Reading in different languages

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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.

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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.

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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?

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31 Responses to Reading in different languages

  1. Lynn King says:

    Really liked this post. I’ve tried to read in French in the past, but it becomes a circus act of looking up words in the dictionary. I look up a word only to look up the definitions of the definitions… I think my record is four dictionary entries to understand one word.

  2. That is fantastic and I just wish I can speak French 😔😔😔 I really love too😊

  3. Kally says:

    I stumbled upon your blog, looking for some inspiration reads and I like what I found!! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Nirodaigh says:

    Very nice post indeed. I love languages, love English especially but grew up learning Irish also. Which I believe helped me later on, with French (which has stayed reasonably good) and of course Dutch which I taught myself in two years. At least to conversational level. But French is the most lovely sounding of all, to my ears. You are lucky to be so proficient in that one!

  5. Hi Bea,

    I loved this post. It brought me back to my high school years of taking French. I loved learning a new language. Sadly, I never kept up with it, but I’m hoping if I ever get the chance to visit France, it would come back to me.

    Nancy

    • Bea dM says:

      languages do come back, they’re …somewhere there… and in full immersion situations we surprise ourselves and are reminded of what extraordinary creations our brains are!

  6. Pecora Nera says:

    The Italian language sounds beautiful to my ears, even if I only understand bits of it. Mrs Sensible has managed to not only learn English, but also to lose the beautiful and sensual Italian accent she had. It only returns when she is stressed or shouting at me… In those moments I have to pretend to be serious and not smile.

    When we lived in England, Mrs S adopted two words I used, huggins (a lot) and fraggle (to feel unwell) She was mortified to realise they didn’t actually exist. 😉 She would ask me is this a real word or one of yours.

  7. jetgirlcos says:

    Great post! Yes, I love that I can “create” English words at will 🙂 I love reading, and to me, now that I can read acceptably well in French too, I just feel like I have a whole new world of books opened up to me, (as if there weren’t enough in English…wait, can one *really* ever have too many books?) I read very very fast in English and very very slow in French, due to my lack of fluency, but I’m getting there. I love how you say you “sit up straighter” when you read French. I get that 🙂 I love that sometimes one language expresses something better than the other; in learning a second one, I now have twice as many ways to be precise! How wonderful that you have even more than that!

  8. lundygirl says:

    To my shame English is my only language. Luckily for me that there are plenty of great books written in it! We did old English at school – Chaucer – and that was interesting. I was never taught anything about English grammar (in the 70’s that just wasn’t part of the curriculum) so although I know what sounds right I have no idea why. I did a TEFL course a couple of years ago and was lost in the terminology – no idea what the present perfect continuous is! Needless to say I didn’t start teaching English as a foreign language 🙂

  9. English is very pliable, certainly, and it has a vast stockpile of synonyms and near-synonyms that make it a joy to fiddle about with when you know what you’re doing. And even if you don’t 😉

    But for pure creativity value, I’m going to place German in front. It’s like Lego bricks – you can fashion a new word to suit your precise needs in about two milliseconds, particularly nouns. By making a compound noun, that is. There’s virtually no limit – how long is a piece of string? Answer: As long as a German compound noun, as long as you want to keep going. You can also create new verbs, too (by adding prefixes), although admittedly to a much more limited degree, and some purists may pull you up on it.

    • Bea dM says:

      Thank you very much for visiting and commenting: I love the “even if you don’t” 🙂 Yes, I agree, German is interesting too, but as you say sort of like bricks: you can pile them up, or line them up into the longest possible compounds, but it’s always a question of adding, you can’t really bend the nouns! I had fluent German as a child (lived in Vienna too), but never kept it up, precisely because I read to relax, and puzzling out long words and sentences doesn’t do it for me 🙂

  10. This is an awesome post… I have limited proficiency in Spanish and am going to learn French this year, but English is my main language. It is funny to hear others talking about our weird language, I didn’t realize how unique it was until I learned Spanish!

    • Bea dM says:

      yes, weird, unique and so expressive. By the way you have great pictures and text on your blog. I’ll be dropping in 🙂

  11. kevinbcohen says:

    Funny: I’m a monolingual English speaker, but I *definitely* have a dialect that I feel more at home in than others!

  12. Mél@nie says:

    @”English is definitely my very favourite language…” – mine, too… 🙂 it’s my 2nd language, I often call it “my first love”… ❤ French is my 3rd one… à propos, je me considère a global citizen… 🙂

  13. Ellen Hawley says:

    Great post. I read Spanish, although not as well as I speak it, and know enough French and Italian to make a fool of myself. But the only language I’m fully at home in is English. I’ve never heard or read a comparison of the languages from someone who’s at home in so many of them. I have read a lot of comments about the flexibility of English, but they’ve all been somehow suspect, because they don’t seem to be from anyone who’s lived inside other languages, so I’ve suspected them of being plain ol’ flag waving.

    • Bea dM says:

      no, it’s not flag waiving – apart from the fact you’re in a great position to know they’d have a fight about which flag to waive 🙂 political empires past & present are not the whole explanation to why English has managed to become such a 3rd millenium language

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