The Book That Made Me: Multilingual

Speaking German alongside Spanish seemed as natural as placing scones next to the teapot on the table at teatime …

The Book That Made Me is a series reflecting on the books that have changed our lives. In this latest installment, the winner of our undergraduate essay contest shares how her world was transformed by the possibility, not the practice, of reading in other languages.

The winner of our graduate essay contest will be published tomorrow.

I slipped my local library’s well-worn Spanish translation of Harry Potter into the library drop-box, bidding a symbolic hasta luego to my language-learning efforts. Up to that point, I’d read a few novels in translation, familiar titles sandwiched between the tomes of Don Quixote and the reality-questioning works of García Márquez on the library shelves. I had yet to find the courage to grapple with these rather imposing works in their original language—until I met Señorita Prim, the heroine of Natalia Sanmartín Fenollera’s lone novel. El despertar de la señorita Prim, published in English as The Awakening of Miss Prim, turned out to be the unlikely savior of my attempts to learn Spanish. One glance at the book’s cover, featuring colorful sketches of furniture and elegant curlicue writing, seemed to tell me all I needed to know. I prepared to immerse myself in the bathrobe-and-slipper-style comforts of chick lit.

It turns out I’m a poor interpreter of book covers. I found myself in an almost philosophical work, journeying to a fanciful, seemingly utopian town with an out-of-place librarian—the esteemed Miss Prim—who has so many university degrees that she requires a diagram to delineate her educational history. Yet, it was precisely the system of education in the novel that captivated my attention. Imagine letting loose a dozen curious kids in a manuscript library; probably a bad idea in real life, but a plausible and promising prospect in the fictional community of San Ireneo de Arnois. These students’ uninhibited access to books from myriad languages resulted in an idealistic sort of multilingual self-education. In this Spanish novel, I was unexpectedly implicated in debates over the relative merits of Louisa May Alcott and Jane Austen, alongside discussions of Spanish poets and Russian artists. Immersed in this multilingual microcosm, I felt the limits of my language closing in on me and on my monolingual existence.

Speaking German alongside Spanish now seemed as natural as placing scones next to the teapot on the table at teatime.

This is not to say that I subscribed to the gimmick of a utopian society headquartered in a library. I’m an unrelenting skeptic of utopia, a result of my conviction that improvement outweighs perfection, as well as my own failure to attain perfection. Nevertheless, my high school self craved this concept of education, and the novel’s publication in my second language only heightened my longing for learning sans language barriers. Miss Prim’s provocative teatime discussions—about what we read, at what point in our lives, and what language we read in—brewed internal debates in me over my own linguistic and literary consciousness. Topping off the figurative teapot, I recognized that this was the first book I’d read outside of the English language in all 17 years of my life.

From Miss Prim, I learned the degree to which the United States has normalized monolingualism. In the novel, speaking German alongside Spanish seemed as natural as placing scones next to the teapot on the table at teatime. Yet in my own educational experiences, the comprehension of a second, third, or fourth language was not expected, or even hoped for. The preferred gesture toward language learning instead involved reminiscing over a long-since-forgotten Romance language abandoned back in high school. But Miss Prim—no longer, in my mind, a chick-lit figure, but rather a powerful linguistic force—compelled a reckoning with my own monolingualism and the linguistic limitations of my surroundings. The novel made me question why language learning was so commonly restricted to the hormonal halls of secondary schools. Why not multilingual anthologies clutched in children’s hands, still sticky from the juice-boxes consumed at snack time?

The Abbey of St. Martin in Ceret, France, 2015. Photograph by Louis Vest / Flickr

When I say Miss Prim made me multilingual, I don’t mean it in a literal sense, of course. In quantitative linguistic terms, the book probably improved my comprehension of Spanish by a few dozen odd words, a handful of fresh expressions, and a sprinkling of new structures. I did acquire some appropriately random vocabulary, and I almost certainly improved my ability to extol the virtues of Pride and Prejudice in my second language. Instead, the novel made me multilingual because it transformed me into a devoted student of languages and made me a proponent of multilingual education. Above all, the novel explains the raised eyebrows that greet my linguistically diverse assortment of books at the library’s circulation desk, as well as my occasional fantasies that a librarian akin to Miss Prim might await me on the other side of the counter.

A couple years after my initial acquaintance with Miss Prim, the first book I read cover-to-cover in Portuguese documented a real-life utopian attempt in 19th-century Brazil. The book wasn’t an intentional selection, but rather a source for a research paper for class. What my research revealed was that, in spite of names, intentions, or appearances, neither this real-life Brazilian colony nor the realm of Miss Prim was a real utopia. There was no perfection to be found. Miss Prim is full of debates about ideals, so if perfection exists in Natalia Sanmartín Fenollera’s fictional town, it’s certainly not an absolute or unquestionable version of perfection. The would-be utopian colony in Brazil collapsed after only a few years; it turns out anarchy is not a particularly stable form of governance.

Nevertheless, these utopian narratives resonate with the realities of learning a language, for it is never a process of perfection. Rather, it involves periods of dictionary dependency, confusion over cognates, and tongue-tied transgressions. But thanks to Miss Prim, I came to realize that learning a language is akin to my counterview of utopia: one founded not on perfection, but instead on improvement. icon