Today I like: tons of kids running around my house
Not so much: feeding them!
My girls are taking Chinese and Spanish at school. I can get by with the simplest French when in France (Je m’apelle Stephanie. Je suis une touriste Americaine.), and pick out a word or two in the more heavily accented areas of the Caribbean (In Haiti I understood manger and bonjour. That’s about it). So, I’m stoked they are getting this exposure now, from both a linguistic and a cultural viewpoint. Bring on the hola and the ni hao!
One thing that’s amazed me, particularly with the Chinese, is the girls’ pitch-perfect accent. Asian languages have tones the average Germanic or Romance language speaker can’t easily replicate. Ever try to pronounce the names of the menu items at a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant? There’s a reason they generally have numbers beside each entrée.
“Can I have the…Mwwnnaa…trraaa….the number seven, please.”
My kids, however, at six and eight, come home singing Chinese songs with perfect enunciation. They’re not shy or self conscious about it. They spit out the numbers one through twenty as easily as my four-year-old sings his ABC’s. It’s amazing to me how easily their little tongues wrap around tones that I couldn’t replicate if I tried. I’d produce sounds somewhere between a lowing cow and a dental patient emerging from anesthesia with a mouth full of Novocaine and a few less teeth.
We all know children with bi-lingual parents. They can switch between languages in one conversation, never missing a beat or dropping a cookie. Everyone knows that the younger one is, the easier it is to pick up a language. And here’s where this idea becomes relevant for writers.
I started reading adult novels, the ones my mom brought home from the library, around age eight. While some of that subject matter was a little intense (as I’ve stated before, Stephen King’s IT gave me nightmares for months at age ten), I truly believe that early exposure to novels shaped whatever ability I possess in creating long form fiction.
In reading (adult) novels from such a young age, I was absorbing, without realizing it, the basics of good storytelling: plot, character, dialogue. How scenes flow from one to another. Foreshadowing. I was learning the language of novel-writing at an age when I could easily take it in. Make it part of my native tongue.
If I loved a book, I’d read it over and over (sometimes thirty times over the years, as in the case of All Things Bright and Beautiful, The Stand, Pride and Prejudice, and later, Angela’s Ashes and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood). This re-reading…the repetition…sealed the voices of these stories in my head, and in turn blended them into my own narrative voice.
I developed a habit, around age six, of telling myself stories to help me fall asleep at night. Made-up scenarios, running through my head, every night. I’ve never stopped. Nowadays, as I drift off I write the next day’s scene in my mind. Character and dialogue. Intro, build up, climax, closing. Usually in the third person. As if I’m sitting in front of the computer typing away. Weird, yes…but also very effective for a writer. I’ve been practicing non-stop for twenty-nine years.
I always wonder about “writers” who say they don’t read. Reading is practice for writing. The idea of learning a new language now, when my brain is set in a very specific communication pattern, is daunting…not matter how envious I am of my bi-lingual friends. So how do those who don’t read, and have never really read, suddenly expect to be able to understand the language of novels?
If I tried to learn Chinese now, my accent would be bad. I would be self-conscious. My words stilted, unnatural. Even if I wanted to say something a certain way and knew the correct words, it probably wouldn’t come out right…and it certainly wouldn’t be eloquent.
So, if you’re toying with the idea of writing a novel, and you’ve never been a reader, stop and think. Are you at a point where you can realistically devote the time to learning a new language? Is your mind still flexible enough?
If not, there are many accomplished novel-speakers out there. Grab a book and experience the beauty of fluency.