Learning to Love [in] a Second Language


People often discuss when someone can consider they have mastered a second language, or at what point can they be certain they are fully fluent in it. Some people believe it is when you dream in the said language and not in your first, and others may say you are never as fluent in a second language. Perhaps a more complicated question may be: can writers write, or should they write, in their second language?

If the dream theory is correct, I may have to face the sad fact that I’m not fluent in Spanish or English. As any slightly repressed person, I tend to forget my dreams, and the ones I remember are more images and feelings than words, even though I know they occur in both languages, and even in both languages at the same time on occasions. But I’ve also been told, or accused of being a bit of a screamer, the problem being that what I scream is not in English or Spanish, but in some incomprehensive dialect yet discovered. Therefore, that may be the only language I’m fluent in, at least in my dreams.

A friend of mine used to give a somewhat disrespectful example of Pope John Paul II to explain the phenomenon of mastering a language. He would say, “John Paul II speaks so many languages, but if he trips and falls he’ll most likely yell some bad word in Polish.”

This friend was trying to make the point that certain feelings can only be expressed in your first language, and I have to admit that for the first year-and-a-half I spoke English, I couldn’t say a bad word in English, mostly because I couldn’t “feel it.” If that were true, it would also mean that a person has mastered a language when they “feel” in a language.

Not too long ago I read a quote from the great Latin American writer Roberto Bolaño: “My country is my language.” [Later, a few months before he passed away, he changed it to something even more poetic, “My only country is my two children.”] It made sense coming from him, a Chilean who became a poet while living in Mexico, and wrote most of his published fiction while living in Spain. He considered himself Latin American, and his country was the Spanish language. If for a writer your country is your language, can you have a double literary nationality?

I still consider myself more fluent in my first language, Spanish, or at least I like to tell myself that. But when writing in any one of the two languages I try to use the other one to push the limits of my writing. One of my favorite examples is the Spanish version of the phrase, “To each their own.” The common expression would be _Cada loco con su tema_, which literally translates to, “Each madman with their own theme.” Bringing a second language to your writing can represent a universe of possibilities.

English, on the other hand, is what keeps me organized when writing. My editors could testify that, if it were my decision, almost all of my writing would be “Autumn of the Patriarch” style, filled with commas and semicolons, and very few periods. Ironically, when my writings have their roots in something I experienced or heard of in Peru, it’s easier for me to write them in English, or should I say, “think them” in English, and vice versa. When my writings begin with an American memory it’s easier for me to put them on paper in Spanish. It could be because the reinterpretation of these stories in a new language can add some sort of novelty to the tale or perhaps it’s just another inexplicable stone a bilingual writer must deal with.

However, I would like to think love has something to do with it. Perhaps that’s the moment when you can consider yourself fluent, or start writing in your second language. When you can say you have fallen in love with someone or something you have written, in your second language, and truly mean it.

_Alonso Rodriguez Romero was born in Lima, Peru, but has lived in the U.S. since he was fifteen years old. He is a graduate from Florida Atlantic University with a Bachelors in English, with a concentration on Creative Writing. He can be contacted by mail, alonsorodriguezromero10@gmail.com._What’s love got to do with writing in a second language? Let this Peruvian share his take.