Ebooks for Learning a Foreign Language

I prefer reading real books. I love their feel, their heft, even their smell–musty and old, or inky and new. Some books have beautiful bindings, dust-covers with wonderful artwork, high-quality paper and lovely fonts. They are a pleasure to read. Even the lowly paperback with its fragile binding and quickly deteriorating paper can spark joy. But I have mixed feelings about ebooks. Certainly they are convenient when traveling. But I don’t like being dependent on a battery, or trying to see past the glare when reading on a bright sunny day.

There is one domain in which ebooks shine–learning a foreign language. This is so evident to me now that I am surprised when I come across language learners who are unaware of their utility.

Reading a book in a foreign language is a frustrating experience. You keep a dictionary nearby and stop to look up words. This takes time and slows down the flow of text. In theory this might provide an incentive to memorize words faster to avoid the constant interruptions. In reality effective memorization seems to be more a function of repetition than how “hard” one tries to memorize. The end result is that unknown words are often just skipped or guessed, perhaps inaccurately, from context and you may give up from frustration.

This is where ebooks shine. I’m talking about ebook software like Kindle, Apple Books, and Google Books, running on phones, tablets, computers or dedicated ebook readers. The beauty of these devices is the ability to quickly look up words. This is functionality I rarely use while reading books in English. When reading a book in a foreign language, however, this ability become very useful.

Touch a word and the definition appears instantly (from La Place du Mort by Pascal Garnier).

When I press on a word a short definition pops up. Select Full Definition and the full dictionary entry appears. This works whether or not there is an internet connection. With an internet connection, a Google translate box appears as well as a Wikipedia entry. You can highlight a whole phrase or paragraph and the Google translate box will perform a translation. The whole process is nearly instantaneous, barely interrupting the flow of reading. In addition you can highlight words and review the highlighted words and phrases at any time.

Full dictionary definition. Oxford Hachette French-English online dictionary.

All this works very well, at least with books in French. I also read some books in German, where the process is not quite so easy. German often splits its verbs, throwing the verb prefix to the end of the sentence, so just highlighting the main part of the verb and translating it isn’t so useful. The prefixes make a difference. For example, aufhören means “stop.” If hören and the auf are separated you might end up just highlighting and translating hören which means “listen.” Confusing! Someone should write a German dictionary extension that allows one to highlight and then look up both parts of the verb simultaneously.

This limitation doesn’t exist with French, and probably with many other languages as well. Even in German it is far easier to read an ebook than a paper book.

So even if you prefer physical books, you will have an easier time and probably learn more if you read foreign language books in ebook format.

By mannd

I am a retired cardiac electrophysiologist who has worked both in private practice in Louisville, Kentucky and as a Professor of Medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver. I am interested not only in medicine, but also in computer programming, music, science fiction, fantasy, 30s pulp literature, and a whole lot more.


    1. You can access the definitions immediately using the French-English dictionary as you described, but you can also access French definitions for French words.

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