Anna — early reader, multi-lingual

I interviewed Anna recently about her thoughts on reading. She grew up in Venezuela so Spanish was her first language. She has lived with her family for many years in Toronto, Canada. 

What are your memories about reading as a child?  I was born and raised in Venezuela. Our nanny taught me to read when I was about three years old although I don’t remember this. My mother told me about a time some people came to our house and she wanted to show off my reading skills so she gave me a book to read out loud. They didn’t believe I was reading ─they took the book away and gave me a newspaper to see if I was really able to read!

Did your parents read to you when you were little?  I don’t remember that they did. But I was reading on my own from an early age. I read so much that my grade 6 teacher told the other students, “If you want to know the meaning of any word, ask Anna─ she’s a walking dictionary.”

Did you have many books in your house?  Yes. I especially recall various collections of children’s books containing French and Russian fairy tales. My father brought books in. Also, next to our parents’ store there was a toy store. The store’s logo was a dwarf with a red hat who was holding a cornucopia with toys spilling out. I didn’t care much for the toys in the store but liked to go straight to the back where the books were. Growing up, I loved to read and was very impacted by what I read. I especially remember a collection of books my parents brought in with small stories about different people and places. One had a picture of Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park ─that picture always stuck in my mind. So after I got married in Venezuela, I told my husband I wanted to go to see Old Faithful and we did!

Did your siblings read as well as you?  I’m the oldest of three children. I think my sister read a lot. I don’t remember so much whether my brother did.

Were you reading solely in Spanish as a child? Yes.

When did you start reading in other languages?  We were taught English in high school ─five years of English in high school with an amazing teacher. She was from Germany and very strict. She wore orthopedic shoes with open toes. When she would get mad her toes would move up and down, and the angrier she got, the faster her toes would go! She taught us both English and French. I had two years of French in high school also. I really started reading in English though when I moved to Toronto as an adult.

Do you think learning multiple languages helped you become a better reader or being a good reader helped you learn languages better?  I don’t know. My family all spoke multiple languages. For example, my mother was able to speak Hebrew, Russian, Rumanian, Yiddish and English.

How did your mother learn so many languages? My father believed in educating people so he brought someone into the house to teach my mom and her brother Hebrew. She also had a teacher to learn English. My mother came from Rumania.

What was your schooling like in Venezuela?  My formal schooling was six years of primary school and five years of high school (no middle school). Then I went to the university. We were very fortunate to have many intelligent and caring teachers. Several taught at the university as well as at our school.

What did you study at the university?  I studied biology in Venezuela. Later I went to a university in Canada for my master’s degree in science.

How many languages do you speak? I speak Spanish, English, Yiddish, some Hebrew, some French, and Hungarian (learned Hungarian because my husband is Hungarian). I primarily read though in Spanish and English.

Did you read to your own children when they were young?  I don’t remember reading to them but they all became good readers. They attended private Jewish schools in Venezuela and Los Angeles ─then Toronto for most of their formal schooling. They’ve done very well in life. My daughter completed a baccalaureate degree in English and master’s degree in education. One son studied engineering in Toronto, then went to Chicago to complete an MBA, then went to Japan to work. Before he went to work at the company, he attended an eight week immersion language program at an interntional studies school.  He continued taking classes in Japanese while working in Japan. Later he went to China and learned Chinese. He speaks Chinese and Japanese fluently.

What about his children ─your grandchildren?  His children have gone to school so far in Shanghai. They have to work hard to develop and keep up their English. They are speaking English, Chinese, Japanese─ and some Hebrew. Actually, my son has instilled the importance of reading to his children. When they were young, he would get up at 6 a.m. and read to them before they went to school and again before they went to sleep. My daughter also is reading all the time to her daughter. When she skips a page in the book, my grandchild remembers there is missing text and tells her, “No, there is more to the story.”

What do you think about technology and reading? Do you use e-readers in your home?  I have an e-reader but don’t use it. It doesn’t appeal to me. My daughter is using an e-reader. I recognize that people like gadgets and things ─ and some people want to have things quickly, have things at their fingertips. Technology is useful for that. But I like to have a book. Many times I will underline things that I think are important, that I want to remember to call to my attention.

Final thoughts about reading?  It sounds so simplistic to say that people should read. I’m thinking about my sister who was reading to my nephew a lot when he was young ─she used complicated, adult words with him. I sometimes made fun of her for using such complicated words with him. But now he is grown up and a successful playwright!  So I think the early reading and challenging him so much must have made a difference. I know that my siblings and I were very lucky growing up ─ we had higher quality schools than I see now and had such devoted teachers. I have always enjoyed learning and am always asking questions. I would rather ask questions and sound ignorant then remain ignorant because I am not asking.

This concluded my interview with Anna. I was struck while we talked by how hard Anna worked to find the right words in either Spanish or English to explain her experiences to me (in some cases she began with the Spanish word, then she translated for me into English). Clearly, excellent reading skills developed as a child helped pave the way for her impressive facility with languages. And her children ─and now their children ─demonstrate similar language facility. 


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