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Literature

How Reading 1 Book Can Revolutionize Your Spanish Language Skills

Spanish language skills reading beach Cadiz
Speaking and immersion is essential to improving your Spanish language skills, but many people ignore one vital strategy: reading. And I'm not talking about textbooks or newspapers, though those can help. I've studied four languages in my travels to more than 20 countries, and in my experience, reading just one novel in a language that I'm studying can completely transform my relationship with both the language and culture.

Let’s establish one essential truth right off the bat: reading your first book in another language isn’t going to be easy. Reading an entire book in Spanish, French, Mandarin — whatever language you’re hoping to master — is like training for a marathon. It requires endurance, dedication, and the will to go on even when you don’t want to.

All this said, don’t be daunted, because the rewards are huge. Let’s take a look at just a few of the many benefits of reading an entire book in your target language.

You’ll Bulk Up on Spanish Vocabulary

Some teachers recommend against clinging to your dictionary too tightly as you embark upon reading a book in a second language. I find that it’s absolutely essential, though I have a few strategies that keep me from going overboard.

As you get started, you need to be willing to look up word after word — and sometimes, the same word again and again. WordReference is a lifesaver for looking up lots of words quickly. A paper dictionary can grow too labor-intensive.) This certainly takes patience, but once you get the hang of it, your love of the language combined with a sense of discovery can make this a fascinating process.

I write translations of new words in the margins of my books, since the process of handwriting a word is a huge memory aid — and, of course, in the hopes that I can just flip back a few pages if I see the word again later. Luckily, you’ll notice — much more than you do when reading in English — that every writer has her favorite words that she’ll return to again and again.

Reading cafe Cadiz Spain
Reading outdoors at a sunny street café in Cadiz is a great way to gain deeper insights on what's going on around you. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

Using a Kindle or e-reader is a great choice, too. I've used my Kindle a great deal as I traveled around Spain, since I could carry several books at once and read on the beach with a non-backlit screen. Just download a dictionary in your target language, and you’ll be able to look up the definition of any word by simply selecting it on the screen, without needing to be connected to the internet. 

Plus, the Kindle automatically saves any word you look up, so you’ll have an instant vocabulary list to go back and study later. Based on my own experience, I honestly would recommend this tool for any language student. 

You’ll Improve Your Spanish Language Grammar

Meanwhile, you’ll probably be encountering some grammatical constructions that are unfamiliar to you. You might need a little help with this, so having a grammar reference handy is nice. For Spanish, my favorite book is A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish by John Butt and Carmen Benjamin.

In the space of a single novel, you’re likely to encounter just about every grammatical possibility in the target language. Likewise, you’ll run into a broad scope of vocabulary, with the amount of repetition you need to transform a new word into a part of your permanent vocabulary. That’s why a novel is the perfect vessel for bulking up your Spanish language skills.

So far, I’ve mostly talked about reading your first novel in another language. I’ll take this opportunity to clarify that a nonfiction book works just as well to achieve these ends. Poetry, while it will pose some unique challenges, may not equip you for casual conversation and common turns of phrase in the same way as these other genres will.

Essential Spanish for Every Traveler

Not sure whether your Spanish is up to snuff for your next trip to Spain? Check out this list of the most useful words and phrases for any traveler. 

You’ll Gain Cultural Insights

When I was earning my master of arts in Hispanic Studies, one requirement was to read about 25 books in preparation for a written exam. I did this within a period of just a few months, and emerged on the other side with a depth of knowledge about Spanish culture that I hadn’t gained even in my repeated trips to Spain.

Every one of the books that I read offered its own complex, fascinating portrait of a single niche within the complex, multifaceted cultural fabric of the Iberian Peninsula. From a surrealist 1950s novel I learned about the demoralization that permeated much of Spain after a few decades of Francoism. From Carmen Martín Gaite I learned what it was like to grow up a woman in conservative, Catholic Spain after the Spanish Civil War. From the 14th-century Libro de buen amor I learned that gleeful salaciousness, sarcasm, and social critique also happened during the supposedly pious Middle Ages.

All of these books equipped me to have more complex, meaningful experiences when I returned to Spain. I knew the history of the places I saw, because I had heard their stories told in the first person by people who had lived and died there. Every subsequent trip to Spain after reading these books has been infinitely more rewarding than the trips I took before.

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Key Strategies & Frequently Asked Questions

Should I start with children’s books or comic books?

Yes: for beginners and low-intermediate-level speakers, children’s books and comic books are a great starting point. I'll make some specific book recommendations below. 

And while I am generally opposed to abridged books, they’re honestly not a bad place to start for language learners. The first novel I read in Spanish was an abridged version of Los mares del sur by Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, and it would have been much more daunting to read a longer book.

Ultimately, though, you’ll want to read a full-length book for adult readers. It’s the best way to challenge yourself in a way that will promote the kind of language growth you’re looking for. And my first piece of advice when you arrive at this moment is to choose something because you legitimately want to read it — not just because it seems easy. You’re much more likely to stick to it if it’s enjoyable.

Should I Read Books That Were Translated From English?

Others choose to find a book they’ve read in English — say, the Harry Potter series — and read a translation of the book to their target language. This can be a great approach, since you’ll already feel you have an idea of what the plot will be. It won’t, however, afford the same cultural insights I discussed above.

Is It Possible To Use The Dictionary Too Much? How Can I Avoid Using It For Every Other Word?

While I said you need to be ready to use your dictionary a lot, you also need to be strategic. Depending on your level, there are some words you might want to skip. If you feel like you’re looking up literally every other word, that’s not a productive way to move forward. Instead, focus on looking up only nouns and verbs. Skip the adjectives and adverbs for now, because they’re not as crucial to your understanding of what’s going on in the book.

However, if you are reading several lines at a time without needing to look up words, you can focus more on looking up the adjectives and adverbs you don’t recognize.

Should I Make Flash Cards Or Vocabulary Lists To Improve My Spanish Language Skills?

While you’re reading your novel of choice, you can choose to make a word list or flash cards (on paper or using an app like StudyBlue) with some of the key words you’re learning. But don’t worry about this too much. The book will expose you to enough repetition that you’ll be surprised how many new words you learn. And it’s better not to interrupt your concentration too much to make flash cards and lists. Focus on the book and enjoy the story.

What Spanish-language books would you recommend I start with?

I’ll leave you with a list of a few recommendations of books to start with, with a short explanation of why I recommend them. But especially when you’re traveling in a place where the language is spoken, make sure to explore area bookshops and find the genres that interest you most. Look for featured or staff-recommended books. 

Tatuaje by Manuel Vásquez Montalbán

This detective novel is more than just pulp; it offers a complex look at life in Barcelona in the 1970s, during the troubled years of Spain’s post-dictatorship hangover.

The vocabulary and grammar are accessible and make for relatively easy reading. Meanwhile, you’ll learn a lot about typical Catalán and Spanish foods. Plus, if you like it, you can read more books featuring the same detective, Pepe Carvalho.

El cuarto de atrás by Carmen Martín Gaite

Really, any book by Gaite offers a spectacular insight into the life of girls and women during the dictatorship.

This book has some surreal elements that can be confusing at the beginning, but the writing style is clear and relatively easy to follow.

El fantasma de Gaudí by El Torres and Jesús Alonso Iglesias

This gorgeous, full-color comic book gives a supernatural twist to the story of Barcelona's most famous architect, Antoni Gaudí

If you like science fiction, art, history, and/or architecture, this is the perfect one for you. 

Doce cuentos peregrinos by Gabriel García Márquez

Márquez’s vocabulary is relatively elevated, but these twelve stories offer bite-sized looks into his fabulously written work. 

It’s a great introduction to one of the best Spanish-language writers of all time.

La balada del norte by Alfonso Zapico

This beautifully illustrated comic is perfect for those who are interested in Spanish history. It chronicles the trials and tribulations of economic transition and crisis in Asturias during the first decades of the 20th century. 

It's a fantastic deep dive into culture — a kind of people's history of Spain.

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