After working on my oral skills in English for a couple of years, I am now more interested in learning written English, specially by reading. I have been reading a couple of books over the last months (Game of Thrones, the whole Sherlock Holmes, Lord of the Rings, some Stephen King...) and articles (the Guardian, the New York Times, the Atlantic, mostly). Although I've felt some improvements in my understanding, and learned lots of words, I'm still not enjoying reading English as much as I enjoy reading French (which is my natural language), and I'm not even what you would call a literary (checking my other Stack Exchange affiliations would prove that). When reading English I just follow the plot, but I'm really totally insensitive to the style of writing, in the choice of words, ... I hardly realized that when reading a few pages of French the other day, it's even way easier to focus on what I read when it is French than English.

Have fellows who learnt English as a second (or third, or more...) language ever felt that? Have you been through that? How long did it take? Or is it just a never ending job in progress but I'll never reach the ease I have with French?

closed as too localized by kiamlaluno, Matt, bytebuster, ctype.h, Mistu4u Mar 6 '13 at 5:12

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First, you MUST have large vocabulary to enjoy it to the fullest. But then, reading a book (and having a dictionary handy) is the best way to improve your vocabulary.

If a book is written well, you will not be noticing the style of writing unless you focus on it - and not focusing on it is perfectly fine. It carries the mood, affects the atmosphere, gives the characters extra depth by giving them different styles of speech. If you keep noticing the style, that's a failure on the author's side. The style should be invisible, acting on subconscious level, affecting the way you view the story. You may recall and realize it from time to time, but you shouldn't have it pushed in your face.

Now, if you fail to notice it even though you focus on trying to spot it, that's definitely a problem you may want to fix. I'm not quite sure how, but I think I'd go for style-heavy books, ones with style that is very easy to spot. J.R.R. Tolkien, James Joyce, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Kurt Vonnegut - I assure you you will have no problem spotting the style in works of these. I think that once you learn noticing it on these vibrant examples, you'll have easier time finding it in works where it's not nearly that strongly accentuated.

  • +1 for good examples of authors with distinctive styles. I'd endorse the second pair rather than the first for people who want to learn modern styles, and maybe someone like Hemingway or Orwell for writers with simpler (less intrusive) styles that some learners might find easier to understand. – FumbleFingers Mar 5 '13 at 4:12

When I was a boy learning German I got a great deal out of reading German translations of my favourite English-language authors (not works I was already familiar with, but other works by the same authors).

Pick two very different authors you enjoy reading in French – perhaps a ‘high-art’ author and a popular novelist – and read them in English translation. It could help sharpen your ear, because you will know the rhythms and registers – what it is supposed to sound like.

  • Very deep advice indeed! :) – Mohit Mar 5 '13 at 8:04
  • Never thought of it, would surely try. – Mistu4u Mar 6 '13 at 5:13

I find that books that target a younger audience offer some of the most accessible and beautiful writing in English. Check out writers like Kathi Appelt, Sharon Creech, Pamela Porter, or Carl Hiassen. There's a lot to explore! The more you read the more you'll notice the writer's stylistic choices.


Since we are both interested in mathematics and physics, the obvious advice I can give you is to read books on these subjects in English.
That way you will improve your knowledge both of these fields and of English.

1) Altough there are almost infinitely many suitable books in mathematics, you can't go wrong reading anything by Spivak.
I learned from him the not so common words eschew and grok: I'll leave you the pleasure to find out what they mean if you don't already know them.

2) In physics I really like Wheeler and his student Feynman: they are both giants of 20th century physics and great stylists.
Just let me end by quoting this profound and beautiful description by Wheeler:

Matter tells Spacetime how to curve, and Spacetime tells matter how to move.

  • Thanks for the advice, although I have been reading books and articles in Physics for several years, and I wouldn't say that my English is improving from it: there is huge redundancy in the vocabulary used, you spend much more time on the equations than on the text, it's often not written by native English speakers, the style is really dry, and more... – Learning is a mess Mar 4 '13 at 22:16
  • What you say is, alas, quite often true but I can assure you there are splendid exceptions. Don't you like Wheeler's one-line (!) summary of General Relativity that I reproduced? – Georges Elencwajg Mar 4 '13 at 22:21
  • As for more literary works, I think you might like Somerset Maugham. His short stories are extremely well written and although his syntax and lexicon look quite simple, I consider that writer a remarkable stylist. And the stories themselves can be extremely moving and poignant. – Georges Elencwajg Mar 4 '13 at 22:28

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