The nasty toddlers in the British nursery school in Paris never found out they did me a favour. The vaguely Asian/Spanish accent I started off with in English apparently didn’t appeal to them, and as a result they didn’t want to play with me. So my mother pulled me out, home-schooled me for a few months, and at the age of four I’d become an avid reader in both English and French. By the time we moved to NYC the year after, the accent had disappeared. Nowadays, I also leisure-read in Italian and Spanish.
English is definitely my very favourite language, the one that continues to delight and surprise me day after day, as it’s the most elastic, creative and quirky one. I remember reading somewhere that some 200 new words are coined every month in the Anglo world, though only some 7 or 8 survive to eventually join the mainstream. If you want to say something your very own way, either because right then and there you’re too lazy to zoom onto the specific word that would convey your exact meaning, or on a particularly creative and upbeat day, or because you’re speaking with someone with whom you share another language, you might find yourself saying something that … technically doesn’t exist, but rides beautifully! If there’s some kind of inner logic, or construction-type logic, or similar-word sound, or intuitive connection, your new word will make sense and you’ll be understood. And you can keep on using it.
Just try saying something creative in Italian to an Italian: at the very best you’ll be met with a perplexed look, but more probably with a horrified “but you don’t say that!” and the person might go off into peals of laughter or throw you a superior look. How can foreigners be so ignorant? So you probably won’t come across any pleasurable really modern new words if you read novels in Italian, and the exercise can be particularly frustrating when the author applies the golden rule they were taught in school: the more opaque, out-of-use the word, the more of them you can string together – so the longer the sentence – the better and more desirable the result. It’s high-brow “good Italian” … So breathe deep before launching into a sentence if you want to reach the end of it.
Italian papers are even more frustrating, they also make a point of never referring to whatever happened before in an ongoing story or event: you’re supposed to be in the know before actually reading about it. If you were away abroad or on an isolated no-WiFi mountain peak, tough. Your problem.
Now French was the language of my formal schooling. I attended a series of Lycées Français in the world. So I obviously am very much at ease reading in French. I enjoy the stricter syntax and less permissive verb forms when applied to essays and scientific texts, but the language also has a formality that you can’t just shake off. I suspect I sit up straighter when reading in French. Even Tintin uses (lovely) formal language. Verlaine and Rimbaud did somehow manage to bend the sounds into beautiful rhythms and verses, but in my mind they’re exceptions. In general, the effect of often having to put the stress on last syllables can be constraining and not always musical.
In fact, to me Spanish is the most poetic language among those I’m familiar with. It has a shimmering musicality and light sounds, and the poetry flows. But Spanish prose doesn’t fly as high, and sometimes shares the defects of Latin structures that give more gravitas to the sentences. Also, but perhaps because I’ve often picked up the wrong novels, my Iberian reads have tended to be on the pessimistic and darker side. Latin American authors I’ve found more congenial, many of which have an innate sense of story, magic and wonder, and overall optimism.
These are very personal points of view. How do you feel about reading in your own language or in another one?