Reading in a Foreign Language: The Struggle Is Real

I have no memory of learning to read.  The closest I have to that is hazy scenes of a time when I was very small and not wanting to read when asked, which is of course not the same thing.  It was a time when I was capable of reading, but hadn’t yet fallen in love with reading and needed to be coaxed into doing it, in opposition to playing with toys or watching TV.  Maybe because I just hadn’t come across the right thing to read, or I just hadn’t practiced to where it was easy enough to not be annoying.  Either way, it was a short-lived period when I was very young.  I was an early reader, and a voracious one, and it’s amusing to think that my dad at three or four, clicking off the TV then sternly handing me a Dr. Seuss book, and my dad at seven through the rest of my childhood asking me to put the damn book down and join the dinner conversation, were both the same person.

Obviously, the notion that I have ‘no memory’ of learning to read is a falsehood.  By a slim definition it might be true, as I don’t remember learning my ABCs or being shown how letters put in a row represent specific sounds that are used to make words, but that’s just a fraction of the process.  That journey from begrudging the Cat in the Hat to begrudging the request to put down whatever doublewide novel I was reading that week was a journey of learning, and it at least feels like a lie to say it isn’t a part of “learning to read.”  The key factor for why the statement of ‘not remembering it’ does not feel like a lie, is that I don’t remember struggling to read.  I read, and I read a lot, and I read things pretty high above my grade level, for close to all of my childhood that I can remember.  Books were as ever-present as television and later video games and were just as much a fun pastime.  Reading was never work or a chore, or even difficult, it was just what I did when I wasn’t doing something that I had to do.

On the other hand, I am in my thirties and I’m sure that my narrative is just as false as saying that I don’t remember learning to read.  Time has probably sanded off the rough edges.  Books that at the time were difficult, where I had to look up words and sometimes got lost and needed to reread paragraphs, but when I finished I felt accomplished, have all been ground down over years until all that’s left is the sense of accomplishment.

Reading in Spanish is not sanded smooth.

I finished my third novel in Spanish this last week with El Maravilloso Mago de Oz.  It was a very different experience from El Principito, which I found frustrating to get through.  Oz had a ton of unfamiliar vocab, probably more than El Principito, but the writing style was simpler.  It only took a chapter or so to get used to and got progressively more comfortable to read from there.  All that said, it was never easy.  It was a struggle to read.  They’ve all been struggles to read, and I have a feeling that as I launch into Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal that the struggle is far from over.

The feeling of reading in Spanish is a strange one.  It seems like it might be appropriate to say that I do have memories now of learning to read, very fresh ones, where I’m dealing with all that struggle and challenge that I’m just not remembering from my childhood.  The two experiences couldn’t possibly be considered equivalent, though the ways they are different are intriguing to me.

I’ve had a huge head start on Spanish at a very basic level; I didn’t have an alphabet to learn, nor did I have to wrap my head around the concept of transmuting sounds into symbols.  Spanish being a phonetically-spelled language didn’t hurt in that regard, either.  That early going piecing together of the nuts and bolts of reading could basically be skipped over.

Conversely, well, I already knew how to speak English when I learned how to read it.  It’s hard to say how big the vocab of a toddler-sized bats learning his ABCs is compared to my current Spanish vocab, but I thought in and spoke English automatically when I was learning my letters.  Head start in one area, way behind in another.

I also need to take into consideration the tens of, if not hundreds of thousands of hours of practice in English I had going into Spanish.  It’s a different language, but it’s a language.  I have a much firmer grasp on how communication works than I did for English.  This is both a boon and a bane.  On the positive side, accumulating new vocabulary doesn’t involve accumulating new concepts for me, just new ways to say concepts I already understand.  Memorizing those words might be a challenge, but asking “What’s that mean?” can be answered in far more concise ways for Spanish than it could for English.

On the negative side, it’s really hard to tell yourself to learn to walk before you try to run, when you’ve spent three decades sprinting.  I’m so easily frustrated with how limited my range of expression in Spanish is compared to how precise I can be in English.  The words just aren’t there yet for me in Spanish.  Everything needs to be rephrased, generalized, and simplified in order for me to express anything, and everything read is going to be littered with words I just don’t know, presenting the runner in me with a racetrack full of potholes.

This all wraps up into an oddly lumpy mixed bag of differences.  Fast mechanics, few words, and practiced thoughts leads to ungainly scenarios, such as reading a sentence like “Would you be in any way offended if I said that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection?” and need to look up the definition of the words ‘would’ and ‘said’ because you can’t remember what tenses those are, but have no trouble understanding the full meaning of the sentence once you have all the vocab.

The research suggests it’s faster acquiring a second language as an adult with all these “short-cuts,” in contrast to the usual process that kids go through, but the subjective experience is a real headscratcher.  It often does feel like a tremendous advantage, but other times I feel hopelessly behind, bogged down by a disproportioned and uneven vocab base, ready to fully understand and speak, if it just wasn’t for all those damn words I don’t know.

It is all getting easier, though.  Maybe in a month or three I’ll read El Principito again, and be pleased to find it a breeze to get through.  Here’s hoping.

Now then, into the numbers!

Tuesday 6/12

  • Anki: 110 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 150 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of El Maravilloso Mago de Oz, ~40 minutes

Wednesday 6/13

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 150 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of El Maravilloso Mago de Oz, ~50 minutes

Thursday 6/14

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 150 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of El Maravilloso Mago de Oz, ~40 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: Coco, ~105 minutes

Friday 6/15

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 150 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of El Maravilloso Mago de Oz, ~40 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of Puffin Rock, ~40 minutes

Saturday 6/16

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 150 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 4 chapters of El Maravilloso Mago de Oz, ~40 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of Puffin Rock, ~40 minutes

Sunday 6/17

  • Anki: 110 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 100 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 3 chapters of El Maravilloso Mago de Oz, ~40 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Puffin Rock, ~20 minutes

Monday 6/18

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 100 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of El Maravilloso Mago de Oz, ~20 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of Puffin Rock, ~40 minutes


  • Total Anki: 840 cards reviewed, 70 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 950 XP, 420 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 7 tv episodes and 1 movie watched, 290 minutes
  • Total reading: 17 chapters read, 235 minutes
  • Total Time: 16 hours 55 minutes

So after last week’s ruminations on listening/watching stuff, I noticed that Netflix got Pixar’s Coco, and offered it with both a Spanish track and Spanish CCs.  Took a little while to find time to sit down and watch it, but I was glad I did.  I liked it better in Spanish than I did in English, I think.  Felt more natural.  Plus my biggest problem the first time around was how predictable it felt, and predictability is less of a thing to worry about on a rewatch, anyway.  I then started back in on Puffin Rock, since I am close to having watched every episode for a second time.  What can I say, I’m stubborn.  I’ll be out of episodes to watch very early into next week, so I’ll need to decide on what to watch next.  Maybe more My Little Pony.

Duolingo had another XP dip, as I got into the last dozen topics.  Speaking of, that’s something that grinds my gears about Duolingo; it has four or five topics that it does a very poor job explaining for rather obscure things, which are the topics it has the fewest lessons available for.  Shouldn’t that be reversed?  Shouldn’t the difficult stuff get the ten or twenty lessons per level, and the easy shit can have two or three?  I got Subjunctive Past to level three on Monday, and I’m so much less clear on it than freakin’ Politics which has eighteen more lessons before level three.  But I’m straying off-topic.  Point is I got slowed down again.

Overall, this was a good week and I don’t have any problem areas jumping out at me.  If I could keep up weeks that look like this one going forward, I’d be happy.  We’ll see how Harry Potter treats me.

That’ll wrap up this one.  TTFN.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s