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How to make progress when you feel you’ve plateaued (on your language-learning journey)

People often tell me that they’d like to start reading a novel in, say, French and will ask what I think. Well, reading is great for improving your comprehension, fluency and vocabulary but you need to advance with caution. The tendency is to start with a novel that you’ve heard of, for example, Le Conte of Monte Cristo. This was written by Alexandre Dumas in 1844, and you’d probably struggle and maybe think your progress has plateaued. If this were the first French novel you read, you’d find the language dated, the cultural and historical references probably unfamiliar, and the book complex and long (the unabridged version has 884 pages!) with endless description.

It’s not that your learning has plateaued, you’ve just taken too big a step in your language learning, but, if you look at the reasons why you’d struggle, you can reverse this.

Instead of a classic novel, go for a contemporary one, with up-to-date language and cultural references. You could even go for a translation of a English-speaking author, which would remove unfamiliar cultural references.

Instead of a wordy tome, go for a short novel or a selection of short stories. If you want to break this down even more, choose a play, where the description is minimal stage directions, and you can really focus on the dialogue.

And what about unfamiliar vocabulary? I have two approaches, ignore these words unless you seriously feel that not knowing them impacts on your understanding, or read the Kindle edition, which has a built-in dictionary. You just touch the word and either the definition or the translation appears – brilliant!

How do you find a modern, short play? I’ve just Googled ‘Modern French plays 2020’ and have come across Florian Zeller. I will want to read on my Kindle, so I go to Amazon and enter ‘Florian Zeller in French’. The search reveals ‘Le Fils de Florian Zeller’. I can then click on ‘Kindle edition’. I read a couple of reviews, request a sample or read a few pages online if you get the option to ‘Look inside’ the book, and if I like what I read, I order it.

And what I also appreciate about ordering books (Kindle or otherwise) on Amazon, is that at the bottom of the page you have ‘Customers who bought this item also bought…’ and so you have a bread-crumb trail of (probably) contemporary French fiction.

And so there you are – if you consider what makes reading one piece of literature too challenging, you can then work out what characterises an easier read. Once you’ve enjoyed a couple of plays, you can then move to more complex literature, such as contemporary short stories, then full-blown novels. The beauty of this approach is that you’re reading contemporary French that you could use in conversation – parfait!

If you try the above, let me know what you’ve chosen. There are so many great modern authors out there…

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