Thursday, 26 August 2010

One language or two?

Just back from my latest trip to West Sussex, I've been catching up on reading and have encountered a thought-provoking piece by Michael Hofmann in the Guardian in which he discusses the value for a poet of speaking a second language. The following quote is central to his argument:

"We think and are and have our being in, and in and out of languages – and where's the joy and the richness, if you don't even have two to rub together? If you don't have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases, all your life. It's harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself, in just one language. It's harder to play."

Reading this article, I immediately recalled Larkin's Paris Review interview and his statement "A writer can have only one language, if language is going to mean anything to him."

In my early years in deepest Spain I was the only foreigner in town. Before internet access and cheap telephone calls, I would often go for two or three months without talking to a native speaker of English.

That period of my life was key to my development as a poet. It firstly forced me to get writing if I wanted to find an English-language outlet, but it also then provided a counterpoint for my previous experiences back in Blighty. My views of U.K. society and the English language were challenged and enriched by my immersion in Spain and Spanish. Thanks, Michael Hofmann, for reflecting that idea so well!

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