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.

8 thoughts on “Reading in a Second Language: A New Empathy for Slow Readers

  1. When you learned English as a child, you heard it first, understood a little; spoke a little as you grew. Then you then you read it, and finally wrote.
    You are doing it differently this time round….

  2. As always my friend, your insight is very helpful. I have always loved to read and am perfectly happy spending days in my pajamas with whatever characters I am involved with at any given moment. Payton however struggles with reading and comprehension and would rather be hung by her fingernails than read a book. Your perspective on reading in another language is very helpful as I can see how this might be how she feels, even though she is reading in her native tongue. I always love to read your posts, and am continuously amazed at your bravery and adventurous nature. I really like it when you solve my problems without even trying. Keep them coming.

    • And, as always, your comments brighten my day! I do have memories (among others, many best forgotten!) of each of us sitting on our dorm beds reading novels. And, of course, of you reading Trivial Pursuit questions just for fun. 🙂 I hope Payton finds something that captures her interest and gives her your love of reading.

  3. According to a SLP who works with a mostly Spanish speaking population in MKE, learning to read in Spanish, at least for Span. primary language speaking kids, is a slightly different process than in English. We learn letter by letter / sound-by-sound since English has many different syllable “shapes” and allowable word positions for most sounds (H at the end and ZH [like the end sound of beige] and NG at the beginning of a word are about the only non-allowed positions for English sounds). We can have Vowel only (a), Consonant-Vowel (up), VC (am), CVC (hat), CCV (try), CCVC (drop), CVCC (just), CCVCC (trend), CCCVCCC (strands), and more. Spanish has a much more limited array of syllable shapes and Sp. speaking kids learning to read Spanish tend to learn syllables/ syllable shapes rather than individual letters/sounds. The fact that the vowels are constant helps in this process. Spanish has a more limited range of what sounds can occur next to other sounds to form blends and what sounds can occur at word endings. This may be what is slowing you down with your reading— perhaps you are reading Spanish words “in English.” Or maybe not, but I thought this was interesting when I heard about it.
    For your friend Amy: Reading is reading, regardless of what it is Payton is reading. If she wants to read cereal boxes, go for it. Magazines, directions for Lego/craft kits, recipes…. it’s all reading and may be more motivating than reading a whole book. That concept — “A Whole Book”—can be very overwhelming for some kids.
    That’s my little teacher-ism for today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.