle, shimmy, wag. 

Another word is éclat. I see this word everywhere, as well as the verb s’éclater. Usually I see it when something sudden happens, and it’s usually synonymized with words corresponding to loud sounds, like “bruit” or “hurlement” or “cri” -> it means something like a burst or another loud, sharp sound. Now, éclat has other meanings; it typically means something sharp, be it a sharp sound (like a scream) or a sharp object (éclats de bois -> splinters) or even a sharp perception of light (as opposed to dull or slow light; éclats de lumière -> flashes of light).

Xala (pronounced hala, but with a harsher h sound than exists in English; not pronounced zala)

I describe this process as a kind of knowing-in-language, as opposed to the translating activity of knowing-across-language. I have an idea of a word which is more or less right, even if I struggle to tell you what the translation of the word is. Sometimes I can pick it apart by looking at context of the construction of the word – the word accroché contains the root for the word crochet, a hook. Knowing this, I can deduce it means something related to hanging or hooking something, typically onto something. But that does not mean it can be used in all the same ways the word hang can be used. A weakness of relying on translation is the often situational uses of different words in a language are flattened when translation occurs. You’d never describe someone who has been hanged as accroché – the word for this is pendu, from the word pendre (same root as the words pendulous or pendulum in English). Both words mean “to hang,” but they describe different motions and activities which are not directly translatable. When we read without using a dictionary, we force ourselves to become aware of the different ways words are used (semantics), and when those words ought to be used (pragmatics). It may seem very situational and perhaps even nitpicky, but I’ve found this to be invaluable to my ability to really read in a language.

Tip #2 – stop translating entirely

This can be read as a follow-up to tip 1, but I view them as distinct. Dictionaries are indeed processes of translation, and if you must use a dictionary, I would suggest using a dictionary for that language. That means not using a Russian-English dictionary, but a purely Russian dictionary. What I mean by translation is the process of reading a sentence and doing the mental labor of translating that sentence into English. You may be asking me “how do you suggest I stop doing this?” It’s a difficult question to answer, indeed. I’ve been reading in French for several years, and I don’t remember just when I stopped reading-then-translating. I also don’t remember how I did it. I know that when I pick up a French novel or text now, I read it in French, and can make my way through it without much issue. Sometimes I come across a word I’ve never seen, like when I discovered the word pâtir[1]. But typically, I do not need a dictionary anymore, and this is a place I’m comfortable at.

Part of the labor of reading in a foreign language is the feeling of it taking way too long. Nothing ruins reading like becoming aware of oneself reading – the suspension of disbelief which occurs when we are reminded that we are reading – in a foreign language, on top of that – can make it suddenly a miserable experience. This may be happening because you’re translating as you read, and it’s eating up a lot of mental resources. You read a line, and try to piece together the sentence in English, and move on. Or, you may even translate word-for-word (bad traductology), which takes even longer, because now you have to reconstruct the grammar of the sentence.

I would avoid this if you can. Obviously the first few texts you read will be mainly this, and you’ll probably hate it. Soon, however, you may get to a paragraph where you won’t need to translate it. You’ll be familiar enough with the words that the logic of the sentence seems intuitive to you. This is ultimately the goal.

I could go into further detail about why I think translation gets in the way of reading, but my major problem is that translation creates an unnecessary boundary to the acquisition of specific kinds of knowledge bound to particular language communities. Knowledge is in many ways a kind of enchanted magic within words – this magic cannot be transmuted into other language forms. In the process of translating the form, a bit of the content is lost and inassimilable into the new language. Translators don’t tend to worry about this, claiming that what little bit is lost is not really circumstantial, but this freaks me out and I avoid it. I will explain why this matters in my final tip, but for now, know that translation is often the enemy of progress when it comes to reading a foreign language text. If you wanted to translate it into English as you read, you should just read it in English and save yourself some time and brainpower.

Tip #3 – create another you in the language

I was asked yesterday (weirdly enough) if I think my mannerisms change when I speak in French. The answer to this is “yes.” I do not have the fluidity to move seamlessly across languages without switching identities, and I’m not certain anyone really can. Have you ever seen someone who speaks two languages almost become a different person when they’re speaking their other language? I can remember watching my Haitian friends speak Kréyol around their parents, and finding that they even spoke in a different voice! I find this to be the beautiful thing about language, and I have some theories about the philosophy of language and identity which I’d like to expand in the coming years, primarily because I spend so much time thinking about these things. But what I’m suggesting today is that you develop a different you within the language you are learning.

What does this mean? By saying a different “you,” I’m not suggesting you reinvent yourself in that language, so much as you begin to expand the ways you understand the world in that language, and the means by which that language can articulate the exigencies of your everyday life. That may mean coming to grips with the fact that different words slip into the same word in English, or understanding that certain ideas are actually unspeakable in the language. My go-to example is the term blackness in cultural studies discourse in American academic circles. Blackness is, to be too frank, the cultural assemblage of political markers defining a person as Black and the ways that this assemblage functions as a way of rearticulating the possibilities of Black self-expression: Otherwise: Blackness is both the state of being a Black person, the ways that Black people understand themselves as Black, and the political ramifications of one’s self-knowledge. This idea does not exist in French. There is no word to describe this, and the closest thing, négritude, is too attached to the literary movement of the same name to have the utility to critical theorists or social scientists. People have proposed new terms, like noirceur, but this term is often not readily understood to mean what blackness easily does in English; noirceur still maintains too broad a polysemy to be as political useful. What you’ll often find is just a borrowing of the word blackness or black studies in French, which ultimately, albeit unintentionally, marks these ideas as inassimilable into a French linguistic imaginary. They remain alien concepts which must be imported, and which cannot even be denatured enough to fit in the French language.

Where it all began. We read this during my French 3 course. I understood the majority of it, but there were still words or constructions I couldn’t understand.

Given this example, my work in cultural studies and reading French texts must take into account the way knowledge circulates in the French language. Because English is the language of the global academy, American academics often perceive the world to operate in a way which is always-already Anglophone. A lot of bad scholarship is written which critiques German or French philosophy over its inability to account for race, but these are often issues of translation and accessibility. I keep my friends anchored by reminding them that we cannot read Foucault expecting him to know how race works, particularly in the United States, a place which many French intellectuals in the mid-century still perceived with contempt. American racial politics are American, and while French people can be and have been for a long time racist, race is rarely perceived as a problem in France; it’s always far away, on the outskirts of their world (read: the colonies, the overseas territories; read: not in the metropole).

I mention this because I’ve developed an intellectual facsimile of myself that exists in the world of French studies, and which understands the limitations of articulation in the French language. We are at odds to explain things we cannot name, and because of this, we must find new ways of making the world aware of issues. Blackness as I have defined it is 100% traceable in France, but it remains an idea which cannot be named, which has yet to hit its solar maximum. This is not because France is backwards or anti-intellectual, but because the United States is the crucible of racial politics in ways that France is not.

One can build a knowledge of the inner workings of cultural politics without speaking the language, but I find that this is just a roundabout way at getting at the same result as someone who studies the language itself. And one’s knowledge of a culture’s political environment will invariably be second- or third-hand, since it will have to be translated, meaning some meaning will inevitably be lost. Perhaps I am exceptionally distrustful of other people’s translation, but my entry into the field of what could be called “comparative cultural studies” mean trying to figure out what people are saying about themselves – not what other people are saying about other people.

Conclusion

I’m not sure if this is useful. I fear sometimes that I’m reading incorrectly by not translating, or that my idea of “building another self in the language” is misguided, if impossible. I will always bear an African American perspective to the world which will shape my interactions with any culture I come in contact with. But my awareness of this, and my capacity to (mostly) suspend it is enough to do to the work I want to do. For one, people have done far more caring far less than I have. But it also means that I want to understand and be able to converse with French or Caribbean or African people without making them fit into a mold of expectation or proselytizing unwittingly American ideas. I also want to be able to feel like I understand the architecture of a culture, to move seamlessly through linguistic space, without feeling tethered to my particular Anglophone experience. And perhaps this is what you want too. I can’t really know. But I found it helpful, at least for me, to articulate these ideas.


[1] to suffer; from the same Latinate root which yields the word passion in English and French, but particularly of the Biblical connotation of that phrase, as in The passions of Christ [read: the suffering]

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