Reading in French

4679679503_40790c7292_mOne of my personal reading goals for the past several years has been to read more in my second language of French. While I read lots of text in French on a regular basis (both for work and everyday life), I almost always choose English books when I’m reading for pleasure.

Part of that is comfort level, as I’m a native English speaker, and part of it is habit, I think. Although I’ve studied French off and on since high school, I didn’t really become fluent until moving here for the first time in 1998, and my husband would argue that I’m still not technically fluent–verbs and vowels still having a tendency to get away from me.

But I’m quite capable of reading books in French, and yet I very rarely do. Since I studied applied linguistics in graduate school, I know that a lot of research has gone into understanding how reading in a second (or other multiple) language is different from reading in your native language, but it’s one thing to understand it from an academic standpoint and another to live it first-hand.

When I’m reading in French, I miss a lot of details. It’s a sensory experience–I get a general idea of what is going on in the story, and I start to build up a picture in my mind. I see the characters and the places mentioned, but there are blanks that can only be filled in if I take the time to look up unfamiliar words (which I rarely do). It’s like that old game show where you’d only get one piece of the puzzle at a time and you had to guess at what the picture represented as quickly as possible.

I’m sure that reading in their native language can be like this for some people. I think part of why I find it difficult to read for fun in French is that I’m so used to being a good reader; I have those skills down pat in English, and I don’t have to use additional strategies to fill in the blanks. I don’t have to try.

So I think it’s probably really good for me to keep pushing myself to read in French, even if it’s not always a comfortable experience. And luckily there are moments, when I’m reading the right book, when I can get caught up in the story enough that it doesn’t feel like trying anymore. I want to have more of those moments, so I’m going to keep reading.


What about you? Have you ever read books in a second language? Do you find you have a preference for one or the other?


17 thoughts on “Reading in French

  1. Amanda

    Yes! This is exactly how it is! I’ve made it a goal the last few years to read more in French as well. I’m not nearly as fluent, I’m sure – I studied in high school and college, and then spent six weeks living in Bourges in 1999, but since then, I haven’t had much of an opportunity to practice my skills. Finally, in 2011, I decided to try to brush up, and I read the Harry Potter French translations, all seven books, and at first it was difficult, but it became far easier as time went by. I knew the English so well that I didn’t have the same issue of not seeing the details, you know? But this past year, I read my first new-to-me book in French (Je L’aimais) and it was difficult. I ended up reading a section, then referring to the English version, back and forth. Some of the difficulty stemmed from the book itself being vague and artsy. Later in the year, I tried to read Phantom of the Opera in French, but I’m very bad with the passé simple tense, and of course all the old classics are written that way, and it went over my head.

    My biggest problem, though, is lack of selection. There are literally 10 books or so written in French available in the entire library system here. I have no idea what is being published in France, so most of my choices are classics old enough to get from And classics, as I said before, are so much more difficult to read! I would *love* to be able to read Zola in the original, but it’s not happening at my current level of fluency.

    1. Too Fond Post author

      With the passé simple, I just look for the verb part and go with it–it’s just fancy past, right? 🙂

      If you ever want a specific book in French, I’d be happy to send one to you. I know how hard it is to not have access to books you want. That’s part of the reason why I started blogging, because I could get review copies of books in English. Here even the thinnest paperback in English costs me at least 15 dollars, and my book budget isn’t that big!

    2. Claire 'Word by Word'

      I’ve just started teaching a new French student who I discovered is a literature lover, so great for introducing contemporary works in French, though it can also be a little overwhelming. That said, our book club recently read Le Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh by Phillipe Claudel in French which was superb (and not too long) if you are looking for a good recommendation.

  2. Brooke

    I don’t know enough of a second language to actually read anything other than English, but I feel similar to this when I watch foreign films. Even though they all have subtitles, I still think something is lost in translation and in understanding the underlying or nuanced emotions in the storytelling. When I watch Asian films with my husband, he always has to fill in the blanks despite my ability to read the subtitles. It’s almost frustrating.

    1. Too Fond Post author

      Thanks, Heather, but it really doesn’t feel impressive to me. My experience of knowing a second language has been that you have to get used to pretty much always feeling like an idiot around native speakers. And that’s okay. 🙂

  3. Geoff W

    In college I could, and did, read a couple of books in Spanish, both for research and for fun. I’m sure it would be a lot more difficult now, but I have intentions of finishing Harry Potter in Spanish at some point. And if that goes well enough I’ll try the French edition again. I own both 🙂

    1. Too Fond Post author

      I think reading a book that I’ve read before in English is a great idea, although I’d honestly never thought of it before you and Amanda mentioned reading Harry Potter. I’m definitely going to have to try that.

      1. Geoff W

        Yeah – I think the first non-academic book I tried was Mathilda by Roald Dahl. It was difficult because he made up words (as does Rowling), but it made it a lot easier I knew the story.

  4. Andi Miller

    In my late high school and early to mid-college days I was relatively good with Spanish. I spent some time reading some familiar and less difficult books in Spanish (Harry Potter). I found it a truly interesting experience on a number of levels. Namely, I consider myself a “movie in my head” type of reader. That is, I can totally block out the world because I don’t “see” the words on the page. I see the movie in my head while I’m reading. However, reading in a less familiar language made me see more of the words and far less of the images in my head. A very difficult and eye-opening experience, for sure.

  5. Care

    When I was watching Les Miz last week, I actually thought it was a bit sad that such a grand spectacle had been done in English and not French.
    I only know English. 😦

  6. Nose in a book

    When I did A level French I read a couple of books in French for that and then I worked as an au pair in France for a month and read various kids’ books in French. But I must admit I let it drop straight afterward and that’s 14 years ago. My parents in law live in France now so I really should brush up my French, but I think I’d have to start with some super simple books.

  7. Claire 'Word by Word'

    My main problem is a little lack of the necessary patience, because it’s true it takes so much longer and requires so much perseverance to read in a second language. I often read simultaneously in both French/English, a chapter at a time of the same book, I hate to interrupt the flow, but don’t like to get lost and it usually keeps me from abandoning in frustration.


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 )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ 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