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  • Judy Schulten

29. Follow my procedure to read a novel in the original Spanish.

Most of the Spanish I know I have learned through reading. Nothing else will improve your vocabulary as well.

After you’ve read John Grisham translated into Spanish, take the next step. Try reading a novel written in the original Spanish, not a translation into Spanish from English. I can recommend a murder mystery by the popular Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte, La reina del sur. It is set in the present day and is about the bad guys from Sinaloa, Mexico, in the drug trade and how our heroine, The Queen of the South, escapes from them. It was made into a telenovela and is full of action and intrigue.

Here is how I start reading a novel in the original Spanish:

First, I look at the back cover and the table of contents to see what it’s about. I look all over the book, at the publication date and at other works by the same author to give me an idea about the time frame.

Then I start reading the first chapter. I read through one time without worrying about words and phrases I don’t understand. I highlight everything I don’t know, but I don’t pause. I’m fairly well lost on this first reading. I stay calm though. If I can, I try to keep the characters straight and maybe figure out where the plot might be going. I don’t stop to look up words; I just keep going. I do one chapter at a time.

After I’ve gone through Chapter One for the first time, I start back again slowly. This time, I’m aiming to understand what’s going on. And the second time through is astonishing. With no effort, things start to come together. I understand words I didn’t before. I recognize the characters and begin to get the direction of the plot.

On this second reading, I make notes for myself in the margins. I do three things: first, I look up the words that are absolutely necessary to my understanding, but only those. It’s fatal to your advancement in Spanish to be always translating into English. The less you translate and the more you try to get by in Spanish, the more you’ll progress. For example, in any novel, there will be paragraphs of description of the landscape, or of food in the market stalls, or of some other irrelevant thing. I don’t look up those words. I dismiss them, saying to myself, “That paragraph is about the animals on the farm. OK. Done.”

The second thing I do is to identify every character who seems at all important. The first encounter with a character usually involves a detailed description. I do look up all those words I don’t know. In the margin, I write “Fernando.” On a blank page at the front or back of the book, I write “Fernando, p. 14.” If you’ve ever read a Russian novel, you know you have to make notes to keep the characters straight. The same is true in Spanish because it’s not your language. Then I’ll note the action in the margin: “Fernanado encuentra pistola escondida.” I do this in Spanish, though, because I’m trying not to think in English as I read.

And third, I make margin notes about the progress of the plot, along with a general summary of the chapter at the start And it’s got to be in Spanish, even bad Spanish, like: “capítulo 1—los tres amigos, tristes a la muerte de su amigo.”

Making all these notes helps me keep track of the plot and know where I am when I go back to it after I’ve left it for a while.

I don’t ever worry about the words I don’t know. This is the one instance where my laziness is a help. Part of the miracle of the second reading is comprehension of new words. It just happens. And, if it doesn’t happen, 90% of the words you don’t know aren’t necessary for understanding.

Just read for fun. Reading casually, without using a dictionary, will do wonders for your Spanish. Right there, you’re doing it. You’re having fun with your bad Spanish. You’re reading Spanish and getting it.

Meet our daughter Katherine.

Katherine is an English teacher who says, “Remember, reading is reading. If you want to build fluency in any language, you have to choose books where you’re not just reading ‘dutifully,’ you’re reading for a story you really care about and want to know the ending to.”

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