Starting study of a second language is like learning to walk as a toddler. As a beginner, you find yourself stumbling around and occasionally falling flat on your back. Over time, you begin to take more ambitious steps, striding unsteadily across the room and clambering up stairs.
As an intermediate learner, the hardest part is behind you. You walk all the time now and, barring the odd setback, your confidence begins to grow. Although you sometimes feel disheartened, each day that passes takes you closer to your goal.
Several years go by and you suddenly realise “intermediate” doesn’t apply anymore. Walking has become so natural to you that you don’t give it a moment’s thought. You break into a jog to catch a departing bus or casually run up stairs. You are now an advanced speaker.
Well, imagine if you continued along this route and, instead of settling for mere fluency, you pushed yourself further and further. What would this look like? An elite sprinter perhaps. Usain Bolt or someone else at the absolute pinnacle of their sport. Every muscle toned to perfection, every inch of fat burnt away by long, arduous hours in the gym and on the track. Legs transformed into piston engines propelling yourself forward with an almost unimaginable strength and agility.
Returning to our analogy, at this stage you are no longer learning a language. You are a poet.
American poet and author Rita Dove called poetry “language at its most distilled and its most powerful.” The dedication, sacrifice and sheer stubbornness that is required to learn this art form in a second language is analogous to the efforts it would take to become a World Champion 100m sprinter.
Whether mastering a language or the physical act of sprinting, these are things that most people wouldn’t even attempt, let alone succeed at.
So to celebrate World Poetry Day (March 21) we’re going to focus on those who took the plunge into a second (or even a third) language and achieved worldwide acclaim for their efforts. Hopefully this list will inspire your own language learning journeys or even the desire to put pen to paper yourself!
Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)
Irish playwright, novelist and poet Samuel Beckett is best known for his tragicomic take on human existence, epitomised in works such as the absurdist play Waiting for Godot (1953). Widely regarded as one of the most influential writers of the 21st century, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.
He grew up in a suburb of Dublin and studied French, Italian and English at Trinity College, Dublin before leaving Ireland and moving to Paris, where he spent the majority of his adult life. Although mostly known for his writing in English, he published many poems in French, especially during his later years.
Here’s a verse from Beckett’s poem Dieppe:
je suis ce cours de sable qui glisse
entre le galet et la dune
la pluie d’été pleut sur ma vie
sur moi ma vie qui me fuit me poursuit
et finira le jour de son commencement
And Beckett’s own translation into English:
my way is in the sand flowing
between the shingle and the dune
the summer rain rains on my life
on me my life harrying fleeing
to its beginning to its end
Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977)
Russian born Vladimir Nabokov was a giant of literature. His first nine novels were written in Russian but he rose to international prominence when he began to write in English. In fact, Nabokov was so confident switching between languages that he translated many of his own works between English and Russian.
The author is best known for his 1955 novel Lolita (ranked fourth in Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels), but it was in 1962’s Pale Fire where he was able to combine both prose and poetry together. In the poem Lines Written in Oregon, we find this famed polyglot writing in English, but mixing in French and German as well.
And I rest where I awoke
In the sea shade — l’ombre glauque —
Of a legendary oak;
Where the woods get ever dimmer,
Where the Phantom Orchids
Esmeralda, immer immer.
Roald Dahl (1916-1990)
Despite being born in Wales, Dahl’s parents were from Norway and he spent the first few years of his life in a Norwegian speaking household. In fact, it’s perhaps the influences of these two languages that account for some of the inventiveness in Dahl’s writing.
We associate the author, of course, with the widely popular children’s stories that have spawned hit movies like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and Fantastic Mr Fox. Lesser known but equally admired by Dahl fans are his comic poems. The writer even published three full volumes of verse, featuring many of his deliciously dark takes on classic fairy tales.
Here’s an excerpt from his poem Three Little Pigs:
The animal I really dig,
Above all others is the pig.
Pigs are noble. Pigs are clever,
Pigs are courteous. However,
Now and then, to break this rule,
One meets a pig who is a fool.
What, for example, would you say,
If strolling through the woods one day,
Right there in front of you you saw
A pig who'd built his house of STRAW?
Kamala Surayya (1934-2009)
Also known by the pen names Madhavidas and Kamala Das, this Indian poet and writer was feted for her honest treatment of female sexuality. Born in the state of Kerala to a father who was a former managing editor of a newspaper and a poet mother, Surayya was surrounded by creativity from a young age. At the age of fifteen she began writing and publishing work in English and Malayalam (an Indian language of her home state).
This extract perfectly summarises the conflict and difficulties that can arise around writing in languages other than our mother tongue:
I am Indian, very brown, born in
Malabar, I speak three languages, write in
Two, I dream in one. Don’t write in English, they said,
English is not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Everyone of You? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queerness