Two weeks before I left Poland to move back to the UK, I finished my quest to read all of the Harry Potter series in Polish, with the added bonus of The Tales of Beedle the Bard and Quidditch Through the Ages.
I started reading them 5 years ago, for a few minutes every night before bed. With some short breaks when I was away or waiting for the next volume, I read them pretty consistently over that time.
When I started book 1, my Polish was about A2 level. It took me around 10 minutes to read each double-page spread, and I think I understood about 10-15% of the words on the page. I generally read 2-4 pages a night and it took me about 6 months to finish.
By the time I finished book 7, my Polish was getting to B2 level. It took about 2 minutes per page, and I generally read 6-12 pages per night depending on how awake I was. It also took me about 6 months to finish, but it was nearly twice as long as the first book 🙂
I had sometimes read in other languages before, mostly in German, but never so consistently, and always after many years of study and supplemented by other learning. This was the first time that reading formed a major part of my learning, combined with studying vocabulary and living in Poland, though not using much Polish on a day-to-day basis.
I chose Harry Potter because I was familiar with the stories. I’d read them when they came out, and seen each film at the cinema. I’d seen some of the earlier films a couple more times, so I was more familiar with the key events. This familiarity was key I think: I knew enough about what was going on to be able to identify where I was in the story, but I couldn’t remember exactly what happened so I wanted to keep reading. The familiarity was helpful in another way too: because I knew where I was, I could make an educated guess about the meaning of some of the words.
How I read
When reading in a foreign language, I read to read, rather than reading to learn. What does that mean? Basically, my priority is to get through pages rather than learn lots of new words. If I see an unknown word come up lots of times which I think is in some way important, or is just annoying me because I’ve seen it a lot and still don’t know what it is, then I’ll look it up, but otherwise I just ignore what I don’t know and keep going. I had a couple of paper dictionaries by my bed so I didn’t need to use a screen to check things before going to sleep.
In the first two books, I also made use of the fantastic Polish-English glossary provided by the translator at the back of the books. I wish they’d been in all of them! In it, he explained the meaning of some Harry Potter specific vocabulary, as well as the meaning of some of the translations he had chosen to make. I learnt about the etymology of some of Rowling’s vocabulary choices in this way, not just the Polish words.
What I learnt
Apart from the magic-related words you might expect, like wizard, witch, broom, wand and so on, I learnt a lot of clothing vocabulary, as well as places and related nouns like hedge, and a lot of adjectives, especially to describe feelings.
My grammatical awareness improved. I was exposed to the adjective and noun declensions of the 7 cases of Polish, as well as verb conjugations, and over time I found that I was able to produce these myself much more naturally. Conditional structures were also interesting – I could recognise them, and was just starting to attempt to produce them myself as I got to the end of the books. I don’t always know the grammatical explanations for what I understand, but I don’t need to: my priority is understanding and communication, not a declarative knowledge of the language.
I think the main benefit though was for my reading speed – my Polish reading speed is now almost the same as my English reading speed 🙂
My top tips for reading in foreign 🙂
- Choose a story you’re familiar with, or a world you know about.
- Pick a book you would enjoy reading in your own language.
- Read to read, not to learn. Focus on covering as many pages as you can, rather than understanding a lot.
- Choose words to look up which seem key to the plot or which you see a lot. Limit how many words you look up each time – you’ll remember much more if you look up 1 or 2 words each time.
- Enjoy the process!