21 Feb

Reading Harry Potter in Spanish

Canny readers may have noticed a few mentions of Harry Potter on the list of books I read in 2016. Last year, I made it my goal to read the entire Harry Potter series in Spanish. Here I describe why I did it, my methods, and what I got from this exercise.

The Why

Harry Potter is a popular choice for language learners because it’s a popular work generally. It’s translated into a huge number of languages and it’s relatively easy to find. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of popularity. It also, ostensibly, starts with simple language that gets more difficult throughout each book. I liked the idea of reading something that would build up and having a series that I could focus on. It seemed like it would be easier to start building fluency with a lot of young adult works by one author than with many unconnected books.

Aside from the series’ ubiquity, I chose Harry Potter because I had not read it all. My family was an early adopter of the books. I think we got the first novel when I was, perhaps, 13 (for reference, the last book was published in 2007, when I was 21). My sister was the target age for the story. I was just old enough to still be entertained, but not enthralled. I read through the fifth book (of seven) as an adolescent, but never read the last two. Working the release night of book six at Barnes and Noble resulted in me being fully fed up with the Potter phenomenon. But, nearly 10 years later, I was ready to revisit the story.

The How

I knew that reading Harry Potter in Spanish would be an undertaking in vocabulary. When I started reading it, I was using Anki for flashcards. As I read, I looked up words and wrote down the word and the definition in a steno notebook. This is a method I had used in the past and I liked it well enough. After reading, I added the vocabulary to my Anki flashcard deck.

Sometime in the middle of Harry Potter y el prisoner de Azkaban (book 3), I decided to change it up. Looking up words was making the reading too slow—and I was already reading slower than I wanted (the problem with reading fast in English is that it feels terrible to go so slowly in another language). I decided to try underlining words to look up later, which hadn’t occurred to me until I saw it mentioned in Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words. This was a great choice for me because it made me focus on reading without stopping and on decoding meaning based on context. I don’t think it would have gone well for me to read the first book this way, but it was right by the time I was in the third.

I switched flashcard platforms partway through reading as well. On the recommendation of my Icelandic tutor, I began using Memrise. I decided I liked Memrise better so I made a “Harry Potter Spanish” course and started adding new words. I learned a lot of words this way. Unfortunately, I was taking down more vocabulary than I could learn. My vocabulary study was perpetually eight or more chapters behind my reading. It’s not the worst thing, but it would have been nice to keep pace.

All 7 Harry Potter books stacked

My pile of Harry Potter books

About halfway through Harry Potter y las Reliquias de la Muerte (book 7), I declared lexical bankruptcy. I stopped underlining words to look up later. I hadn’t added any new words to my course since chapter 13 of Harry Potter and the misterio del príncipe (book 6). That said, I had about 2,000 words total in my Memrise course. Plus, I picked up some words and phrases that I didn’t formally study. Although I like learning new vocabulary and there was certainly more I could have learned, I was losing interest in the world of Harry Potter and decided to focus on reading instead of vocabulary for the last leg of the journey.

The Benefits

This seems like a good time for a bulleted list:

  • I learned a lot of vocabulary words.
  • I became familiar with a lot of phrases and bits of common usage. For example, you don’t “shake your head” in Spanish, you negas con la cabeza (literally: refuse with the head).
  • I started reading a lot more smoothly.
  • I accepted the fact that I do not and cannot know all words (which is also true in English!)
  • I read a lot faster now.
  • I can proudly say I read thousands of pages’ worth of writing in Spanish.
  • I am a much more confident reader.

Now What?

I’ve already started my next book in Spanish, La Distancia Entre Nosotros (The Distance Between Us). It seems much easier to read. In some ways, the subject matter is easier because it’s less fanciful. On the other hand, this is a book written for adults. I’m glad that I read Harry Potter, but I am really glad to be onto another book. My enthusiasm was seriously waning towards the end. In my goals for 2017, I said that I wanted to read 6 books in Spanish this year. At this rate, I’ll be able to get through more than that, which is really cool!

One question I have been asked is whether I would do this again. I am learning Icelandic too and Harry Potter in Icelandic is a real thing. At this point, I am not sure. I definitely got a lot out of reading the series in Spanish, but part of the motivation was also that I had not read all the books before. I might be inclined to read books originally written in Icelandic and that are a little more interesting to me (also good arguments for not reading Harry Potter in Spanish, for that matter). I’m at least a year out from being at a level where I would attempt Harry Potter in Icelandic. I need some time and distance before I could say for sure whether this is something I would do again. For now, I’m enjoying the benefits of being a stronger reader in Spanish.