Reading, however and whenever we do it, remains one of the nicest and most rewarding things anyone of any age can do.
Marilyn Duckworth, New Zealand writer
I had not read a single book in English before coming to New Zealand. Even though I already had a certain level of language I never bothered to do that. Someone might say that I am simply not a fan of books, but the funny thing is that I am and that actually was the main reason for not reading in a foreign language.
The idea of reading two books at the same time, one of which is a dictionary, still does not appeal to me. I’ve tried several times but have never succeeded, which means I’ve never finished the whole book or even when I did I haven’t been absolutely convinced if I had got the idea or missed more than I understood. Furthermore, there was the other tough question that had been disturbing me all the time. What is the point of reading if in jumping from a word to its explanation you can’t immerse yourself in the process of reading? So my conclusion was that as long as you didn’t have enough vocabulary and knowledge to read in a foreign language it was better to stay away from literature.
The understanding of necessity to adjust not your level of language to a certain book but a book to your certain level came to me after discovering a huge amount of different types of literature for English learners in a New Zealand public library. That’s how I started to read in English.
My first books were series of English and American classics retold for non-natives and accompanied by audio, so you can read and listen simultaneously. That was undoubtedly easy reading and as long as you can choose a book according to your level you don’t need a dictionary at all as it’s not hard to guess the meaning of the unknown word or phrase from the context. My other great discovery was books that are not retold but written specially for non-natives, so the author used simplified language and avoided hard constructions. The difference between this kind of books and cheap bestsellers, which are also easy to read, is that the first ones are written for intelligent but non-native readers so despite the simplified English there are still worthy topics and unpredictable plots, while the second, as I see it, written by and for those who have no idea what good literature is.
Later, not being a fan of any detectives or horror stories I passed over Agatha Christie and Steven King, who are usually quite successful among English learners, but got addicted to the tales as I’ve always had a strong feeling that despite the simplified language many of them are written not for children but for adults. My favourites still are curious Alice discovering new worlds and meanings, brave Dorothy suffering from her homesickness and clumsy Pinocchio dreaming to become a boy.
There was also a period when I started to read Russian literature in English. Firstly I felt guilty for doing that as there was no problem to find the same book in Russian. Everyone knows how translations can change the meaning so reading in a foreign language what is written originally in your native tongue seemed ridiculous to me. However, my attitude towards this point changed when I listened to the BBC learning English adviser who recommended practising this kind of reading for non-natives as it is much easier to understand the familiar structures, reality and context but still helpful in order to learn new vocabulary and develop skimming skills. That actually was true. Even if there were serious novels or theoretical works that I hadn’t read before in my own language, it was much easier to read compared to non-native authors. Moreover, I found it interesting to look through the Russian version after and check the work of a translator. As I expected there were enough examples when meanings were slightly or sometimes even dramatically changed, not just words or phrases but the whole sentences and even paragraphs were missing. It is obviously not easy to be a translator, but probably it is even harder to be a writer seeing how your work is losing its original idea.
As a result of all those experiments, after one and a half years in a foreign country I still feel like a disabled reader who can’t afford to read Dickens or Virginia Woolf in the original. However, I’m at least happy to develop this wonderful habit of reading in English which I didn’t do before and which is probably the best and most enjoyable way to learn, improve and enrich your second language.