Celebrating first book read in a foreign language

July 19, 2008, [MD]

There are many different milestones when learning a new language. They are important to measure ones progress, especially important since often I am learning independently, and don’t have the crutch of thinking - if I passed the test successfully, then my studies must be on track. But equally or more importantly, they provide a great sense of satisfaction and encouragement which is crucial, because learning new languages takes a long time, and often one can “plateu” and have the feeling of no progress for a long period of time. Then, when milestones or breakthroughs occur, it makes it all seem worth it.

When asked how many languages I know, I am often tempted to ask “How well does one have to know a language, for it to count?”. Indeed I ask myself that question often. To me, there are a number of “indicators” or goals. Partly, they also represent different sub-skills, and as such, your listening might be better in one language, and your speaking in another, depending both on the language, and on the setting in which I learnt it.

Having a conversation in a language that goes relatively smoothly, being able to watch a movie in the language without subtitles, understanding a news broadcast on TV, getting through a newspaper, being able to listen to an audiobook, are all great goals. But perhaps the one main goal in learning a new language, is getting through my first book. Since I am just about to finish my first book in Hindi, I was thinking last night about the “first books” in different languages that I have learnt. Surprisingly I remember both which book, and when, for most of the languages. So here is a short list.

Norwegian (and Nordic) - Norwegian is my mother tongue and as such its impossible to say which was my first proper “book”, since I was learning from age 5. Even in Swedish and Danish I cannot tell for sure, although it is possible that my first book read in Danish was The Woman and the Ape (Kvinden og aben), by Peter Høeg. Till this day, I love reading in Norwegian, and many of my favorite authors are Norwegian. I also read lots in Swedish, and enjoy audiobooks from both languages. Danish is much rarer, but I would like to read more.

English - Little Lord Fauntleroy, in 7th grade. I remember that the direct speech was quite difficult, perhaps because it was written in a dialect or sociolect. I remember getting a collection of Robert Ludlum books for Christmas during jr. high, and becoming very impressed by the advanced narrative techniques, which also influenced my own school writing (in Norway we predominantly do creative writing until high school). So far, I have probably read more in English than I ever read in Norwegian.

German - Not quite sure if this was the first, but I remember reading The Last Juror by John Grisham on a ferry in Europe, doing Europe by car with the family, the summer I turned 16. Although I read German quite fluently, I have not found that many others  that I really enjoyed, but Herman Hesse remains one of my favorites - especially Siddharta, which I read while hitchhiking in Austria during my last year of high school.

Italian - My first book was a non-fiction manual on how to teach English to Italians, of all things, checked out from Monfalcone library, where I often went. That was where I first noticed the problem of getting sleepy while reading a foreign language. I would enter, completely rested, and after just 20 minutes of reading a book in Italian, my eyelids would weigh a ton. I later found a lot of Italian authors that I really liked, like Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, Nathalie Ginzburg, and primo inter pares, Andrea De Carlo.

Esperanto - Not sure if this came before or after Italian, but during my first year in high school I read a manual on teaching Esperanto using la zagreba metodo. After this, I have read much in Esperanto, but not many full books. I remember enjoying*La majstro kaj Margarita* (by Russian writer Bulgakov), as well as a biography of Zamenhof by Marjorie Boulton. Chinese - One of the most amazing milestones in learning a language is when you are slowly making your way through your first book, forcing yourself to read ten pages before going to bed, and then suddenly one night, when you have reached the allotted ten pages, thinking “I’ll just read one more page, I want to see what will happen”! I remember this happening with my first Chinese novel, 俗不可耐 (su bu ke nai), about expats and Chinese overseas returnees in Beijing. After this, I’ve read a number of novels in Chinese, but sad to say, to this day my reading speed is not high enough to be able to really “get into it”.

Russian - I don’t speak Russian, but I travelled through Russian-speaking countries several times, and finally spent a month in Russia at the Russiskiy Universitet Druzhbi Narodov (Russian People’s Friendship University) with an absolutely lovely old Russian lady as a teacher. During that time, I found a bilingual version (facing pages) of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and read through it all. I love bilingual books, and hunted through all of Moscow for more, even had my friend call the publisher, to no avail. This doesn’t quite count, as I could not make my way through a Russian novel “unassisted”. At my best, I could kind of make out the meaning of a newspaper article, but that is almost all forgotten now. I still hope to go back and learn Russian properly - once I find a nice Russian city with good vegetarian food.

Spanish - Weirdly, my first book in Spanish might have been the same as the first I read in German. For the German, I am not sure, but for the Spanish, it certainly was The Last Juror, which happened to be lying around in my friend’s room, during Christmas 2004, half a year before I would go to Mexico to begin studying Spanish. Since then, I have read a number of novels in Spanish, and especially enjoy Isabel Allende.

Indonesian - After hearing everyone in China ask me if Norway has “beautiful forests”, because they had heard about this book, what would be more natural than me reading the Japanese “Norwegian Wood” by Murakami, in Indonesian translation, in Jakarta? I bought it on the day before my 25th birthday, on the same day as I saw the first Indonesian film that I could follow without subtitles (the great Mendadak Dangdut). I went on to enjoy a lot of Indonesian literature, the best and most profound reading experience (and most difficult) was perhaps Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, by Ahmad Tohari (whose Orang-orang proyek is also great). I am still planning to re-read the amazing Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet in Indonesian.

French - Not having ever studied the language, but helped by knowledge of Italian, Spanish and Esperanto, I read the La Bicyclette Bleu during my summer job as a museum guide in 2007. It was a part of a trilogy, and luckily my local library had all three, so I ended up reading 1200 pages of French that summer. I hope to read more, or perhaps even learn the language properly, in the future.

Hindi - Although I started reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in parallell (the library where I volunteer has the Hindi version, and I bought the English version), and reached 170 pages, that was not to be my first book in Hindi due to the length. On my birthday, Mamta the librarian took me to a Hindi bookstore, and had me pick out some books as a birthday gift. I chose four abridged versions of European classics, and right now am almost finished with 80 Days Around the World. It’s still extremely slow going, and I get tired like nothing else, but it’s a step on the way.

I’ve also begun books in Dutch and Portuguese, but not finished any so far.

Do you remember what your first book in a foreign language was?


Stian Håklev July 19, 2008 Toronto, Canada
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