On learning to read again

“Has it ever occurred to you,” he said, “that the whole history of English poetry has been determined by the fact that the English language lacks rhymes?” (Orwell, 1984)

Do you remember learning to read? Do you remember the joy of having a book in your hands for the first time, of learning what you enjoy and cultivating a voracious appetite to find more of it?

I was fortunate enough to have that experience in three different languages, and I’m writing this to try to sell it as an experience in an age where smaller and smaller percentages of English speaking people are learning foreign languages to a high level.

There’s been a lot of chatter about the utility of learning a foreign language now that English is increasingly becoming established as the lingua franca of the world. Why bother, goes the refrain, when soon machines will be able to translate every written word for you and put it in a language you actually understand?

There’s a point there somewhere, but I fear it misses an even bigger one. It misses the notion that if you offered me my time again, offered to take away the hours of frustration, of feeling as if I’d never quite ‘get it’, offered to let me spend my time mastering another skill that might be more useful to my future, I’d politely suggest you keep on walking.

And let me tell you why, with as few hairs on my tongue as I am able to manage.

Well, first, there’s that. That neat little clause above just means something along the lines of ‘as straightforwardly as possible’ in Spanish, but isn’t it a much more interesting way to express that sentiment? And every single language has thousands of those little idiosyncrasies, and we have literature written in hundreds of languages. What a waste it would be to see all those options reduced to whatever some translator decided was its closest approximation in English. No two languages use the same idioms, the same phraseology, even the same thoughts, and to think you can condense them down to one vocabulary set like some form of Newspeak is folly.

But that’s just the practicality, and speaks little to the actual experience of reading, or indeed learning to read, in another language.

I picked up my first serious book in Spanish aged 17, in preparation for the college admissions process. I don’t remember what it was, but I do remember the experience.

Immediately I became a toddler again, stumbling around confused having been handed a book that was well beyond my reading comprehension. You think you know a language, when you’re at school, when you can reasonably confidently discuss the current political climate in the target country with your classmates, but you don’t know a damn thing. Nothing prepares you for when a writer sends you sprawling for answers, for the meaning and context behind their words that are taking you completely out of your frame of reference. It’s a lived experience, and you’ll never be ready for Don Quixote, or Madame Bovary, or Faust; you simply have to let them wash over you. It’s just one of those things, you presume comfort in another language until you come across someone who’s a true master of it, someone who can play with your expectations and at the last minute pull back the curtain and reveal something completely unforeseen. It can be maddening to learn just how far you are away from that as a reader.

Having said that, do it.

If you’re even beginning to learn a language and have basic reading comprehension, go grab some books and get to work on them. The experience is different at first, but no less rewarding than doing it in English. Every other word will send you to the dictionary, and you’ll get frustrated at the lack of context, at not understanding the nuance of a phrase, of feeling as if you’re exploring an alien world, but all of that is part of the reward when it finally clicks.

You’ll experience a whole different frame of cultural cues, of reference points, of humor, which makes all of it so worthwhile. They say you have a different personality when you speak another language, and you read differently too, you find different things funny, and you learn a whole new side to yourself of which you may not even have been aware.

Some of it you can read without even that much effort. Kafka, for example, is well known for his relatively simple language amidst the infuriating bureaucracy of his works. You’re reading the same thing, but there’s just something almost imperceptibly different that makes it all the sweeter.

And all that is to say nothing of the forms themselves. Take poetry, as just one example. Haikus have translated into English from the Japanese tradition because of their relative simplicity, but there’s a whole encyclopaedia of ways of writing out there that, as Orwell noted, English simply can’t accomplish because of the relative scarcity of rhyming words. The Romance languages have these in abundance, and they are evidenced and deployed masterfully from the traditional Spanish ballad, to the French alexandrine, to the terza rima of Dante’s Divine Comedy. That’s just the languages closest to home too, there’s a whole new world out there in less familiar languages, from the complex Arabic tradition to the interesting things that can be done with the tonal variations in Mandarin.

I’m not exactly sure what I wanted to say in conclusion, other than a plea that we not limit ourselves to what is easy. There are utilitarian reasons to learn languages, and there are similar reasons not to do so, but to limit oneself to reading only in one language forever simply because it is easier than branching out is to deny oneself a great deal of pleasure. My favorite book is Dom Casmurro, by Brazilian author Machado de Assis; not one I would ever have discovered or even experienced in the same way without the good fortune of having learned Portuguese. So next time you get the urge to give up when reading in a foreign language, persevere, I promise it’s worth it in the end.