Reading in a Second Language: A New Empathy for Slow Readers

I am a voracious reader. I have never understood how someone doesn’t get the same thrill from reading that I do. Reading transports you to a different world and introduces you to different people, albeit not usually real ones in my case as I much prefer fiction to non-fiction. I was in a book club for years (and still am an absentee member who greatly appreciates that my club will arrange meetings around my infrequent visits) and more than once my friends and I would comment that we missed the characters when we finished a book that we liked. When I was eating my breakfast as a kid, I would read the cereal box if nothing else was handy. In short, I can’t imagine a world without reading.

Some are old friends, some I was given - who says no to books in English when you live in Peru?

Some are old friends, some I was given – who says no to books in English when you live in Peru?

I am also lucky to be a fast reader. In my case, this skill is inherent and learned: in a “gifted and talented” summer school class when I was in middle school, we learned to speed read, among other things. I don’t recall any of the other things but speed reading aided me considerably while I was an undergraduate English major and, later, a law student. I am a hopeless procrastinator, so being a fast reader was even more necessary to my success. And it assisted my legal career as well – I could quickly read or skim many cases or regulations to locate what I needed. In retrospect this skill probably did not help my billable hour requirements…

So in my ongoing effort to learn Spanish, months ago I bought this:

My first novel in Spanish - don't judge

My first novel in Spanish.

Before you judge my reading choice, hear me out. First, I have been trying to find “To Kill a Mockingbird” in Spanish (“Matar un Ruiseñor”) for months. (See this post about my quest in Argentina: It is my favorite book, wonderfully written and I know the text well, but despite stopping at every bookstore I pass in South America, I can’t find it. So instead of starting with an amazing classic, I went to the opposite end of the spectrum. I thought a light, chick-lit read would be perfect because I could get fast gratification when I zipped through it, the language would be easy and repetitive, and it would include always-useful slang. I resolved to read the book carefully – not just for the general gist, which would be relatively easy – but to actually understand the grammar and the words. Months later (okay, several vacations interrupted my task) and I am only on page 250 in a book that in English would take me two days to read.

It’s discouraging. I have come to hate this book. I don’t think I would have loved it had I read it in English, but I would have whipped through it, found it mildly amusing and moved on. Now I find it tedious because I am reading so slowly and never gain any momentum. While I have learned some words and improved my recognition of verb tenses, I probably learn more from the primary readers that I borrowed from the school library and the 3rd grade reader I use with my Spanish tutor.

So now I get it: reading isn’t always fun. Book selection is far more important when you are reading at a slower pace because you are investing more of your time in a book. Continuous stopping and starting ruins the flow of reading, so you need to connect more with the book in order to remember what you read several days prior. I can’t imagine reading as much as I read in English if it took me ten times as long to finish a book. I would simply lose interest unless the book was really great. And this book isn’t.

Pure stubbornness is the only reason I will see this project through to the end.