Harry Potter as the Rosetta Stone: finding books you’re familiar with online and reading them to improve language ability

Image obtained here[link].

The Rosetta Stone is an ancient slab of rock inscribed with multiple languages that was used to decipher the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Because the text is essentially the same in each language, scholars were able to use their knowledge of ancient Greek to compare and analyze the Egyptian text above it. In the modern world, you can use widely translated works like Harry Potter in the same way to pick up new languages. And with the ease and functionality of a tablet computer, learning from a book has never been more convenient. Keep in mind: these methods can be used to find many different kinds of books depending on your personal taste and interests.

Step 1: Finding the book online and saving it to iBooks (or any other pdf reader).

Obviously, you can purchase foreign language books on Amazon, but you might try to find a free version online. They are fairly easy to find, especially popular books like Harry Potter or 1984. Due to fear of copyright violations I won’t include a direct link to free versions of Harry Potter here, but I will illustrate explicitly my method for finding books online. I didn’t invent Google or Wikipedia, so let them take the heat if they shouldn’t allow this form of usage. Perhaps showing you is better anyway, after all if you teach a man to fish…

First, find whatever book it is on Wikipedia (in this case Harry Potter). Scroll down and find “read this article in another language.” Select the article in your target language. Inside the article, the foreign language name of each book in the series should be somewhere. Simply copy the title and paste it directly to a google search (make sure to add “pdf” on the end). If this isn’t clear I’ve snapped screenshots for you:


Wikipedia article about Harry Potter in português.


Just copy any of the titles you are interested in reading.

Just copy any of the titles you are interested in reading.


Now throw it into Google with "pdf."

Now throw it into Google with “pdf.”



Click the link that starts with [PDF].


This will open the pdf in your browser.


Now just tap the screen and in the top right an option menu will display saying "Open pdf in ibooks."

Now just tap the screen and in the top right an option menu will display saying “Open pdf in ibooks.”



Now the book is saved inside your iBooks library and you can read wherever, including offline.


Enjoy, make notes, highlight words and 'define' them. Copy and paste words into your electronic bilingual dictionary app.

Enjoy, make notes, highlight words and ‘define’ them. Copy and paste words into your electronic bilingual dictionary app.

Now, in Mainland China I’ve noticed that people are not so fond of the pdf format. Whereas almost any book you can imagine has been photocopied and put online in pdf format somewhere in Brazil. When learning Chinese I simply use Baidu Baike (Chinese wikipedia) in the same way illustrated above to find the title of a book in Chinese. Then I do a Baidu search for “哈利波特 [Harry Potter (or change this to whatever book you want)] 在线阅读 [read online].” Every book in the Potter series is available for browsing online and you can bookmark your progress by saving the webpage to your reading list when finished. Use Pleco to aid you while reading. Like Brazil, many books are available for free online in Mainland China. There are so many people here that someone is bound to have translated the book you’re interested in to Chinese. Anything from “How To Win Friends and Influence People” to a programming manual on Python. You’d be surprised what a web search can bring up.

Step 2: Read the book.

Some people try to argue that the magical vocabulary is not useful in daily life (words like wand, spell, potions etc.). Sure, that is true, but commonly used phrases and necessary grammatical structures will be littered throughout a book that’s a few hundred pages long. Tons of new verbs, adjectives, and nouns can be learned from digging into a story like Harry Potter. Dialogue between certain characters will be purposefully informal, approximating conversational language. Over the course of seven books, you’ll learn language for plenty of commonplace experiences like eating, romance, emotions, descriptions. I noticed a significant change in my ability to understand people and express my ideas more fluidly after reading all seven Harry Potter books a few years ago while on long train rides traveling about China. I became more accustomed to being “in Chinese mode” for longer stretches of time. Obviously it’s not a fix all, you still need to learn some things through real world experience and face to face communication, but your ability to comprehend a greater spectrum of the language will become immediately apparent when you are watching movies or TV shows. Reading a book that you already have some background knowledge of will help while you trudge through the new language, making sense of context and situations. Language describing people will be grasped more intuitively (Snape is a malcontent with a crooked nose, Dumbledore is a kindly grandfather with half-moon spectacles etc.) This paired with the incredible utility of the Pleco Chinese pasteboard reader makes burning through news articles and books much quicker.

Step 3: Review vocabulary.

While reading, I periodically take screen shots or bookmark new words in my electronic dictionary. Before I go to bed or whenever I’m bored I will go back over these like flashcards and refresh my memory.

Step 4: Branch out and read more.

There are entire online book repositories that include literature and non-fiction in Chinese. Almost every famous author from America will have readily available Portuguese language translations: from Noam Chomsky to Charles Bukowski. When you are ready, you can wade into Brazilian literature and non-fiction, maybe the original Portuguese language version of The Alchemist or something heavy like Brasil:Nunca Mais. Same goes with China, I’ve made my way through the original Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel as well as learning classical Chinese through the Dao De Jing. Once you’ve got a few books under your belt it becomes easier to read and understand new literature that comes from your target language.

Final Step: Keep at it.

As with any acquired skill, persistence is key. Just make sure to at least read a news article or simple essay everyday. Enjoy yourself and good luck! May you conquer all the language learning Voldemorts that crop up on your journey and ride the technological magic of the modern era to miraculous levels of fluency.

2 Comments on "Harry Potter as the Rosetta Stone: finding books you’re familiar with online and reading them to improve language ability"

  1. You might be interested in this app I made that helps with this process 🙂


    I’d love to hear what you think! (probably easiest through Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/parallelbooksapp )

  2. Very energetic blog, I enjoyed that bit. Will there be a part 2?

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