The difficulty in reading literature in a foreign language

this morning i wanted to read some english classics such as the grapes of wrath and some classics of charles dickens. after a while I got tired of looking up the words and patterns i hadnt seen before. it was a catastrophe. i always have had problems with reading literature in english, but i started to realize that terribly damages my confidence in the language. can you guys suggest an effective way to get better at this?

Are you trying to read these books on Lingq? This system really helps to ease the pain of looking up unknown words. But I know from experience that it can still be very difficult if there are too many new words. I have had the same experience as you when I tried to read some classics of Russian literature. I still haven’t read a full classic novel after having started a few.

You might want to avoid Dickens until after you have advanced much farther. His writing is older and parts of it probably will seem a little odd even to native speakers of contemporary English. Steinbeck was a 20th-century American, so his writing will be quite a bit different from Dickens’, and I would expect it to be somewhat easier for learners of contemporary English. But I haven’t read any of Steinbeck in a very long time, so I don’t really know. You might want to avoid classics altogether for a while longer and try more contemporary books.

I have read several contemporary Russian novels on Lingq, and some of them were rather difficult for me. But they were very interesting to me, so I was able to persevere and complete them. Be sure to pick books that you really find interesting. Also keep in mind that although you find the first chapters difficult, it should become somewhat easier as you progress through the book. Many of the unknown words will be repeated, either because they are necessary to tell the story, or because they are part of the author’s personal writing style. Before long you will learn those words.

Reading full novels is a great way to increase your vocabulary. I frequently am able to remember from what book I learned a certain word when I encounter it again. Good luck!


Steve Kaufman made the comment that non-fiction is often easier to read, for beginners, than fiction. There is less metaphorical language. I haven’t tested that theory, but fully endorse the use of LingQ to read, it eliminates much of the tedious flipping through the dictionary. You might try reading English translations of books you’ve already read in your native language. I find buying both the native language version and the target language version at the same time can really help. I read ahead in my native language page-by-page and can read the target language much more readily as I don’t lose the narrative thread. Also, which Kaufman has also suggested, I get an audiobook at the same time and listen to that over and over while I’m reading. I found the classic authors in my target language pretty tough, but found it pretty easy to read a popular current author and audio books were much more available for popular titles.

1 Like

An awful lot of English native speakers would feel the same way about those books. The opening line of “Great Expectations” is a perfect example.

“My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip”.

This is not difficult for a native speaker to understand, but it’s such an awkward way to say “My name is Pip”. It’s exactly what native speakers hate about classic literature - the feeling that they take 10 times as many words as necessary to say something simple. The language has changed a lot in 150 years and even if the words haven’t changed meaning the way those words are ordered has.

This is too much for some people who just want to read a novel. On the other hand, some would say that is the beauty of the language so they are attracted to these books.

Just because it’s a classic novel doesn’t mean you will enjoy it or understand it.


Classic literature is difficult to read and interpret. It can get discouraging. Try reading present day authors. They’re more relevant as per the current times.

1 Like

I’ve had similar problems with each language I’ve learnt. Currently, I can read technical documents and textbooks in chinese with ease, but when reading literature there are usually hundreds of new words in each chapter, which, of course, is frustrating. The thing to remember is that this is just the way it is with language, literature is probably the most complex thing you can read. If you feel frustrated by this I suggest that you find text sources with a lot of dialogue, which is often easier and use more high frequency words. Personally, I find that I get the most out of a text when the proportion of unknown words are around 10-15%, so I don’t get overwhelmed and can pick up many of the new words from context.


Take it easy. Before tackling old novels, get used to short, more contemporary stories. Build up from there. I find modern thrillers/sci-fi a convenient starting point, if you enjoy that kind of material.
I agree with khardy that using lingq makes reading challenging texts a lot easier

I agree with others: most nineteenth century and earlier novels are often difficult even for many English native speakers. I too suggest short stories where the focus is more on the action, rather than on rich descriptions. O’Henry and Mark Twain, for example, are two classic authors who wrote interesting short stories. I also agree that reading a short story or novel where you have already read it in your native language is helpful. Choosing something that you can download into LingQ speeds up the process of looking up unknown words. Most importantly, pick something very, very interesting to YOU.


Yes, interesting material is key. I have been able to read difficult contemporary novels that greatly interested me. The classic novels I that I abandoned were not only difficult, but honestly I did not find them interesting enough to keep me motivated.


This is a perfect example of something I like to call the “Classics Fallacy” in language learning. A lot of students are encouraged to reach for classic literature as their first entry into reading in a different language for a mixture of reasons – from academic environment to ease of availability of public domain titles, etc. This tendency goes hand in hand with its close cousin, the “Children’s Book Fallacy,” and I think both of those are mistakes that either discourage you or bore the hell out of you depending on the book.

I think the factor that has helped my particular language learning journey the most is my love of contemporary popular fiction, especially mysteries and thrillers. It has given me not only a wealth of material to study with, but more importantly, reading and listening to these books would be an activity that I’d enjoy no mater what, but now I get to do that in different languages.

Learning through being entertained is the best approach ever discovered.

Classics are for the edification of those with a high proficiency in a language, and if you want to read them, by all means you should do so, but just be prepared for the additional hardship they represent for language learners.


thank you guys for your comments and suggestions. I will read more contemporary works with the assistance of lingq.

I remember my school years. We had to read classical literature in our native language.
It was boring as hell. I remember I could recognize every word but sometimes I could not understand what a page is about.
Sometimes it was getting clearer. But a bit later the author was describing the cloths or nature or thoughts…
Too many words for a school boy.

I am a native English speaker and I gave up on Great Expectations in my 11th grade English class.

Avoid Dickens until you are outstanding. I’m still waiting 20 years later myself.

1 Like

I may have lied when I said that I have never completed a Russian classic. In college we spent two whole semesters slogging through Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Wholly apart from the fact that its vocabulary was above my level at the time, the writing style was atrocious by the standards that I was taught for English composition. Single paragraphs ran on for pages, composed of sentences that never seemed to end. (The author obviously suffered a dearth of periods/full stops.) In addition there were bits of French dialogue scattered all about. This was using printed material before the Internet, so pasting those into an automatic translator was not an option, and the parallel English text that I relied on didn’t translate the French. I was studying Russian, dammit!, so it was quite frustrating.

“… and if you want to read them, by all means you should do so, but just be prepared for the additional hardship they represent for language learners.”

This is what I did. The reason is that they’are available and free of charge. They’are excellent as audio books because of the reader - those I’ve read and listen to. They’are compelling. My favorite so far is Oliver Twist. Nicholas Nickleby is not too bad.

You have to make the not-so-common words, more common. (Captain obvious haha)
If you want you can
(1) read here, in Lingq, for a few hours a day, during months or even years. (I did this for French and I enjoyed a lot)
(2) use flashcards. (sometimes it is very good, because you don’t need to read a lot of books until the frequency of the words are not a problem anymore, you just go to your deck, 5 or 6 reviews and you’ve learned your word.)

I prefer the second option for the hardest languages, and the first for the ones that are more similar to my Portuguese.
I’m testing something different now, and I’m having some troubles, I’m reading in German (very different language for me) I know that I’ll learn the most common words if I just keep going, but if the language is too diffent you have to cover A LOT OF MATERIAL until you can read with ease, and I just lost motivation in the last 2 weeks. If I give this up, I’ll probably go back to the flashcards.

I’m sorry, but just don’t think flashcards could in any way be a substitute for, or even come close to the efficacy of reading fiction over the long run. They may work for maybe a 2-3000 of the most common words, but even for those they’re not the most effective solution. But the more rare the word is, the harder it would be to memorize it out of context.

Reaching 30K + known words through reading may take a while, but it’s actually really the only way you could get to that many. There is no way you’d learn 30K words with flashcards.

Also, it’s worth noting: When you learn through reading fiction, you don’t learn the words because they’re part of the text, you learn them because they’re part of the story.