Recently, I made a very special discovery here in Madrid. Hidden away in the streets of the hip and happening barrio of Malasaña is a bookshop that sells English books. What a treat! I was due a couple of new reads to enjoy in the last of the late summer sun.
I browsed for ages, and was tempted by many, but despite my excitement at finding a treasure trove of texts in English, I found myself drawn to the single shelf of Spanish books. Tucked away amongst the used language textbooks and lengthy classics, was a pocket-size version of “El coronel no tiene quien le escriba” (“No-one writes to the colonel”), a short story by Gabriel García Márquez, of whose translated novellas, I am a big fan.
Reading fluently in Español is a dream, and I skipped off, happy with my 95-page miniature paperback having decided it would be perfecto to practise, yet small enough not to scare me off before I had even started…
So, I settled myself on a shady bench, opened the book and to my joy, discovered that some thoughtful person had already done some of the hard work for me!
There was page after page of legible pencil scribbles, and any unknown words had been circled and translated. I considered verifying but decided to take their word for it. After all, what did we do before the days of Google translate and handy language apps?!
With the turn of every page, I started to feel connected to the mystery translator and wanted to know more…
Who were you? Were you the first owner of the book, or the tenth? What were your reasons for learning Spanish? Did you move to Spain like me? Were you a fan of García Márquez too or were you simply attracted by the manageable size of this book?
I was getting so carried away creating a persona for them, that I was becoming distracted from the task at hand – which was to successfully read (and understand) this short story!
But there was a problem. As I advanced through the chapters, the notes became scarcer. There were less circled words, and if there were, the translations had been abandoned.
Then, half-way through the book, they stopped altogether, and all trace of the secret scribbler was gone!
This could only mean one of two things. Either they GAVE UP or they achieved fluency so quickly that they no longer had any need to scrawl their useful notes across the pages. (I like to think it was the latter – it gives me more hope.) Maybe it was only when they achieved this level of understanding (or gave up), and no longer had any use for their copy, did they give it away.
Determined to continue this project alone, I now carry my little edition with me wherever I go, reading a few pages (or as much as my brain will allow) in the park, on the metro or wherever I happen to be when the notion takes.
And I will take my time, knowing that when I finish, I will read it again. I will read it until I no longer have to trace my finger along each line, stopping to gather context like a first-time reader.
I will read it until I understand every word, every verb tense, every idiom.
I will then read it out loud. And then I will read it until my pronunciation is correct.
I will continue what was started by adding my own notes, and maybe even a small message of encouragement. And only then I will return it to the bookshop in hope that another fortunate language learner will stumble upon this hidden treasure and I can only hope their excitement is as great as mine when they flick through the pages to discover that others lent a helping hand towards their learning efforts.
We have a shared experience, my language-aid and me. Without even knowing it, they helped me learn by providing translations of obscure vocab I’m confident I will never need, like that for ‘cooking stove’, ‘lilies’, ‘haste’ and ‘bile’.
But these notes and scribbles help me stay motivated with every turn of the page and therefore have made my first attempt at reading a foreign text a little bit more interesting.
Most importantly, they helped me to feel like I wasn’t alone in this journey.
So, gracias mi amigo, whoever you are.
Let the circle of language learning continue…
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