The Kindle as a Powerhouse for Language Learning: Hacks and Review

My takeaways from reading in Spanish, Italian, and French on a Kindle to maintain and build vocabulary. Plus how I've used the built-in flashcards, exported them to a better app (Anki), and then made foreign-language vocabulary my own through quick online classes.

Look up foreign-language words without blocking your reading flow, then export and learn your vocabulary list to make them yours.

Over the years I’ve been using a Kindle to learn languages, I’ve very gradually uncovered hacks and tools for efficient vocabulary building. But this article will throw them all at you, right here, in one big wallop.

Reading in your target language (German, Chinese, Russian, Wolof, whatever) on a Kindle is faster and far more satisfying than reading a paper book, thanks to its built-in capabilities (dictionaries, audiobook versions, etc.). And if you use the Kindle right, you’ll also never forget the new words you learn.

Plus it’s hella fun to take on all the good books available in other languages.

We’ll start with an overview and then dive into specific strategies; we wind up with a guide to choosing a Kindle for language learning.

Kindle with a French-to-English dictionary definition

Why Kindles Make Such a Difference for Reading in a Foreign Language

If you’re learning a language, any current-model Kindle makes an excellent companion. The main features:

  • Access to much of the world’s literature at all reading levels in any language, including an easy way to buy foreign books (here’s how).
  • Look up any word just by holding a finger over it: choose from definitions in your own language, your target language, Wikipedia articles, and Google Translate, which is better for phrases (here’s how).
  • Study flashcards so you never forget the new words you’re looking up (here’s how).
  • Hear the audio book simultaneously as you read to reinforce the proper sounds and improve comprehension (here’s how).

There are still a couple of downsides to Kindles:

  • The Kindle’s flashcard app is limited, so see below for a process to export your Kindle flashcards to a better flashcard app like Anki.
  • Unlike paper books, you can’t sell or give away Kindle books. You are only allowed to loan them to others for two weeks, and only in some cases.

All current Kindles have all of the language learning features outlined in this article. The choice of more expensive or cheaper Kindles thus comes down to what you want in terms of front lighting, waterproofing, and mobile connectivity.

Kindle Paperwhite on Amazon

Update History of This Article

This article was first published on June 3, 2020.

How Kindle Changes the Experience of Reading in a Foreign Language

When I was at an intermediate level in Spanish years ago, I’d read books with a Spanish-English dictionary at my side. And, particularly at the beginning of a book, I’d stop quite frequently to look up words—having to keep in mind the odd alphabetical order in Spanish with its double letters, and in some cases having to guess at what an infinitive verb form might be so that I could find it.

Worse, I’d sometimes have to go through the whole looking-up process several times, if I was forgetful.

Recent-model Kindles change the experience of reading in Spanish or any language, entirely and lead to much more efficient learning.

Instantly Look Up a Foreign Word

Holding your finger over a word brings up its definition. This is a quick way to check for meaning without a huge break in the pace of your reading. (As we’ll see in the next section, this doesn’t mean you must then forget the word either—your Kindle is automatically keeping track for you of what you look up.)

There are multiple options for word lookup, and they all come up side-by-side when you hold your finger over the vexing word (or phrase). You can choose which option you want to have as your default.

  • Definitions of the word from a monolingual dictionary in your target language (French, Spanish, etc.)
French lookup with French definition on Kindle
  • Definitions of the word from a bilingual dictionary (so in English, if that’s your native language)
Kindle with French to English dictionary definition
  • The Wikipedia article on the word
  • Google Translate—in some cases this can be better for giving you the meaning of slang, conjugated/declined words, and complex, hard-to-parse phrases
Here’s the Google translation of a French phrase while reading; it’s hardly a great translation, but it gives you a enough to understand what’s going on in the context of the paragraph.

You get to decide how much you want to look up words that you don’t understand—there’s a balance to be struck between enabling comprehension and improving your vocabulary versus breaking your reading flow.

I’ve found it useful to have more patience with looking up words at the beginning of a book, and once I have a good sense of the writer’s perspective, idiolect, and common word choices, I can read faster without stopping.

Overall, with the Kindle there’s a temptation to look up more words though, and I think that’s a great thing. My vocabulary in my reading languages has improved enormously.

Set Your Kindle Dictionaries

Setting my Kindle dictionary options—I use monolingual dictionaries and, when that fails, bilingual dictionaries and/or Google Translate in Kindle

Kindles can have multiple dictionaries for each language, and these can be dictionaries that you buy or that come pre-installed, or that you download for free.

To see your dictionaries and change your options, go to settings in your top right menu, then languages and dictionaries, then dictionaries. You’ll get something like this photo, showing your languages and the dictionaries available for each one.

If you’re not happy with your current dictionary options, you can go to manage your content and devices in your Amazon account from your computer and then in the “Show” menu choose “Dictionaries & User Guides”. In my case this shows a bunch of useless user guides along with a bunch of very useful dictionaries; using the search feature brings up the languages I want. In the menu to the left of the dictionary you can choose to have it delivered wirelessly to your default device (that is, your Kindle).

There are also some free English-to-other-languages dictionaries which could be useful for those learning or improving their English.

Note that when you are reading and you click on a word to look it up, you can glide between your dictionaries, Wikipedia, and Google Translate, and you can click on the dictionary name to change which dictionary you are using.

Read a Book and Listen to its Audible Version Simultaneously

The current Kindles all have Bluetooth capability that allows you to connect a Bluetooth speaker or headphones and hear your book as you are reading it on the page.

If you want to try out listening/reading at the same time, I’d recommend signing up for an Audible subscription. You’ll get a book for free (two if you’re a Prime member), keep your book, and pay nothing as long as you cancel within 30 days. You can also just buy individual audio titles where available along with your Kindle version, and they’re always automatically synced to each other.

If you don’t have a Bluetooth audio device already (any will work), here’s what we’ve recommended for the highest quality in the smallest packages:

The advantages of having the book read to you in a language you’re learning:

  • You’re likelier to develop good pronunciation habits by hearing the words as a native speaker says them. This can be particularly important if the spelling of your target language differs from its pronunciation.
  • You also hear the flow and rhythm of the language at the sentence level.
  • Seeing the words as you’re hearing them can help with comprehension. Sometimes words just make more sense if you hear them, sometimes if you see them. This gives you both.
  • You may be less tempted to stop and look up every word if there is audio going (though it’s easy to pause). Looking up too many words can slow you down, take you out of the story, and be discouraging overall.

That last point could also be considered a disadvantage of going the audio book route; if you’re too tempted to never look up words, you may miss chances to improve your vocabulary and even think you’re understanding when you’re actually misunderstanding certain words.

How Kindles Aid in Language Learning

We just saw how Kindles can make reading in a foreign language more of a joy, and we’re bound to learn something while doing so. But to really keep our new vocabulary, we can’t stop there. We need to learn it and use it. Kindles can help with that, too.

Review the Vocabulary You’ve Looked Up Using Kindle’s Flashcards

Kindles now have a built-in vocabulary builder feature that offers you flashcards of the words you have looked up. You can look at all of your tricky vocabulary words from all books, or, more conveniently for language learners, focus on one specific book and the words that had bothered you when you were reading it.

The Kindle vocabulary builder allows you to see the word’s definition as well as the word in its original context sentence in your book. As seen below, it often does an excellent job of giving you the infinitive form when you looked up a conjugation. And it doesn’t just provide the word but also it’s original context, so you can get a sense of how you might use it yourself.

An Italian vocabulary word in context in word builder in Kindle; you click on “see definition” to check your understanding
Italian definition in English in word builder; if you were correct you may want to “mark as mastered” so that you can focus only on the words you don’t know as well

The Kindle’s built-in word builder is great for coming back to your book and reviewing the words you had trouble with. But it is not a particularly advanced flashcard system as there are only two choices: mastered or not. In the real world, you may master a word one day but need to review it a week later. But there are better apps for that.

Export Your Kindle Vocabulary to a Better Flashcard System

Take every word that you look up in a Kindle book and permanently enter it into your long-term memory by exporting the Kindle list to a flashcard app like Anki.

In order to really learn the new words that you’ve learned while reading, you need to do more than just see them in the Kindle’s Vocabulary builder. You need to test yourself. Testing is a top scientifically proven way to improve memory of vocabulary, and no, this doesn’t mean taking an exam, just testing yourself with flashcards.

One way to do that is to simply write out your new words from the Kindle vocabulary builder list onto pieces of paper with the definitions on the reverse side, making your own flashcards. Another way is to use an app like Anki. Whichever you choose, here’s how to make effective flashcards.

How to Take Your Vocabulary from Kindle to Anki

The powerhouse memorization app Anki is by far the best way to learn vocabulary, and it’s free to use on the web and Android (and cheap on iPhones).

To move your vocabulary words over from Kindle to Anki:

  1. Connect your Kindle to a computer via a USB data cable (not a mere charging cable). The Kindle will show up on your computer as a drive, open it.
  2. Search the Kindle drive on your computer for a file called “vocab.db“.
  3. Drag that file into this lovely website: https://fluentcards.com/kindle. The site will show the various books you’ve read and the number of word lookups you performed in each book.
  4. Click the book you want and download your vocabulary list in Anki format (you can also download it in Memrise format if you prefer that app).
  5. Import your resulting deck into the Anki app.
  6. You’ll have the context and automatically supplied definition. You’ll likely need to clean up the definitions a bit and preferably add images, pronunciation, and a way of using the word that is personal to you. This multidictionary lookup can help you do that search multiple definitions and images instantly for a number of languages (Italian, Spanish, French, Catalan, Portuguese, Serbian).

Word Wise: A Nice Feature, but Only for Learning English

The Word Wise feature, which places simple definitions on the page just above words, is only useful for those learning or improving their English vocabulary. It’s not available for other languages yet. The rest of us still need to actually touch the word that’s bothering us in order to get a definition.

Integrate Your New Vocabulary into Your Own Speech and Writing

To have all these new words be worthwhile in your target language, you need to actually integrate them into your personal vocabulary. You can practice doing so by:

  • Writing phrases with the new words
  • Using the words to talk about your own opinions and life while speaking

If possible you want to do both of these things without looking back to your word and your definition, so that you are really testing yourself and forcing yourself to come up with the word and use it correctly without any sort of crutch.

You should then of course have some sort of check to make sure that you’re really using the word correctly. Do this with a native speaker. This could be a (free) language exchange partner or a (paid) professional teacher; Italki is my preferred spot for finding both of those for any language. It can be really fun, as well, to have conversations about what you’re reading in a foreign language, and see how that compares to what native speakers think of it. I’ve had great luck with searching Italki for native-speaking teachers who use the word “literature” as one of their interests in their profiles; it’s a quick way to find those who are well-read and interested in books, and only too delighted to chat about them and help you use your new vocabulary correctly.

Get a Textbook for Your Language in Kindle Format, if Available

You should definitely have at least one quality textbook for whatever language you’re learning; even if this is not your main learning method it can provide some structure and be invaluable when you need to resolve a nagging grammar issue.

Depending on your language, there may be a Kindle version of a good textbook available. The advantages of using it, versus going the paper route:

  • You can search your Kindle for a term or a grammar issue—it’s much snappier as a reference tool than paper tables of contents or indices.
  • You can highlight and take notes in a Kindle just as you would on paper. Kindle also provides a convenient list of your notes and marks (that you might want to come back to later with a teacher, for example).
  • A Kindle is easier to take anywhere than a textbook. And if you have it with you more often, you’re likely to study it more often.

On the other hand, there’s something lovely about underlining and writing in the margins of tangible textbooks. For languages that I’m really studying hard (and for which there are books that I really like), I get both the paper and the eBook version, and I’ve never regretted that double purchase.

Complete Spanish Step-by-Step
This is the book I’d get if I were learning Spanish now (this very reputable series has books for other languages as well). My preference for language textbooks is to get both the eBook (for searching) and paper versions (for scrawling and doodling on).

Choosing eBooks for Language Learning

What should you choose to read to improve your Spanish, French, Chinese, Italian, Russian, whatever? Well, obviously whatever interests you! But here are a few tips that can help for language learning specifically.

The Types of Books that Work Best for Language Learning

  • Don’t get too ambitious. Shorter books and books of short stories especially are more approachable. Children’s books too.
  • That said, philosophical/theoretical books may not be as hard as you’d think, if it’s a subject you’re interested in and the language uses Latin-derived terms similar to those in English. For example, compare in Spanish a phrase you can probably guess: difusión del absolutismo en la teoría posmoderna (diffusion of absolutism in postmodern theory) vs. say, a phrase from our article on sexy Mexican Spanish, me sacas de onda (your killing my vibe). You can already understand all of the words from the first phrase without knowing Spanish, but the later requires more language knowledge.
  • Feel free to aim a bit more lowbrow and trashy than you might otherwise allow yourself to. Whatever your literary crack-smeared-with-cheese-whiz temptation is, this is your chance to go for it, guilt-free. Romance novels? Erotica? Adventure? Fantasy? Sci fi? Reading in a new language offers enough frustrations, so the more that the material is something that can hook the simpler tendencies in your brain, the better. And you deserve the treat for taking on this language.
  • Read books actually written in your target language (not translations). This lets you dig into real vocabulary and its real context — language is just one aspect of a whole culture that you’re learning to think and operate in. (All that said, if you just have to read Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or what have you in your target language, and that’s motivating for you, go for it. Those are quite popular with language learners.)
  • On a similar note, target books from the region whose version of the language you’re learning, and on subjects that you tend to talk about. This will ensure that you pick up vocabulary that you can actually use.

Get Access to More Foreign Books: Changing Your Country Setting in Amazon

Can’t find a book you want in your target language in your home country’s Amazon? It may well be available in the other country’s Amazon site. Most national Amazon stores, unsurprisingly, have a much wider range of digital content for their own languages as compared to the USA store (or whatever your local Amazon is).

Here’s a little work-around for getting access to other countries’ digital books.

This happens because Amazon is able to sell some books only in certain countries due to licensing agreements.

The difference in book availability can be pretty great. For example, some Italian books I wanted to read were not available in my “home” country. This home country for digital purposes can be independent of the countries to which you actually get orders shipped; for example, my Amazon account was set to USA for digital purchases, even though as a world nomad I’ve also placed Amazon orders of physical goods to Spanish and French addresses, etc.

What books could be missing for you? You can check out world Amazons with the links below.

Kindle Books in Amazon Stores Around the World

Unfortunately, it’s not always as simple as just buying from those world Amazons. Here’s a sample error message you get when browsing for a popular book in Spanish at Amazon.es (Spain) with a USA-based account.

An error message reading "tu compras libros Kindle en Amazon.com" ("you buy Kindle books at Amazon.com").
An error message from Amazon telling you to go back to your own country to buy Kindle books. But what if the book isn’t available for Kindle in your country? Just change your Amazon country (“move”).

To fix this, you just need to change your country for digital products with Amazon. Here’s how:

  1. Go to your digital product Amazon settings on your home country’s Amazon account. In the top right under Account go to: Manage your content and devices > Preferences > Country/Region settings. This link hopefully takes you right there, no matter your home country.
  2. Choose “change your country/region”.
  3. Specify any address in the country of your target language. It could be a friend’s place, a hotel you might like to stay in someday, a famous monument. This does not affect the payment address used for your credit card nor your shipping address (though it will be added to your addresses that you can choose from for these).
  4. Change over to your target country and start shopping for your books. When you’re done, you can always change your country again; I’ve never had issues with this and always been able to keep access to my books purchased in other countries after each “move”.

Amazon appears to be quite content to let us take this little workaround to get past their licensing agreements; after all, we’re buying books.

Kindle: A Good Way to Read Generally, and Definitely the Best e-Reader

The Kindle is pretty easy to recommend; aside from our excellent experiences with it overall from the folks here at Minimalist.Travel, it is the top ranked e-reader from lesser websites like Consumer Reports, the Times/Wirecutter, and Kindles have quite positive reviews from lots of reputable tech critics.

There are still people who holdout for reading paper books, and I totally relate to them. There’s something more real about the more tactile experience of paper, and this can even help with language learning. When you feel that the word is never going to disappear with a page turn, it can feel like a more tangible and necessary thing to learn. But as I note above, there are so many advantages to Kindle. So combine the Kindle with paper books, or printed worksheets and articles, if this applies to you.

An alternative to the Amazon Universe is the Kobo e-Reader; check their selection of books in various languages. It’s not as big as Amazon’s, but there are plenty of options, and the Kobo e-Readers are similar in functionality and offer multilingual dictionary lookups. I haven’t tried one yet myself and would love to hear from readers in the comments about your experiences with them and language learning.

Read in Sunshine as Well as Total Darkness

Kindles are famous for their ultra-high-resolution, paper-like display. It doesn’t get washed out like telephone screens, or have a nasty glare. I took the photos below in very bright Iowa afternoon sunshine with my phone. It was hard to see the phone screen to take these photos, but the Kindle screen was absolutely comfortable to look at.

This essential Kindle feature is not just for outdoors or the beach; as you can see above, it’s lovely to be able to sit in a sunny spot indoors with a good Kindle book as well.

Kindle paper-like displays have always worked in bright sunlight; more recent Kindles are are excellent indoors and offer backlighting so that you can read in a dark room without bothering a sleeping partner, for example.

Kindle Paperwhite adaptive front light for reading in the dark

Kindle as a Tool for Minimalist Travel

I’m constantly on the road and as such have learned to pare down to just the essentials for my minimalist travel packing. The Kindle is definitely on that list; it’s what allows me to read more than one book on the go, and also have a dictionary at hand for whatever language I need while reading. The days of lugging around books and dictionaries are thankfully over.

The adaptive backlight shown just above is nice when travelling in darkened trains and planes at night, as well as when sharing a room (in a hostel for example).

Protect Your Kindle: You Absolutely Need a Cover

Over the years I’ve owned my Kindle it’s gone all over the world with me, and hasn’t gotten a scratch. That’s not because I’m particularly careful, it’s because I have a savvy friend who gifted me a hard, plastic snap-on cover. It doesn’t add any bulk at all really, as you can see from the photos, and has ensured that my Kindle has lasted.

Various friends who have not put their Kindles in cases have complained to me that they have quickly and inadvertently destroyed them in one way or another. All friends with cases have had no problems.

A hard case is highly recommended; Kindles can otherwise be damaged if you place something on top of them, or if they jostle around in a backpack, even if you choose a good backpack with a special e-reader sleeve in the laptop compartment.

MoKo Case
Your Kindle will last forever if it’s in a hard case like this one. And if it’s not, it won’t.

Key Factors in Choosing the Right Kindle for Language Learning

I’ve linked below to the Kindle I’d get, if I were going to get a new Kindle right now (which I’m not, my several-generations-old model still works perfectly).

Keep in mind that all of the current Kindle models over at Amazon contain all of the same foreign-language-learning features outlined in this article.

Key options to consider:

  • You don’t need the extra memory options; all Kindles have more than enough. Dozens of books can fit on a small fraction of a gibabyte, and if you ever did somehow fill your Kindle you could delete items and then re-download them again from Amazon whenever you want.
  • Cellular connectivity is a good idea for language learners if you’ll be reading at any time away from your home WiFi connection. The Google Translate and Wikipedia options don’t work unless you’re connected to the internet (your downloaded dictionaries work fine however for word lookup).
  • “Special offers” means ads for suggested books on your home screen when your Kindle is off. It’s not a problem in my opinion. There are no ads when you’re reading.
  • As noted above, you must get a cover to protect your Kindle.
  • Kindles don’t have speakers so to listen to books (above) in your target language you’ll need a Bluetooth speaker or headphones.
  • The cheapest Kindle is fully featured for language learners and just fine to read on. The most expensive (below) is a luxury to read on, but has the same learning features.
Kindle Oasis
Warm, adjustable backlighting, completely waterproof (IPX8), 7-inch glare-free screen, and outputs sound for audio books to Bluetooth headphones, and syncs seamlessly between reading and listening

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