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segunda-feira, 19 de agosto de 2013

Relatively illiterate - learning to read in a foreign language

Be confident and learn to cope with difficulties when first learning to read in English

One of these days, my boyfriend was upset because we would have to wait some time in a line and he was bored. I handed him my book and said, as a joke, "Here, read this." He looked at the book. It was Le deuxiéme sexe, by Simone de Beauvoir, obviously, in the original French, and he said, annoyed, "I can't read this! I'm illiterate!"

Of course he is not illiterate. He is a chemist and he quite enjoys reading about... cars and football! Haha! But what he said got me thinking.

Illiterate is what we call people who can't read and write, like small children or people who never had any access to education. However, there are many levels of literacy. We are all too well informed of the great number of students who end the first years of schooling without being able to properly handle text interpretation questions in an exam prepared for their grade.

In my experience, I have noticed that literacy is not really something a person achieves and that's that, "now I'm literate." It's more like a process. Everytime I have to approach a new kind of text it's a new experience on learning how to read. It was so when I first attempted reading in English, and then again all new, and hard, and different, when reading French for the first time.

It has been twelve years since I read my first novel in English - a Jane Austen book I bought in a Laselva bookstore in São Paulo in great awe that it should be so easy to find a book in English in a big city (I come from a small town myself). I just reread it, not three days ago, and that's what got me in the mood for writing this post. During these years I have been absolutely in love with American (and some English) literature, reading halfway through the English language fiction library at Unicamp, where I got my BA.

But then I grew bored of fiction and wanted to read something different. I thought I'd try a little History and Social Sciences, maybe just a tad of Economics - how hard could it be?

It shocked me that I could not go through 100-200 pages a day, like I did with fiction. It was a much harder reading: if you could not really understand an argument, you would be unable to follow to the next one and make sense of it. I had to go back on the text lots of times.

To tell you the truth, when I first sat with my (the library's, actually) copy of Formação econômica do Brasil, I felt perfectly illiterate. It took me some failure and time dealing with that failure to realize I had to give it time, to get used to reading something completely new (I never really did), and shortly the reading would flow (it never did - studying remains something absolutely hard for me).

(But I don't feel like I'm failing at reading Celso Furtado and Darcy Ribeiro anymore.)

My point is when you're trying to read something new for the first time - whether it is a new language or a new type of text -, much like a child learning to read for the first time, you have to be ready to deal with some failure. You have to be prepared to ignore your failure to understand some things and move forward, and hope the blanks will be filled out later, as your get more information from the text, and if it doesn't, then you'll just have to go right back and start over.

It was 2001 when I read that first Jane Austen novel. It took me the year to finish it. But by 2007 I was writing a dissertation on William Faulkner's fiction. And that dude is a crazy writer. (Take a looksy here.)

That goes to say that, if you stick with it, if you want it bad enough and achieve the first difficulties of re-learning how to read, you just might get pretty good at it.