Learning a foreign language later in life isn’t easy, but it’s certainly a rewarding challenge that comes with many benefits. For instance, adults who acquire a second language show later signs of cognitive decline than monolinguals. Polyglots also typically perform better on mental tasks that involve attention to detail—whether it’s multitasking, remembering lists, or trying to spot a specific object in a photograph. Learning a new language also a way to appreciate a different culture and to gain exposure to foreign music, film, literature and more. As such, it’s no surprise that there are so many resources out there for adults looking to improve their foreign language skills. And one of the most effective ways to grow more proficient is by learning how to read in an effective manner.

Many people read for pleasure, but when it comes to learning a second language, it’s important to read conscientiously and to be judicious in choosing the right reading material. Research has shown that language learners benefit from frequently being exposed to new words in order to develop their vocabulary; so, a good idea might be to read books that share a common theme. This is especially useful, given that topic familiarity has been shown to have a positive effect on reading comprehension.


Don’t forget to choose books within your reading level; many books geared towards foreign language learners are ‘graded’ in order to help you do just that. Choosing books that are too easy or too difficult can be demotivating and will not necessarily aid you in your progression. There are also dual language books (also known as ‘parallel text’ books) which are written with foreign-language learners in mind. These contain original language text on one page, followed by exact translations on the other, and are sometimes arranged in order of difficulty. The Penguin Parallel Text series, for instance, is a great example of short stories that might prove to be more interesting for adult language learners than the usual textbook excerpt. Similarly, adapted books can be a great way to gain exposure to more complex novels, since these shortened, simplified versions they are typically geared towards younger readers and/or language learners.

Don’t forget to set aside some regular time just for reading; as little as 30 minutes of concentrated silent reading a week can improve your grammar and comprehension skills. Keep a dictionary on hand, as well as a pen and a small notebook in which you can write down new words and expressions. Studies have long shown that taking notes with pen and paper rather than by computer is the most effective way to make sense of new concepts and retain new information. This is because writing by hand allows the brain to connect the motor action of writing with what one reads. If you’re learning a new language, chances are you’ll want to learn how to write anyway, so you might as well start the habit earlier rather than later!


TV shows with subtitles can also be a good way for second language learners to gain auditory stimulation while practicing their reading skills. In such cases, being a perfectionist and getting frustrated when you don’t understand something isn’t going to be helpful. Simply try to pick out the occasional phrase as you read the subtitles; eventually, it’ll become a familiar exercise and you will get used to hearing the sounds as you read along. Some TV shows are even  catered to language learners, such as the Spanish-language shows Extra or Destinos! These are shows in which the characters speak slowly and make use of repetition in order to help the audience gain familiarity with words, expressions and sounds. TV shows are also a good source of slang and common expressions, helping learners to familiarize themselves with different forms of language use.


Audiobooks are also great learning materials that provide auditory stimulation. Although passive listening is certainly a good exercise on its own, reading along as an audiobook plays in the background can be really helpful when it comes to identifying a word when it is spoken aloud.

Given that foreign language learning books and resources aren’t always in stock at your local library or discount bookstore, book buying websites are truly your best source of everything— from audiobooks to parallel texts and more. It can be really helpful to read reviews and recommendations from other learners, so that you don’t end up wasting time and money on material that is either below or beyond your reading level, or that may simply not be of interest to you. Remember, it only takes half an hour of reading a week at the bare minimum for you to start progressing in your language learning skills—so pick up a book and get cracking!

Published by Steffen Ploeger