Sunday, April 24, 2011

Is your background important?

This is a post where I hope to get some participation from any readers I may have. This blog is way too particular to attract any great amount of people, but I figure there must be some people who have something to say.

What I want to know, is what kind of background you have with either reading or languages (or both). If you are very interested in literature, how much contact did you have with books when you were a child, when did you start reading, etc., and what kind of languages were you surrounded by? If you are today fluent in four languages, did you grow up in a multilingual environment or are you the only one in your family who has an interest in languages? Those kinds of things. I will provide an example by answering myself.

Before I could read, I did have some weird kind of attraction towards books. I would play librarian with one of my friends and tell her what the books were about, without being able to read the title, or by just looking at the cover. I'm not sure I read all that much as a child though, I'm not sure I read more than others (I was part of a book club though and always read the books I got), but I did probably write more than other children. My mother used to talk about my older brother who would read and write for hours and hours when he was a child, and I tried to copy him because it sounded like such a sensible and intelligent thing to do. Since my mother is a teacher of English and Swedish, she had a great deal of English books at home, but I was always convinced that I would never ever learn that language (I can remember the exact position I was standing in, the form of the book I was holding, the room I was in, when I was six or so years old and thought "this is impossible"), so I would just sit and look at the words.

Then I learned English as by magic. But I didn't show any great interest in languages that early. I didn't start learning any until I realized I should be able to read books in French when I was 18, since I had studied that language in school for years. And when I started putting books and languages together it was a done deal.

One can safely say that I was surrounded by books as a child, and to a certain degree by at least one language, but how about the rest of you?


  1. As for me.. I've learned how to read when I was four I think.. and I had several children's books and read them again and again.. Then when I studied at school my parents used to say to me something like that "You should read.. you must read! it's necessary" and since I didn't like to do anything under pressure - I stopped taking a delight in reading..
    But when I was about leaving school.. (so I was about 16-17 years old) my parents stopped giving me "advices".. and besides I began to meet some clever people.. and I understood I should begin to read something in order to have things in my mind to discuss with interesting people..

    About languages.. Nobody from my family learn languages (except what they learned at school), my parents are engineers and they can read some technical texts in English but they do it only when they have to.

    Now my attitude to literature and even books as they are (as material things) is a bit unhealthy)) I like bookshelves and big book stores.. I think I can spend hours just walking along the shelves and look for books and enjoy that)

    In general I suppose the background matters.. When you are brought up in family where literature stands high and at home where bookshelves are everywhere, it's most probably you will like reading.. and the same about languages.. though.. who knows. Life is unpredictable sometimes :)

    I apologize for being so verbose )

  2. In France, books used to be part of family's life, trônant dans tous les foyers, bien rangés dans de magnifiques bibliothèques... For French people, someone who didn't have books at home, or who had no knowledge connected somehow with books, was, socially speaking, not really well-considered, no matter the money they could make. So reading a lot was part of life as soon as you pretended to have some education or to be successfull in life. As a kid, I read a lot, like many kids of my generation ; that was the common behaviour at that time before the supremacy of IT stuff and the internet. My interest in other languages has come from my passion for literature ; I learnt some by myself, studying the basis of English and Spanish at school,and have kept on reading in different languages, ever since then. Russian language has my preference,for plenty of reasons connected to the story of my family and my studies at university (History of political ideas).

  3. Thank you for your replies! I'm one of those people who never minded being forced to read things actually. I always saw it as a necessity ;)

  4. Here’s my story:
    I was born in a region in Russia where no one would expect you to speak any foreign language. Even so-called neighboring languages such as Bashkir, Tatar and Kazakh were considered as something you would never learn unless your parents are native speakers of one of those languages and they force you to do so. English was no difference to me as there was no Internet at the time and first Americans I saw once when I was 11 were kind of Jehovah’s witnesses :) You may live in my mother town for years and don’t meet any foreigner.
    So I grew up with a strong idea that foreign languages are something useless and not worth trying to learn. My mom had always told me to learn English, though she didn’t speak any foreign language at that time. She tried and arranged a tutor and I survived a month of English with her. I attended usual classes at school and kind of enjoyed them from time to time. I even played Cinderella’s stepmother, in English, memorizing my lines by heart without a glimpse of understanding what was going on!
    Then we moved to Moscow region, my mom started working for a Polish company and I went to lycée to finish my last year of school education. People were different there, the attitude to education was entirely unlike that in my mother town. Everybody wanted to achieve something, particularly enter a better university. Then I started thinking that it would be a good idea to learn English better (I’d learned some bits anyway), but it wasn’t going to happen until I finished my 4th year at university at age of 20 three years ago. I also met right people then who told me to give it a try. And my responding thought was ‘It’s time, I will’.
    If I tell you that English was hard to learn, don’t believe me. It was excruciatingly hard to learn. And one of the causes was that I hated reading fiction. The kind of literature I’ve always read was encyclopedia stuff. I basically hunted series of books called Я познаю мир, I admired Энциклопедия Кирилла и Мефодия and yet another series of books Всё обо всём. You get my point. For many years my head was full enough of classic literature provided by school, so I don’t remember me touching any serious fiction ever at my will.
    The things changed when (surprise! surprise!) I started reading your blog and met some other people who told me that reading fiction doesn’t hurt. You see, not so much time has passed by since then (Just to remind you, I discovered it not long time ago, that we “met” in october 2009). As a coincidence back then I was considering taking some Swedish classes as I realized that I actually CAN learn languages.
    I think you’re rather familiar with the rest of the story: I passed CAE exam, I am fighting against conversational Swedish (writing seems not that bad, at least for now), I try to dig myself out of ignorance and learn how to perceive stories, not separate sentences. Yet, a language for me is not a means for getting by, but words and expressions, thus my attitude is similar to that of a pathologist’s :)

  5. Argh, two times I wrote a long post and two times Google wasn't able to post it :(

  6. Thanks for your story, Vera! I'm glad you changed your mind about books. It's never too late :) You read some Millenium-books, didn't you? I've been told the language in those is rather colloquial.

    Naww, Leo :( I always write anything I post in Notepad first, to be safe.

  7. Let's try again.

    I used to read a lot as a child, but when we started having literature in school, Italian and English (yes, in Italy it's mostly literature in "English" classes), I developed a hate for everything literature and only read non fiction books. Only in the summer after secondary school's end did I read some novels, Stendhal and Buzzati being the first. I haven't completely overcome this hate, as I can't get myself to read Italian or English literature yet (trash detective stories aside).

    Regarding languages, despite being a bilingual and being very good at English in school (you wouldn't say!), I never developed more than a passing interest in them, with a half-hearted try at German or French. Only some three years ago did I start studying my first real language. I started from scratch, so I looked for some materials and methods on internet and stumbled upon a certain forum. From that moment on I was hooked, both regarding learning languages and studying the best and most suitable language learning methods, that I can't imagine myself abandoning language learning for more than a few months at a time. Besides I became friends with some online language learners, so much that when my reasons for studying that language died, after some time I resumed it just for the sake of feeling myself part of the language learning community again.

    But to your questions: no, I don't think the childhood environment played a big role. There were plenty of books in my house when I was small, but I never felt particularly compelled or encouraged to read books; it's more just my quiet, patient and above all curious character.

    Also about languages, it is true that I was bilingual, but as I said I never developed much of an interest for languages until a few years ago. Sure, being bilingual does have its advantages, as you realize that everything (in languages as well as in societies) is really relative.

    Finally, being born in a family of language teachers hasn't had much of an impact either. It is true that I contributed in writing and correcting textbooks, but when I started learning languages on my own I used methods that best suited me.

  8. Right, I read the Millenium books, though I finished only the first one, and went through the first third part of the second. Then I got bored. Maybe some day I'll finish it up. The language there is rather colloquial, but this is what doctor prescribed in my case ;)

  9. My parents don't like reading and we had very little books home. Also, they don't know any foreign language, nor ever showed any interest in them, just as all my other relatives. But still, I had this instinctive passion. When I was watching the TV and some written words appeared, I used to scream to my mother to come and read them for me, and when they faded away before she could read them, I got reeeeally angry. So I asked her to teach me how to read and write (in Italy, usually, we learn that at school) and I could read fluently before I entered primary school. While my classmates were learning how to write and read, I was finishing my homework and reading random things from our textbooks. That also left me plenty of time to read an do whatever I wanted home. I started studying English when I was 8 and immediately fell in love with it because it was actually hard for me! I always got good grades and knew more than my classmates, but that! That was challenging! I started studying it intensively, asked my parents to buy me the English course for kids "Magic English" and searched material myself at the library and on the Internet (my grandmother learnt to use the pc before I did and always helped!). When it was time for me to leave primary school, my English teacher told my mum "Madam, your daughter should study foreign languages, she has great skills." but she answered that I would choose whatever specialization I'd want, when the time would come. In middle school I started French and then chose a high school specializing in foreign languages. I am now seventeen years old and I'm in Russia, completing my exchange year. I consider to have a very good knowledge of English, a medium one as for Russian, a scholastic level for French and German and flirt with Spanish, Portuguese, Lithuanian and Japanese.

    I guess I can say that my parents and relatives played no great part in the development of my passion for reading and foreign languages. That is, my passion grew within me thanks to external stimulations. I can only thank my parents for never letting me down, supporting me in all my decisions (the one-year-abroad thing was quite difficult to process for my father, at the beginning) and leaving me free to discover about anything, withouth constantly checking what I was doing, researching or interesting myself to. Also, I never heard advices as "Read! It's good!". I used to read in every free moment I could find, and when I say EVERY moment, I mean it. It wasn't too rare to see me reading during breakfast or, when my mom called us to dinner, see me arrive with a book in my hands "you never know, the pasta might be not ready, I might have a minute or two!". I even heard my mother joking about it: "Giulia, you should read a little less!". So, no, the environment I grew in was not so important (:

  10. Better late than never.

    My mom (French Canadian) was a late-bloomer when it comes to literature and my father (Palestinian Arab) never really had any interest in it, though he was fond of his newspapers.
    Growing up, I remember having no interest at all in reading anything but comic books (Archie Comics were a favourite.) Interestingly enough, I remember my acute disdain (like some of the other posters here) for fiction; this might be related to having to read English and French fiction in school, which I detested. I have actually met many young kids who tuned out hardcore due to bad / improperly presented, subject matters in school, or to an inability of teachers to cater to outliers (who were nuisances like me, or qui ne se sentaient pas concernés par la matière, like others.) In fact, tutoring Math and Sciences for 3 years, I can say that 90% of the students who showed the biggest improvement did so through being able to understand - and enjoy - these subjects on their own terms, without teachers they disliked.

    All of this changed when I started reading science fiction and fantasy. The Star Wars novels kept me going for a long while, followed closely by fantasy, which opened the door to all kinds of other fields (when you start caring about how Leia conducts diplomacy, you start caring about Political Science. Observing Luke's exploration of the Force lends itself to Philosophy. I am only half joking!)
    I've also got a pet theory that says that people with mild attention disorders or just hyperactivity tend to read a lot of cereal boxes, ingredient lists, TV guides, etc. which makes it easier to get into reading later on...

    When it comes to languages, it took a long hard reflection in CEGEP (a post-secondary pre-university establishment in Quebec) to realize how amazing languages were, and how much they say about culture. And once you start caring about one language, and what makes it what it is, it becomes hard to stop looking at languages!!!

    - Marc
    (PS: send me an e-mail at mnakleh - gmail. I'm like 4 years overdue for sending you a greeting card, so I need your address!)