6 In Others / General

[Tips] How to choose the “right” first novel in a foreign language

Starting to read a full-length fiction novel in a foreign language can be both an exciting milestone moment and perhaps also a rather nerve-wrecking one (with copious amounts of self-doubt). The completion of a novel will no doubt be an exhilarating moment for all 🙂

Sharing some tips and thoughts about when to start attempting to read fiction novels and how to choose a good one to start with!

When am I ready?

My advice over the past years has been consistent: You will never be ready unless you start. You are not going to wake up one day and feel “ready”. Nor is passing X level in a language proficiency test a good gauge – in fact, the process and progress you make in trying to read different types of texts will help you pass that proficiency test. Chicken and egg issue there 😛

That said, you will need some proficiency before you can attempt to read a novel. I would think a rough gauge will be when you are comfortable enough to read short articles in the target language. You need not be able to understand everything, but at least you can pinpoint what you don’t know – meaning you can parse the sentence and recognise where a word starts and end and what are grammatical structures/particles.

For example, you may not know the word in orange but you can recognise that it’s a word, and the character 을 next to it is a grammar particle. You may also not recognise the grammar point in green, but you kinda figure out that it looks like a grammar point.

늦잠을 자는 바람에 빵을 먹기는커녕 물 한 잔도 못 마셨어요.

Be prepared that you will be spending a long time with each sentence. I did and I enjoyed every moment though. I would probably highlight 5 words in one sentence and I’ll slowly search them up and write them down in my notebook. There’s no need to feel demoralised, it’s part of the learning 🙂

How to choose your first novel

Personally I’ll recommend an original novel in the target language which has been adapted for the big/small screen and you are familiar with the adaptation. This allows you to have some background when you first approached the novel and helps in the understanding too.

Choose a novel that deals with more generic topics – they could be easier than something more specialised such as a drama set in the courtroom.

One of the earliest (not the first) novels I’ve read was 우리들의 행복한 시간 (우행시). People who know me would know that the movie adaptation starring Kang Dong Won (my love) and Lee Na Young is one of my all-time fav movies.

I’m not too fond of reading translated novel (e.g. the Korean version of Harry Potter) as a start – although that might be quite intuitive to do so since you can reference the original work. I bought the Korean version of Twilight (LOOOL) and never managed to make any headway in it hahahha. Not all translated works are good and it’s also a bit strange to read about Edward and Bella in Korean?! Somehow I also think that if you know that you have the original work to refer to, it kinda creates a safety net and may make you too reliant on the original text.

Don’t be discouraged

I can’t emphasise how important this is. Especially if you know you are actually stepping out of your comfort zone to attempt reading a difficult material beyond your current proficiency. I love the challenge of searching up almost all the words in the novel when I first started – it’s a very slow process but it makes me happy. It’s important not to feel discouraged or feel that inadequate if you find it hard to read at the start – remember that you can only get better!

Share your experiences reading your first novel in a foreign language!

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  • Reply
    19 May, 2020 at 9:12 PM

    Do you think reading Korean webtoons is a good intro to reading novels, or is the language used too different?

    I find that having pictures to go along with text helps me understand what’s going on, but most webtoons are just dialogues without narration as it appears in novels.

    • Reply
      19 May, 2020 at 11:25 PM

      I think any form of reading will help in eventually completing a novel! Exposure to different (all) types of texts is really important in language learning 🙂

    • Reply
      Someday Korean
      20 May, 2020 at 4:34 PM

      I’ve noticed that not only do the pictures help me figure out what’s going on and what certain words mean, but reading webtoons can also help improve your reading speed a lot. The more you read, the more your brain starts to recognize whole words individually rather than reading each letter one at a time.

      It’s so true that dialogue is easier to read, though. When I read Korean novels, I’ve noticed that when a page has a lot of dialogue I can read it probably 3x faster than when I read a page that is narration-heavy, since that’s where they use a bunch of descriptive pretty language with words I’m not familiar with haha.

  • Reply
    19 May, 2020 at 9:54 PM

    I didn’t start with novels, but my first Korean book was a self-help book that addressed topics like dreams and happiness with short stories from a range of people. Even though it took me a long time to get through each sentence, I was able to finish the whole story and move on to the next within a couple of pages which was nice. I wanted to try to start reading Chinese novels, and I was wondering if 隔壁那个饭桶 from your recommended Chinese novels list might be a good start? I figured it would be better to start with a c-modern novel.

    • Reply
      19 May, 2020 at 11:29 PM

      That sounds like an inspiring book! Short stories are also easier to digest. hahaha ooh and yes 隔壁那个饭桶 is a great book to start with. I remember liking it a lot. Yes, modern stories would probably be easier to start with. But when you wanna move on to the period novels, please read 浅绿’s novels!

      (sidetrack) hahaha this reminds me that the first (or one of the first) book I bought was a parenting book in Korean (when I was 18) cos I didn’t even know how to read the cover title 😛 I never ended up reading it though.

  • Reply
    Someday Korean
    20 May, 2020 at 4:30 PM

    The first Korean novel I bought was ….the second Harry Potter book. I meant to buy the first one but accidentally searched the wrong title lol. Anyways, I bought it way back in 2015 when I was barely intermediate level, and I think I got a little overwhelmed at all of the narrative prose at the beginning, stopped reading it, and bought some children’s books instead. I think it was last year when I finally picked it back up, started from the very beginning again, and made it through.

    I know a lot of people debate about whether or not to read translated books that you’re familiar with. What I liked about reading Harry Potter is that 1) I hadn’t read the English version in many years, so I had forgotten a lot of the details of the story, but 2) I was already familiar with the general context and storyline, so that helped me to guess new words’ meanings from the context a lot. I do agree that there are a lot of benefits to reading original Korean novels though. You can understand Korean culture better, and you can also get a better feel for what actual conversations sounds like in that language, rather than translated versions of typical English conversations.

    What do you think about reading children’s books? I’ve found that mid-elementary level chapter books can actually be amusing to read, and they often have some pictures that help you guess the context before you read a more advanced reading level.

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