Experience More Emotion: Reading In A Foreign Language

Reading is an excellent way to improve your skills in a foreign language – especially if you choose to read out loud. You’ll find your pronunciation and fluidity starts to improve and you’ll garner new vocabulary and grammar points along the way. More importantly, you probably turn to reading because it’s something fun that you enjoy doing in your native tongue and you believe it will be just as enjoyable in another language. But, as many a language learner has discovered, you may find yourself struggling to really get invested in a story when you’re reading it in a tongue that isn’t your native one. So does the language you read in affect how you internalize and connect with the story? Read on to find out:

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“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” ― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

One of the main reasons why most of us read is because we want to vicariously experience the emotions of the characters present in the work. Whether the author is trying to convey a passionate love story, a tragic tale of betrayal, or a light-hearted jaunt into a fantasy world, regardless of how far-fetched the story may be if we can identify with the characters we are easily drawn in. However, studies show that the amount of empathy you feel towards a character or characters can depend largely on what language you’re reading in.

Reading in your native tongue evokes stronger emotions than reading in a second or third language, research revealed. An experiment carried out with 26 native Dutch speakers who learned English later in life used electromyography on the participants in order to measure the muscle movements in their faces as they read stories in Dutch and in English. Researchers discovered that when reading in their native Dutch, people tended to smile when a character smiled and mimicked the character’s emotions as the story went on. When they read the stories in English, they were unable to respond with the same depth of emotion. So, while reading in a foreign language isn’t completely devoid of emotion, it is substantially lessened as opposed to when you read in your mother tongue.

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“Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.” ― Francis Bacon

This phenomenon of feeling strong emotions when reading in our native tongue is one you’ve probably experienced before. I know I have (which is probably why I’m struggling to finish Harry Potter in French). Why exactly does it happen though? Well, it depends on how we learn emotional interpretations. Most parents will talk to their babies using both words and facial expressions. For example, if your mother asked you to smile and smiled, your infant brain would imprint the emotion as part of the word. Therefore you grew up associating emotions with certain words in your native language. A foreign tongue, on the other hand, is generally learned in a classroom environment where emotions hold little precedence.

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So does this mean you should give up reading in another language? Will it always be a boring, emotionless chore? Not necessarily. There are a few key ways to reading ‘right’ in a foreign language, but be prepared to put quite a bit more work into it than you would reading a book in your native tongue. One of the best ways to approach the reading process is to use the ‘double reading’ method. With this method you read a chapter all the way through without worrying about understanding every single word. Then try to summarize when you reach the end. Prepare your brain for the main actions and emotions present in the chapter before reading it again. The second time (whether you stop to look up every unknown word or not) you’re bound to get a better grasp of the story and you will also be more prepared to empathize with the characters as your understanding of the situation grows. The second reading will make it easier for you to enjoy the book in the same way you would if you were reading it in your mother tongue!

What do you think? Have you struggled to get involved in a story because it’s in another language? Do you have any reading tips of your own? Be sure to share!