Learning Language through Literature
Many language learners already love reading novels, poetry, short stories and other forms of great literature—in their native languages. That love can be transferred into a second language, third language, etc. Thinking about reading a full novel in a second language can be incredibly intimidating and overwhelming. As someone who has a strong passion for literature, I try my best to incorporate the use of literature in the classroom and the overall learning experience. There are many ways to use various texts in language learning that are fruitful and less intimidating. While most language learners try to sit down with a novel and highlight unknown words to look up—often this can be a barrier to grasping the meaning of the work altogether. Eight tools and suggestions that can help you in this process, along with examples will be discussed in the following article:
- Choose a theme, trope, or topic that really interests you. Many students choose to read stories that are short, or seem less complex in order to comprehend as much as possible. While this is beneficial to start, if the topic, plot, or author doesn’t really grab your attention than the process will only become less tolerable and more frustrating. One option can be to choose a story that you have already read in your native language, and really enjoyed, and try to read the English translation. English language learners are lucky in that English is such a far-reaching and popular language, most major works of literature are translated into English. If this option is unavailable, choose something that you know you are passionate about or enjoy learning about.
- Don’t worry about length or linear stories until you feel ready. Most adults feel they should be reading adult novels, something specifically written for their age group, and often their professions. One great way to get started with reading in another language is to choose shorter works for a younger age group—still on a topic that interests you. I really enjoy the collection of Shel Silverstein poetry: Falling Up, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and A Light in the Attic. You can find more about him here: http://www.shelsilverstein.com/ . These poems are funny, clever and come with great illustrations. These can be interesting for all age groups and are especially great for phrasal verbs, idioms, metaphors and other aspects of a second language that can be challenging—and they are short so it is less scary!
- Start with shorter texts BEFORE jumping into a novel. We all have our favorite books, like the Game of Thrones series or Harry Potter, but these can be pretty mentally exhausting to try right away in a new language. Short stories are a really great place to start. There are many great online resources where you can choose a short story ranging from 1 page to 30+ page stories. I often use this one: http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/indexframe.html .
- Do a quick Google search of authors you may be interested in. Maybe there is an epic story you’ve seen made into a movie that you really want to read. But it is important to know the style of writing each author has before you jump right in. For example, most Russian authors write in very lengthy, complex sentences with pretty advanced vocabulary—this might be too tough at first. Ernest Hemingway, however, is known for his short, simple style that might be easier for a second language learner. If you look into the time periods and styles of authors that may help you to avoid trying many texts and feeling discouraged due to the formal or difficult language and grammar.
- Don’t forget all the genres and formats out there! When it comes to literature there are countless genres and forms. We already mentioned novels, short stories, and poetry but there are many more choices that might suit you better. If you prefer something more philosophical or theme-oriented, essays are a great approach. They typically stick to the topic at hand and aren’t too long in length. Some great examples of essayists are novelists too (like Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice Walker, & more). Others are activists (Here you can choose topics you are passionate about!) like: Joan Didion, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou. If you like fine arts, theater, and acting, plays could be a great choice—split into acts and typically not as long as novels. Some great playwrights include: Tennessee Williams, T.S. Eliot, Arthur Miller, Caryl Churchill, and Suzan-Lori Parks. (Bonus: You can watch many film adaptations once you finish reading, to check your comprehension).
- Mix it up! With all the possibilities listed above it is important to vary between genres and formats. I love using news websites (like npr.org) in the classroom, or lectures (from ted.com). Many professionals use these within their teaching, but constantly using news articles, or just one format of reading/writing/listening can become boring and mundane. It’s good to switch around different styles and forms to keep you interested!
- Don’t focus on small details but look at the big picture! It’s completely normal to spend time stressing over individual vocabulary words that are unknown to you. But when you read something at length this attention to detail can distort or confuse the big picture—and slow your motivation and progress. Try to figure out as much as you can from context, and only look up the words that are very unclear or affect your understanding of main ideas. None of us know all the words in our own language, and to try to know them all in another language is unrealistic and disgruntling. Also, try not to do too much at once, most people really only have the memory capacity to really encode 5-10 new words into memory each day.
- Book clubs can be just as helpful as conversation class! If you know other learners, it’s a great idea to share texts and discuss them, this will get you practicing conversation, working on reading comprehension and help to keep you motivated—having someone else hold you accountable for reading can keep you going!
These eight tools can really show you the importance of literature in language learning and developing many skills in your life as a student and in general. I hope that these tips will be helpful in your language learning process. In a world of social media, apps, and tweets, sometimes literature can be forgotten as a great language tool. Happy reading!