Why Every Language Learner Should Use Interlinear Books

I recently finished reading The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka in the original German. It proved to be quite a chore, but along the way my understanding of the German language improved greatly. One big reason for this improvement was that the version I read was an Interlinear Book.

The concept is pretty straightforward, and not much different from the side-by-side "readers" that people have been using for ages. When I read Pinocchio in the original Italian, it was also a dual-language reader, with the Italian on one page and its Englinsh translation on the opposite facing page. This is a very useful tool for the language learner because it allows you to stay in the context, but to find a good translation when you get stuck.

What Interlinear does differently, though, is that each word or phrase is accompanied by its translation in a smaller font, directly below.

Interlinear books

The smaller font for English helps it to stay out of your way while you read, and having the words right there for translation makes them easier to find, so that you don't have to switch to an English page and try to figure out where in the context you can find the word or phrase you need. It also helps because phrasal concepts can be grouped and translated without forcing you to try to parse an entire sentence to understand how it's different than the word-by-word translation.

This does not come without a small price, of course. Different grammars don't always line up squarely. In German, for instance, the prefix to a verb gets moved to the end of a sentence, so at times it might be unclear why a verb's translation is different until you examine the entire sentence and see no translation underneath the prefix at the end of the sentence.

It can also, at times, leave the English translation arranged in a way that makes no grammatical sense. You're not going to read the lines in English and enjoy the book. But I believe this is actually an advantage, because it prevents you from getting comfortable reading long passages in English, and instead it forces you to continue the journey through the original language of the text.

Available formats

The books are available in .pdf and (experimental) .epub versions. I used the .epub version and read on my iPad Mini, because I just don't have the patience and attention span to sit and read something in PDF.

For the most part, this actually worked out to be pretty great, although I noticed a few occasions where the text wouldn't line up perfectly, leaving a German sentence at the bottom of my screen and having to turn the page to see the English translation that should have been directly underneath it.

Example: The end of one page:

Interlinear books

And the beginning of the next page:

Interlinear books

While this was a minor nuisance at times, I think I actually began to like when this happened, because it was that much more motivation for me to try to figure things out rather than immediately cheating my eyes downward for a translation.

I think this is one of the challenges an e-book author faces when trying to create a somewhat formatted text inside of a dynamic format like epub, and I would say that for the most part, I was pretty impressed by how well Interlinear kept things together. One separate frustration I noticed, unrelated to Interlinear, was that the iBooks app seems confusingly unresponsive to screen rotation, which I eventually solved by disabling rotation when reading.

Final impressions

Overall I was pretty pleased with the Interlinear product. I've long stressed that the best way to improve your skill in any language is by using it, and this is definitely using it. Reading something in its original language — especially something on the writing level of Kafka — is a workout, and brings several challenges and opportunities to learn.

I've made great progress in language learning when using bilingual readers, as they give you access to common turns of phrase and expressions, along with a human translation that retains intended meaning, rather than a machine-generated word-by-word translation, and my experience with Interlinear was very much a good one, particularly as it finds a creative way to bridge the gap between side-by-side translations and e-books.

When I first started reading, they were offering books for four languages. At the time of publishing this, they're up to seven. Hopefully there will be many more coming, because I'd love to do this in Polish next. And I recommend you have a look for whatever language you're learning.

Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

Leave a comment:

Comment Policy: Comments and feedback are totes welcome but respect is mandatory. Disagree all you want but be nice. All comments and links are moderated.
  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I was lucky enough to get the chance to read the German Interlinear Book when studying German at the start of the year. You make a really good point about the English being less distracting because it doesn't always make sense. I hadn't really thought about it but you're right! :)

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    How cool is that? Alhougt the price is really smart.
    Używałem do tej pory "Czytamy w oryginale". Mają tam książki z obcym językiem po jednej i polskim po drugiej stronie. Dual reader. Mogę dać adres strony tego wydawnictw jeśli chcesz

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    never heard about this Interlinear technique before! Very interesting.
    I read English books and note the words that i dont know! Then i place them at the program i made for myself
    and learn it every day

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I definitely agree that this is the best way to learn by reading but reading from a computer screen is at best clumsey and hard on the eyes. Also, marking words for further study is not convenient. Amazon has several printed interlinear German books (my target language) but they need to make many more interlinear German books available!

    I think this is the leading edge of a trend and hope that I will soon be able to read many many "printed" interlinear German books. When I start reading in the evening, I like to read until bed time which allows me three or four hours of reading. The Amazon selection of printed books is just to sparce. I have the money to buy printed interlinear German books and someone needs to step up to the plate and produce them.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Hi Randy,

    I'm glad to see that you've written about interlinear books as we are working hard to bring them back to life in the sense of being known and used by serious language learners. You used to see them all the time in those late 19th century and early 20th century Latin, Greek, French etc. readers that you can find on archive.org. And it really is key to make the translation just awkward enough that it makes the reader want to go back to the original German as much as possible, but not so much that it doesn't make any sense.

    Also to Bill in the comments: I've published two paper interlinear translations in German: Demian and Kinderseele, both by Hermann Hesse. Through Lulu though, so they won't show up on Amazon. Demian I made a little bit more literal than Kinderseele as the latter is one of Hesse's hardly known pieces, while Demian is known enough that anything unclear can easily be searched.

Want to learn a language in 12 months?

Language you're learning...