Reading in a Second Language

The first Spanish language book I finished reading on my own was Ficciones, a short story collection by Jorge Luis Borges. Reading that book, with my limitations, became an inimitable experience.

My Puerto Rican dad did little more than teach me a few words and leave the TV on the Spanish language channels. Since elementary school, I took various classes, read beginner courses, watched both the English and Mexican dubs of Dragon Ball Z, but only my classes from middle to high school really anchored the language within me. I also began teaching myself Japanese, and to maintain my Spanish skills, I’d write down words in Japanese and then write their definitions and explanations in Spanish. This led to mix-ups in my mind. For though the languages are vastly different, the vowel sounds are the same. I almost substituted some Japanese words for their Spanish equivalents in one Japanese oral test in college. That would have really confused my professors!

During the last month of Spanish Language Advanced Placement class, I tried to read the Spanish translation of The Little Prince, but was too busy to finish. Soccer and music programs formed my main exposure, along with reading some articles and song lyrics. I was able to exchange a few sentences with my grandma when she visited from Puerto Rico, but I’m still much less comfortable with speaking than reading or even writing. When I video-illustrated my recitation of the poem “Nocturno” for Video class, I spotted the Spanish speakers in the audience covering their laughter at my faltering gring-ish multiblend accent. Embarrassment is my shadow when I speak, though I trudge onward when I need the language for work.

My reading skills gained confidence as I conducted research in both English and Spanish when appropriate, in college and later jobs. I even edited a 58-minute Spanish archaeology documentary for an internship and answered emails (and a few calls!) in Spanish for a tech-support position. These experiences, along with following blogs and turning on Spanish subs for movies, eventually brought me to the point when I decided to read Ficciones.

Nadie lo vio desembarcar en la unánime noche,” begins the story “Las ruinas circulares.” Alone, I disembarked into the night of my first extracurricular reading of Spanish fiction. As I dove into Borges’ worlds of everlasting libraries and secret miracles, I sporadically consulted a dictionary, but more or less journeyed forward in my occasional incomprehension, reveling in it at times. Sentences would be reread as I figured definitions and connections and plots like deciphering inscriptions with my hands. The fusion of what I understood, didn’t understand, and misunderstood false cognates creating new meaning, turning “unánime noche” into “inanimate night” instead of “unanimous night” became my own secret miracle of reader creation.

One collection of essays, two novels, and one more short story later, most of that air of incomprehension has dissipated. I just finished the 2011 Colombian novel El ruido de las cosas al caer, in which I admired the crystalline moments before inevitable crashes, but was critical of a tell-not-show switch in the second half. Yet imagine my surprise when Silva’s “Nocturno” played a major role at the end of that novel’s first chapter. Or my earlier astonishment when I found that Borges had written tanka, one of the poetry forms that led me towards learning Japanese when I was still taking Spanish classes. Meaning is reinforced in cycles. From hearing a word in one language to looking up its definition in another, then seeing that word again in newer sentences and phrases, then seeing those phrases in newer contexts. Constantly exchanging the dissimilar masses of a word’s or concept’s connotations in one language for those in another, until both may finally separate as individuals understood on their own terms. It’s strange how coincidence also makes its cycles, returning me to “Nocturno” and tanka, back to a time when I knew less.

I am glad to have gained greater comprehension of the language, and even found a favorite Spanish novel, Antonio Di Benedetto’s El silenciero (The silencer). Yet I grasp for a feeling that has escaped, one that has become more image than word: scenes of moonlight and flamelight and sunlight, illuminating a mental universe I could navigate with faint understanding.

Diandra Rodriguez

Proudly Latinasian NorCal American.

11 Responses

  1. Mirella Snape says:

    This is very interesting :D
    I don’t remember much about when I started reading in English (my first language is Spanish) but what you write feels… familiar somehow.

    • @Mirella Snape, Glad to know that some things are similar to other multilingual readers. :)

    • amy says:

      @Mirella Snape, i started out with Reader’s Digest reading when I reached intermediate level courses. And by then Cable Magico still showed ABC, NBC, CBS and the now dead The WB, so there was loads of chances to practice English.

      The most difficult about English is having to know Greek, Latin, Germanic, etc roots to figure out words.

      For French is grammar and spelling… where do all the Es and Esses go with the Ts. XD

      Japanese and Chinese Mandarin… just crazy.

      • @amy, I tried learning Mandarin a little after starting Japanese. I progressed as far as greetings and numbers and then decided that maybe I should try some other time in a more formal reading situation. At least I can figure out the characters from the kanji I know? haha

        • amy says:

          @Diandra Rodriguez, LOL. I had a similar train of thought, so I began learning Japanese because I thought I could learn kanji first… that didn’t work that well… but I do understand a lot more Japanese basic conversation than Mandarin… but I understand a lot more written kanji.

      • Mirella Snape says:

        @amy, as slightly embarrasing it is to reveal, while the bulk of my English knowledge comes from my primary school (excellent school for learning English back in the day), my grasp of colloquial English came from cable TV and my vocabulary from well-written fanfiction :P

        • amy says:

          @Mirella Snape, i was a horrible English student until… I was 10, got cable and began listening to music in English ^o^

  2. Camiele says:

    I’ve had this desire to start writing in Spanish myself. I love Spanish poetry (obviously, Lorca and Neruda come to mind). The way the words dance around each other, it’s the reason I fell in love with language in the first place. I personally feel there’s no language more beautiful to write poetry in than Spanish.

    I’m slightly familiar with Borges. I definitely need to invest some time in his work. This was a beautiful write-up, by the way :)

  3. Stephanie Chan says:

    “…my own secret miracle of reader creation” — just lovely! Thanks so much for sharing your experiences :)

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