One of the ways in which the Hands Up Project is expanding and diversifying in this new academic year is in the setting up of online book groups between teachers of English in Palestine and people in other countries around the world. The idea is very simple – a small group of teachers in Palestine choose a book that they can all easily access and that they would like to read. We then find another small group somewhere in the world who would like to read the same book and when everyone’s ready they meet through Zoom to discuss it in English.
The first of these is happening between 3 UNRWA teachers in Gaza and 3 people in my home town, Totnes. And because I have masses of free time at the moment (not!) I’m one of the people taking part. We’re reading ‘The Alchemist’ by Paolo Coelho and to give myself a bit of a challenge, I’m trying to read it in the language it was originally written in – Brazilian Portuguese.
This is not easy for me at all. Although I lived in Brazil for three years and worked as a teacher there, it was more than 20 years ago and I was never very good at reading anyway. In fact I’ve never read a whole novel in Portuguese before. But, I must say that the task of reading in a foreign language has become much simpler and more satisfying for me since I invested in an e-reading device.
Let’s take an example from ‘The Alchemist’. Here’s the first page of the story.
There are lots of words I don’t know and this can make the process of reading a real struggle. Even in the second sentence (It was beginning to go dark when he arrived with his flock of sheep in front of an old abandoned church) there’s already a word which I don’t understand – rebanho – (the Portuguese word for flock of sheep).
Now I can’t really guess the meaning of this word through contextual clues, as it’s not until the next paragraph that the word for sheep (ovelhas) appears and I don’t even know yet that the boy is in fact a shepherd. So who or what is he arriving in front of the old church with? His prayer book? His wheelbarrow? His lover?
When reading a physical book, I’d have had to get out my Portuguese English dictionary and look up ‘rebanho’. This would take time, and by the time I’d worked out the meaning, the image that had been implanted in my mind of the boy arriving in front of the church at dusk would have been lost and I would have had to recreate it. On the e-reader I can can just click on any word I don’t understand and it will give me an immediate translation from the dictionary I’ve pre-installed. This takes a maximum of a few seconds and I’m straight back into the context of the book.
Another very useful thing in terms of language development is that the e-reader keeps a record of every word that I look up and I can go to these at any point I want to, through the inbuilt vocabulary builder.
I can then click on any word again and I can see all the instances in the whole book where the word is used or, if I need it, the translation again. It will even allow me to create e-flash cards for all the words I’ve looked up which I can test myself with. And if I feel that I’ve mastered a word I can remove it from the set so that I only focus on words that I need more practice with.
I’ve always found reading in a foreign language a chore – something that I felt was useful but not much fun, and certainly not something that I felt I was very good at it. Now with the e-reader I’m using reading as a way to develop my rusty Portuguese but most importantly, for me, I’m now actually enjoying reading in a foreign language, and my confidence has increased a lot. I can’t wait until our first meeting to discuss the book.