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Tips on reading in a foreign language

So this post is a sort of addendum to the post I made a while back about my experiences reading 해를 품은 달.  Unfortunately, for the time being, my Korean “studying” has dwindled down to reading a page or two every night out of the couple Korean books I own.  I haven’t touched a grammar book in six months or so (this I do not advise) and, yet, I still feel myself improving.  Slowly, yes, but there’s improvement nonetheless and that’s much better than stagnation.

I think once in a while, it’s probably a good idea to take a break from grammar books and their “artificial” passages/dialogues and switch to primary reading material.  News articles, short stories, novels, nonfiction books, magazine articles etc. can really broaden your knowledge in general, not to mention your knowledge of the language you are learning. There are a couple things worth keeping in mind if you want to maximize your learning through reading primary material (novels, in particular) without getting bogged down and discouraged.

  1. Choose something above your reading level.  I know it’s tempting to go for the easy stuff.  I’m guilty of that.  But you won’t be doing yourself any favors if you choose to read something you can fully understand!  I like reading manhwa just for fun but I barely learn anything except for a few words here and there.  해품달, on the other hand, is clearly above my reading level but I understand enough to keep me motivated to continue reading; and at the same time, I’m learning a lot!  I would not, however, suggest reading Charles Dickens or something equally “heavy” in Korean because it could get really discouraging.  There’s a lot of trial and error involved in choosing the right book.
  2. Choose something that you are familiar with.  For example, a book that you’ve read in English that has been translated into your language of study.  I, personally, prefer to read material that was originally written in Korean as opposed to translated into Korean, so I tend to go for novels that have been made into dramas (e.g. Coffee Prince).  I find that having at least a vague idea of the plot prevents me from feeling completely lost in the middle of the book.
  3. Don’t wait until you’re “ready.”  By this, I mean don’t put off trying to read primary material until you feel like you’ve reached a certain degree of fluency in your language of study.  In Korean, I would say maybe six months to a year’s worth of study gives you sufficient familiarity with the language to allow you to start venturing into the world of manhwa and short articles.  Of course this depends on the foreign language, but I think you need to be comfortable with at least basic grammar before jumping into reading books and such.
  4. Read and re-read.  You’ll probably misunderstand a lot of things in your first round of reading.  Take notes and look them over.  Then put them away and come back after two weeks, re-read the same passage/article, and see if you have processed the new vocabulary and grammar.  I often find that what I read the first time around is not exactly what I read the second time around.  I usually have a better grasp of the content after re-reading.
  5. Take copious notes.  Just in case this was not obvious, it is important that you do not read passively.  Since I usually don’t read my grammar book when I’m reading novels and vice versa, I have to make up for that lack of “instruction” on my own by looking up words and grammar points online.  I usually only read a page or two out of 해품달 everyday but that amounts to about 40-60 minutes of study.  My reading “cycle” usually goes something like this:

(a)  Read the passage.  First, I simply read straight through and try to grasp as much as I can without looking up anything.

(b)  Re-read and look up all unfamiliar words and grammar.  I jot down every single one of these in my notebook and look them up online.  Blue ink for new words, red ink for new grammar.  I separate my notes by paragraph and add the page number of the original source next to it too.

(c)  Re-read again.  This time, I read for overall comprehension.

(d)  Repeat.  And finally, I move onto the next couple pages.

It may seem like brute force but it definitely works for me and it’s a welcome change from those grammar books.  (Though I really should get back to my Integrated Koreanit’s been far too long.)

This entry was posted in: General


Writer by day, writer by night. Learning Korean and (some) Japanese since 2010.


  1. Haha! I was like this a few months ago. I didn’t pick up my books for about 6 months but I was watching (and subbing) a drama over that period. Yes, to anyone who’s reading this, it’s not recommended! But I can’t deny that I did improve a bit and learned a few things that way (but yes, very very slow!).

    Thanks for sharing! This is very useful!
    Because of you and your previous post, I decided to pick-up my Kim Sam Soon novel again. I first had it and attempted to read it when I was a totally noob, thus I didn’t understand a thing and decided to wait until I’m ready. I’m thinking I won’t be ready until maybe another year. But because of what you’ve said before (and what you are saying here), I decided to pick it up again. Yeah, it makes it easier that I’m familiar with the flow of the story. Even if it’s different from the drama, at least I have an idea of what they were talking about. Right now I just read passively as I steal some of my time before dozing off to sleep. But it’s a good practice. I’m quite overwhelmed with how much I can understand now, and can’t help but smile once I see words or expressions or grammar patterns I just learned. Later on I will read this novel religiously and will definitely take down notes. But since I don’t have much time these days, I’ll just read passively for now.

    I’m dedicating my little time lately for TOPIK review – that includes drama script reading/listening. What’s interesting, I do take notes while reading my drama scripts the way you do for your novel. :)


  2. Amazing! I was too scared to attempt any books xD but you make such good and motivating points here :)


  3. Pingback: Q&A: How to start learning Korean | 반짝반짝 한국어

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