How to Read a Novel in a Language You Don’t Know

Read a Novel

 Before you start, you might like to download this worksheet I made and use it to take notes. I gave it an art deco look, because why not? ;) 


I think most people’s reason for learning a language is to be able to travel to that country and speak to natives, either for pleasure or for business. At least, that seems to be how most institutions target their classes, and I assume they’ve done their research. Those of us who want to learn languages either for the joy of learning, or for the pleasure of reading foreign-language literature seem to be in the minority. That’s hardly surprising, considering the amount of time and effort that goes into learning a language to such a high level, not to mention the relative superfluity of the activity now that the internet makes translations of so many works readily available.

Nevertheless, I think setting yourself the goal of reading a novel in a foreign language is a great one for several reasons:

  1. It requires you to push yourself beyond just “getting by” in your new language.
  2. It requires you to learn expressions that may not be used in everyday speech, but are interesting for cultural or historical reasons.
  3. It gives you a very concrete goal.
  4. Reading is an excellent way to maintain a language. You can read a page or two whenever you have time, without visiting a country or finding a conversation partner.

This post details some methods I’ve found useful in my own learning, however, I should note that my experience is limited to European languages learnt through English, and I have a particular fondness for the nineteenth-century.


The first thing you should know is that learning to read a novel in a foreign language is absolutely possible. Furthermore, while it may be extremely time-consuming, it isn’t as difficult as you might think it is. At least, a lot depends on the sort of novel you want to read, and how fastidious you are about understanding it correctly. A highly literary novel or a poem may be beyond your abilities unless you have help from a translation or a (literary) native speaker, but a genre novel or one aimed at children as well as adults will likely pose no serious problem if you’re committed to unravelling it.

And that’s the second thing you should know. Reading a novel in a second language is often a process of unravelling, and it will be far slower than you’re used to in your native tongue. The day when you can sit down and finish a foreign novel in a day may be many years away, but the day when you can sit down and figure out the first chapter of a novel in a day may be only a few weeks in the future. But I want to be careful not to give you false hopes. It will take months of INTENSIVE study for you to be able to read a novel in a foreign language, even if it’s a novel you already know well, and even if your target language is closely related to your native language. And by intensive I mean at least 2 hours a day of concentrated work, and thinking about the language in any moments of mental free time.

Stages of learning to read a text:

  1. Learn to recognise individual words and phrases.
  2. Learn to make out the meaning of a text by consulting a translation.
  3. Learn to read simple sentences, looking up words when necessary.
  4. Learn to understand a complex text with only occasional reference to a dictionary.

The key factors to your success are:

  • A passionate obsession for your target language and the work you want to read.
  • A love of learning (languages).
  • An understanding of how to learn, including language methods and progress tracking.


The good news is that reading is a lot easier than writing, speaking or even listening. To write, you need to find the right words, the right constructions and the right spellings. When speaking, you need to be reasonably quick so that your conversation partner doesn’t fall asleep waiting for you to reply. And at the same time you need to listen and understand what they say, which can be difficult if they speak fast, with a thick accent, or with added local colour. When you’re reading, on the other hand, you can take as long as you need to understand a sentence. You’re already given all the words you need, and you can look up as many definitions as you want without exasperating another person. You also have the added support of the text and the context. Your knowledge of literature will often help you understand works in your target language, especially if you’re looking at works that influenced each other. For example, if you’re familiar with nineteenth-century English literature, you’ll recognise a lot of similarities in syntax, subject and form in other European works of the era.


Every (good) language class I’ve attended has followed a textbook, and I would recommend that you do the same. Any popular textbook will do, though as a rule those that have more of your target language and less of your native language will serve you better. You can find plenty of material on the web these days. I have lists of my favourite resources for Latin and for Russian and more languages will follow.

Working your way through a textbook is a good way to give your studies direction and to track your progress. The ultimate test of how far you’ve come will be your ability to understand the novel you want to read, and to this end I would recommend the ‘First Page’ exercise detailed below.

General Advice


Old grammars are the best, at least in the European languages I’ve started learning. The nineteenth century was a time of development in philology, and in the climate of self-learning. The industrial revolution was making more books available cheaper, and the speed of post was an incentive for  linguists to develop their own mail-order language courses and grammars. Many of these are kindly made available on and I highly recommend you do a search for “[your target language] grammar”. These old grammar books usually take a more pared-down approach to presenting their subject, and they have less of the “fluff” that modern book-writers feel the need to include. Some of them really turn grammar into an art!


I don’t love old grammars because I love memorising declension and conjugation tables. On the contrary, I’m terrible at memorising! The reason they’re so helpful is that they point out patterns and exceptions in the grammar of a language.

Saving and accessing a table like the one below in your mental database can be time-consuming, but if you remember certain patterns, for example that the genitive and dative are the same for all genders, and that the neuter is always the same in the nominative and the accusative, then you have shortcuts for over 50% of the information represented.


Learning to identify linguistic patterns is one of the essential skills to learning a new language, and one that will speed your acquisition of future languages. I noticed that the Oxford classics exams test for this skill, and they’re rather fun to solve if you’re bored with crosswords!

Proper names
It can be useful to look up some of the characters and places in the novel, in order to recognise them easier when they turn up. Usually they will start with a capital letter, but if they come at the beginning of a sentence, they may be trickier to spot. Some languages can also require extra work if they decline proper names or (like Russian) make extensive use of nicknames and diminutives.

Language books rarely spend much time over punctuation, possibly because it’s influenced so much by personal preference. When reading a novel, however, punctuation can be of great help, for example in separating clauses and list items, marking direct and indirect speech, and even indicating things like ordinal numbers. It’s worth trying to find some information on common punctuation rules.

Figurative language isn’t always easy to spot, but similes often show up in the form of comparisons. Take a moment to note down some words that might indicate the use of a simile.


If you don’t consider it cheating, and if you’re lucky enough to find one, parallel texts are very helpful resources in understand a text. Parallel texts are printed with the foreign language text on the page facing the English (or other native language) page. The Loeb editions are beautiful examples of the parallel text for Ancient Greek and Latin sources. It’s a difficult project both for the translator and for the printer, so few long novels will have parallel editions. However, with some good book holders, or even e-text juggling, you can use an original text side-by-side with a translation. If you’d like to use them simply as aids to improve your reading, Penguin has a wonderful series of parallel short stories in several languages, as does Dover.

Chrestomathies and readers provide texts that increase in complexity but are specifically chosen to help with learning a language. Often they will include notes and glosses. Like parallel texts, these can be great trainers for the lonely work of reading literature.


Having extolled the virtues of reading, I must note that it’s not a good idea to learn using exclusively written material. To better understand an author’s style, you need to have a good “inner ear” for the cadences of their language, and the way they manipulate it. And aside from all this, using several modalities is always a more effective way to learn.

Where to find audiobooks:

  • You can find audiobooks of many well-known works for free at, although the quality can vary.
  • If you have a digital copy of the text, you can paste it into Google Translate and click the speaker button in the bottom left-hand corner. I’ve found the reading voice surprisingly accurate in the languages I’ve tried.
  • Try your local library. They may have a recording on CD or in their OverDrive catalogue, and if not they may be able to order it for you.
  • Failing those, try Googling “[your book] audiobook”, or look up the word “audiobook” in your target language.


Cognates are words that share an etymology and false cognates are words that sound as if they’re related, but aren’t. For example, in English pen and pencil are false cognates, though it’s hard to believe! “Gift” is the German word for poison, and the Russian word “магазин” (magazin) means a shop. I actually think that false cognates are as helpful as cognates. We’re used to learning new definitions for words in our native tongue, so it’s relatively easy to tack a new meaning onto an existing word, whereas it’s more work to remember a new word AND its new denotation. My advice is to embrace both true & false cognates!


One major difference between learning to speak and learning to read a novel is that most novels are written using some form of the past tense. Of course, there are exceptions, so it’s worth figuring out what the tense of your work is first. There’s no reason you can’t skip learning the present tenses of verbs in order to learn the past forms first, even though practically every textbook begins by teaching the present tense.
Some languages have several past tenses, usually differentiating between the actions that were done and finished in the past (I did), actions that were performed repeatedly in the past (I used to do, I would do), and actions that began in the past and but weren’t finished (I was doing).
Often “it was” is often a particularly useful set phrase to learn, because it’s used so frequently in storytelling. “It was a dark and stormy night….”


Knowing what person your novel is written in (i.e. first person, second person, third person) can greatly help your reading. I would recommend consulting a translation or a native speaker for help, especially if you’re working in a language that doesn’t require the use of personal pronouns. If not, it can be very useful to learn the basic pronouns early on.


Most novels will make frequent use of direct speech, and luckily for us, these are often easy to spot, even if the text is written using a foreign alphabet. Not all languages use the quotation marks common to English, however (and there are differences even between British and American English); guillemets (triangular brackets) are also very common, as are dialogue dashes. You can find a helpful list on Wikipedia.

Quotations are useful because they often indicate a change in tone, person and tense. Even better, they’re frequently flanked by standard dialogue tags like, “he/she said”, which are repeated throughout the text. Less easy to spot are instances of indirect speech (“he/she said that, told me that/to” etc.), so it’s even more useful to note down their indicators. Some languages (such as Turkish) can use special grammatical forms that don’t rely on simple dialogue tags, but it’s still a good idea to investigate and make notes so that you recognise them when you encounter them.


If ever you fall into despair over your inability to decipher a section of your target novel, try reading some non-fiction instead. You might find an article written by the same author, or one that is about them. Excepting overly philosophical or stylistically elaborate literary criticism, you will probably find it easier going. Newspaper articles are especially simple, having been written for the general public, and nowadays blog posts are also great resources.


This can seem like a trivial matter, but having nice books and notebooks can be a really good incentive to keep studying. You’ll be much likelier to pick up a textbook that fits comfortably in your hand than one that is too heavy, or so floppy that you need to rest it on a table. Ebooks, much as I love them, aren’t as effective as learning tools for me, because the page is so fluid. I find visual memory very helpful for recalling the information on a page that’s always laid out in the same way.
But perhaps the best incentive, as well as the first page mentioned below, is to have a really attractive copy of your target book. Admittedly, this may not necessarily be a leather-bound first edition, considering you’ll probably want to make a lot of notes on it, but just a visual reminder that one day you’re going to read that!
David James’s Goldlist Method makes much of using a beautiful hardback book and a nice pen or pencil for making wordlists, and while I find the method rather tedious, I think there’s a lot to be said for using the very real pleasure of material objects to aid retention.



Make a copy of the first page or two of the work you want to read. After every week of study, take a different coloured pen and mark any words you know, any grammatical structures you recognise (or think you recognise) and any words you can figure out (or think you can figure out) from context. After a couple of weeks, your text might look like this:

The Luzhin Defense

Even complicated works will use words you’ll learn from week 1, and you can deduce even more meaning by looking for grammatical patterns.


I have some bookmarks you can download, print off and use to write down words you don’t know. Jot down the word on one side, and the definition or translation on the reverse. The same words will probably keep coming up as you read, and some of them may be quite specific to the work you’re reading, so it’s good to keep them on hand, especially for when you return to the work after a while.

I hope you found this blog post useful. I could go on about language learning until the sun comes up, so stay tuned for more posts and resources!

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I write about literature, language, love, and living off your pen. Also, fortifying fiction, personal amelioration, and tea.

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