Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Writing in Your SECOND Language…

 I must fess up here: English is my second language. I grew up in Israel, and while it helped to have a mother who was American and gave me an American citizenship, my mother did not speak English to me. Except for the times she was so angry at me and English phrases got thrown in, it was Hebrew at home, on the street, and at school.

School was also where I learned English, beginning in fifth grade. I still remember some oddities from my formal introduction to the language, such as thinking the word young meant old. Or that the word stupid meant lazy. These could be remnants of hearing my mother’s raging and my not quite understanding, or some other muddle I no longer have conscious access to.

America- the land of dreams. I came to live in the country I did not know, but of which I was a citizen, when I was in my late teens. I sounded fluent and had good pronunciation, gratis of having an American parent. But my command of the written language was rather poor. You've heard of “high-school English?” That was about it.


 Even before the language changeover, I was a writer. I had a short story published in Hebrew while still in high-school. Making the language switch was harder for writing than for passive understanding or casual speaking. I spent some years in transition- on the road between two languages, two sensibilities, two worlds.
I was becoming more of one and less of the other, but  wasn't fully in either. I was a storyteller. I just didn't have, you know, the words. Words, sentences, paragraphs. The building blocks. I don’t know when I attained the audacity to think that I had these tools of my second language and could use them effectively.

I read a NewYork Times (book section) discussion of published writers whose first language was not English. They all felt that, for all their challenges, they had something special to offer not in spite of  but because of it. I wouldn't go that far, but then- I am not as successful as they are. I know that having lived elsewhere, (really lived and been a part of, not just stationed in or visiting) does give storytellers something natives don’t have. On the other hand, natives have something we never will- that deep and unwavering connection, psychically and linguistically, to their home base. So it’s a tie.

They say you raise your own kids either exactly as you were raised, or in reaction to it. I chose not to raise mine bilingual, because, to me, a foot in two worlds was not an advantage. I’m not right or wrong about this; it’s just my experience.

 
Words/sentences/paragraphs are just a part of this; it’s a mindset. I wanted my kids to be grounded and strongly identified. I did not want them to do the nervous dance I jitterbugged on tippy-toes, sometimes landing with a thud, barely navigating just-so between the arenas of a first and second language.


 DS is now a Linguistics major, while DD excelled in Latin, French, and took up Italian on her own. But when they write stories, there’s little doubt that English it is, and Americans they are. 

14 comments:

  1. If I had just met you, I would've never known from your writing that English was your 2nd language! You've conquered it, IMO. How ironic your son and daughter are interested in foreign languages. Good for them!

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  2. Funny how I'm sort of the opposite. I spoke only Polish when I was young, but even though Polish is technically my first language, I feel much more comfortable speaking/writing in English. If I had to write a book in Polish, I think I'd freak out. :-) I so admire people who are able to write fluently in multiple languages!

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    1. I remembered that your first language was Polish, Anna. So was my father's. He tried to teach me how to say a few phrases, and I concluded that anyone who can pronounce Polish as a second language should get a medal, for which I wouldn't qualify ;)
      But you get a medal for making a spectacular transition.

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    2. My poor husband has been trying to learn Polish for almost 13 years. We've concluded that unless you were born speaking it, it's pretty much an impossible language to learn. :-)

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  3. Fascinating! Your writing is not one bit stilted for not having grown up with it. And it's interesting that your children have such a love of languages.

    I grew up trilingual and used all the words at my disposal esp. when talking with my family. However, due to three transcontinental moves in early childhood, I always felt like a foreigner ... but when I look at the depth and breadth of experiences, I wouldn't trade it for anything. However, I love that my kids have stability. They are Americans through and through.

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  4. I'm so impressed with anyone who can speak, read, and/or write in a second language. I am tone deaf when it comes to other languages.

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    1. Your comment, Ann, reminded me of Abba Eban, who spoke many languages beautifully. When he was complemented on this his retort was that he knew a man who spoke seventy languages but made no sense in any of them... In other words- be not impressed with a person speaking another language, but with how well spoken the person is in any language.

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  5. I never knew this about you. To be honest, I always wished I could speak another language. I took six years of Spanish and used to be able to read the language well. I couldn't keep up when someone spoke though.

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  6. I'm like Kelly, I wish I was fluent in something besides just English. I keep thinking one day I'll learn Spanish, but so far it's not happened! It was fascinating hearing about your experiences, Mirka.

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  7. That is amazing, Mirka! I can't imagine being fluent in more than one language, and often wish that I was. My 4- and 1-year-old nieces in Brazil are being raised bilingual, and it is wonderful to hear the older one speak in a mixture of English and Portuguese. My sister is also writing in Portuguese now, a language she learned as an adult. It was a challenge, but she mastered it. That kind of brain power simply amazes me!

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  8. And not only did you have to learn vocabulary and grammar, you had to learn an entire alphabet AND learn to read and write left to right instead of right to left.

    The mind boggles.

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    1. Left-to-right, right-to-left... My excuse for a poor sense of direction ;)

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  9. Like Kelly, I had 5-6 years of Spanish, and could write and read it okay. Even now, I remember a fair amount of basic vocab. But I can't read it any longer, or understand anyone speaking it except for a word here and there. In high school, two girls did summer programs in Mexico and Majorca, and came back *speaking Spanish*. That was when I realized no classroom learning of a language would ever be enough.

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  10. I didn't know this about you, too, Mirka. (No wonder ~ you were the first and probably only person I know who'd also read Uri Orlev!) I grew up bilingual. In Singapore schools, all of us kids are taught both English and Chinese. At home, we speak Mandarin since my parents don't know much English (they can read a few words though and can spell several of them). With friends, we switch comfortably between both. I'm not sure if being bilingual has made my writing (English) different from my Caucasian writer-mates but I like the freedom to explore Chinese writings and getting inspirations in terms of metaphors from that. :)

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