Learning languages, loving words

Hit and Miss #49


Earlier this week, I read Ru, by Kim Thúy. It tells the story of a Vietnamese refugee who immigrated to Canada as one of the “boat people”.

Here are a few quotations from the novel that stood out to me as I read them:

Young as we were, we didn’t realize that the [compulsory high school history] course was a privilege only countries at peace can afford. Elsewhere, people are too preoccupied by their day-to-day survival to take the time to write their collective history.

Uncle Nine knows me better than I know myself because he bought me my first novel, my first theatre ticket, my first visit to a museum, my first journey.

He hadn’t grown old before he died. He had stopped time by continuing to enjoy himself, to live until he end with the lightness of a young man. (emphasis added)

“The lightness of a young man” is a well-worded phrase; Kim Thúy writes many such phrases. In March, I heard Kim Thúy speak at my university. Her love for language shone through: she’s known at least three languages in her life, and she eagerly mixes their different ways of thinking and patterns of speech.

She also spoke of her great interest in learning the definitions of new words. I’ll quote again from Ru:

Together these men taught me how to become a lover, how to be in love, how to long for an amorous state. It’s my children, though, who have taught me the verb to love, who have defined it.

One of the most rewarding aspects of learning French for me is this process of constructing my own definition for a word. As I learnt my first language, English, most words defined themselves organically. But with my second language, I must seek definitions. Sometimes they don’t settle until some ill-defined moment when I realize I really understand the word, when I’ve made it mine.

It’s a wonderful thing, to learn another language. For interesting thoughts on doing so interspersed with other powerful moments, I recommend Ru.

All the best for the week ahead!