Four Easy Foreign Language Texts That Aren’t That Easy

When you get started learning a new language, it’s natural to want to jump into reading books and watching TV shows as soon as possible.

That’s great. In fact, I recommend it.

Most people realize they’re not going to read philosophy books or listen to university lectures right off the bat, so they look for easier materials. Unfortunately, many of the so-called “easy” texts out there aren’t that easy.

Here are four commonly recommended texts that are deceptively difficult.

1. The Little Prince

Simple but complicated, like the prince himself Image Source

Simple but complicated, like the prince himself
By Xcabelle [CC BY-SA 3.0], Image Source

What it is: A French novella written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and published in the 1940s. It tells the story of a pilot stranded in the desert who meets a mysterious young prince from a far, far away place. It’s recommended for language learners because it’s been translated into pretty much every language, it’s relatively short, it’s entertaining, and it has a lot of heart.

Why it’s harder than it looks: The language is artistic and can be tricky to grasp. For instance, here’s a passage taken from the English translation: “And the little prince broke into a lovely peal of laughter, which irritated me very much. I like my misfortunes to be taken seriously.” Now, while that’s not terribly complicated, I know firsthand that it’s a difficult sentence to understand when you’re at the beginner and intermediate levels because you haven’t been exposed to words like “lovely,” “peal,” and “misfortunes.”

Why you should read it anyway: The story is so good, that if you’re able to follow along at all, you’re getting quite a reading experience. Also, it might be a good bridge from straightforward texts to more literary language.

Easier alternative: If it’s too hard, try the books at Children’s Books Forever, which are also great and much, much easier.

2. Sesame Street

Grover and Cookie Monster have to be cousins or something Image Source

Grover and Cookie Monster have to be cousins or something
Photo by US Navy Mass Communication Specialist SA Vivian Blakely , Image Source

What it is: An American kids’ show, with versions in several different languages. In Spanish speaking countries, it’s called Plaza Sesamo, in Germany Sesamstraße, in Arabic-speaking countries Iftah Ya Simsim (Open Sesame).

Why it’s harder than it looks: Half of the show uses very, very easy language that toddlers can understand. The other half, though, uses authentic language spoken at a regular or rapid pace. The reason Bert and Ernie’s dialogue sounds so natural is that they’re speaking like friends do, which means that you might not be able to follow along when you’re starting out.

Why you should watch it anyway: You probably already know the characters, so you’ll be able to follow along even if you can’t catch everything. And if nothing else, you’ll be able to follow along as the Count counts.

Easier alternative: Pocoyo is another kids’ show, but designed for very young children. The language is easier, the action is even easier to follow along with, and the narrator speaks even clearer. Full episodes are on YouTube, in several different languages.

3. The Harry Potter Books

Expecto Pe-not-to-understandum Image Source

Expecto Pe-not-to-understandum
By Joao Carlos Medau from Campinas, Brazil (Universal Orlando) [CC BY 2.0], Image Source

What it is: You already know what the Harry Potter books are, and you know that they’ve been translated into the language you’re studying. You Muggle.

Why they’re harder than they look: They contain a lot of tricky wizarding-related vocabulary, like “broom,” “owl,” “robe,” “wand,” “dungeon,” and so on. They also contain a lot of colloquial and/or silly language you won’t have learned in a textbook, like this gem: “‘Gallopin’ Gorgons, that reminds me,’ said Hagrid, clapping a hand to his forehead with enough force to knock over a cart horse.”

Why you should read them anyway: Three reasons. 1) They’re fun and entertaining. 2) They’re a good way to get exposure to breezy, colloquial language. 3) The sentence structures are pretty straightforward if you can get past some of the linguistic sorcery. (Get it?)

Easier alternative: The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. In these books, the language is easier in general, there’s no supernatural vocab, and there are pictures to help with context. Translations of the books are available in several languages, but for a sample just check out this Google Image search.

4. Soap Operas

What they are: Serialized television shows that usually air daily. Many people swear by the Latin American versions of soap operas–Telenovelas–to learn Spanish. The acting in soap operas is so dramatic and over the top that people think you can follow along without even knowing a word of the language.

Why they’re harder than they look: People speak fast and the language often contains a lot of slang and regionalisms. Also, if you’re joining the series late, you don’t know who anyone is or what they’re going on about.

Why you should watch them anyway: If you’re a beginner, I’d say to steer clear. But if you’re an intermediate or advanced learner, you should definitely watch a couple soap operas. They’re so dialogue heavy that you’re forced to process tons of language. And yes, the overacting does help you associate the language with emotions and feelings.

Easier alternatives: Translations of your favorite TV shows. For instance, German and Spanish translations of “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons” have been staples of my studying. I already know the plots and characters inside and out, so when I don’t know what’s going on linguistically, I can match what I’m hearing with what I’m watching pretty precisely.

Wrapping Up

That’s my list. Any others texts that you guys have been told are easy but are actually tough for you?

  • Natalie

    I’m a big fan of the Harry Potter books. I’ve read the fifth one (my favorite) so many times, I practically have it memorized. So I read it in Russian and it was amazing. There were definitely some things I didn’t get… but that’s just an excuse to read it again. :)

    • Ron G.

      My wife is a huge Harry Potter fan, so I’ve seen the movies and been to the hubbub at Universal Studios. I’ve read the first one in Arabic, Spanish, and German, but ironically not English. Re-reading the first one in German again now that my German is stronger, and it’s made a big difference in comprehension–but I was still able to follow along when my German was weaker.

  • Katja Lyrik

    Anything if you are learning German? Besides Rammstein :)

    • Ron G.

      Yes! Almost included this in the list, but wanted to keep the article short: Grimm Brothers fairy tales (Grimms Märchen). Some podcasts/websites have those available for kids, but those use a lot of old-fashioned language and terms, like “loom” or “hazel bush.” Still worth a read if you can hang in there, though.

      Check out Cinderella:

  • Roman Shinkarenko

    When starting in Polish, I watched “Niania” – “The Nanny”. I know Russian version very well, so it was fun.
    By the way, let me shamelessly plug my blog

  • Gary

    Living in France at the moment and in a B1 level class I very much agree with you on the Harry Potter books but I do think The Little Prince is very possible with minimal help from a dictionary for somebody that can easily pass an A1 test.

    • Ron G.

      Hi Gary. That’s funny because with German, I find Harry Potter much easier than TLP. I wonder if the German translation uses fancier vocab than the original French text? I just passed a B2 level reading test from ACTFL and still have trouble with TLP.

  • Mitch

    It’s good to hear someone else has the same opinion of TLP. It was the first book i tried to read in spanish and when i found it difficult i just figured my spanish was worse than i thought. I then gave the hunger games a go and had minimal issues. My spanish has improved substantially since my first attempt at the little prince but i still wouldn’t call it an easy read.

    • Ron G.

      I had pretty much the same experience as you. At the intermediate reading stage, I could understand it with a dictionary or Google Translate, but I was looking up a lot of words. Great book, and not impossible for learners, but definitely a challenge.