L2 Holy Grail Books

My Japanese teacher back in college spoke perfect English. I wanted to speak perfect Japanese someday, so talking with her was always motivating to me. One time I asked her if she could remember what got her interested in English in the first place. She said yes, she remembers the very day it happened.

She told me that when she was a little girl her family had an old TV. In addition to the normal Japanese stations, it got one foreign station that nobody in her family watched. One day, on a whim she turned the dial to that foreign station. There was an American movie on (she told me which one, but I forgot). There were no subtitles of course, so she couldn’t understand the movie. But she thought it was so interesting that these people were making these strange sounds with their mouths and that they could understand each other. She said that on that very day, she decided that one day she would understand what the actors in that movie were saying.

Later, she studied English in school, majored in English in college, studied abroad in America, married an American, had kids and lived in America for 20+ years. Perfectly fluent in English.

I asked her if she ever went back and watched that first American movie, the one she saw when she was a little girl in Japan. She said “Of course I did!”. What did you think about the movie? “Ahh, it was ok. But I could understand it!”

I thought this was a cool story. After hearing it, I got the idea to make a similar goal for myself with Japanese. I had already seen plenty of Japanese movies (subtitled) so a movie wasn’t going to cut it. Not mysterious enough to keep me wondering year after year. But what about a book?

Later that week I went to a used bookstore, a big purple building in the middle of town. As luck would have it, they had a decent foreign book section, with a nice selection of Japanese stuff: old magazines, newspapers, comics, children’s books, novels. I looked through the novels until I found one with a picture that appealed to me. I opened to the first page and sure enough I couldn’t read a word of it. Perfect. I bought it and promised myself that one day I would understand that book.

I still have it. This is the book I bought 8 years ago:

Japanese book

If you’re wondering why that picture would appeal to me, it’s probably because it reminded me Slayer’s Seasons in the Abyss album:

Slayer - Seasons in the Abyss Cover

Anyway, I made the promise to myself that I would someday read that book and understand. That promise has always been in the back of my mind, driving me as I study Japanese (admittedly on and off over the years, but in the past three years, very much on!).

I haven’t read it. I’m not quite there yet. I’m sure I could grind through it with a dictionary, but I want to read it with fluent, literate eyes. So it remains on the shelf. When the time comes for me to read it, I’ll read it and understand and then I’ll know I’ve arrived. It will be a sweet moment.

Even if the book freaking sucks, it doesn’t matter. I’ll have accomplished my dream.

So why am I writing about it now? Because I got a new book.

Last month, Rikker from Thai101 had a book giveaway on his blog. He had two copies of an award-winning Thai novel, one in Thai and the other an English translation. To enter the contest, you had to send in your name and your language preference for the book (Thai or English). Rikker would draw two winners at the beginning of May.

At the time, I had just made a commitment to watch 1000 hours of Thai TV and learn Thai. Since I seemed to be on the path already, I entered the contest and said I wanted the Thai version of the book.

And I won!

I received the book in the mail yesterday (Thanks Rikker! For the dictionary too!). Here it is:

Thai novel - someday, after I am fluent in Thai and fully literate, I will read this and understand

Thai has really squiggly letters doesn’t it.  Someday I will understand these squiggles!

Sure enough, I open the book and I can’t understand a word. I can’t even pronounce any of the words. Hell, I can’t even pronounce any of the characters, except for the one that looks like a penguin. That’s the “g” sound.

This Thai letter sounds like “g” as in “gift” or “girl”.  And it looks like a penguin facing left.

So I’ve made myself a promise. One day I will understand this book. I will read all the words and know what they mean. I will read this novel with the same eyes as a literate Thai.

It won’t be soon though! I have a long road ahead of me. In the meantime, I can count the penguins.

If you haven’t done so, I recommend acquiring a book for your target language. Promise yourself to read it after you become fluent and fully literate. Leave it somewhere you can see it from time to time to give you motivation (but don’t peek too early!). Let it be your lost city of gold. Your fountain of youth. Your Holy Grail. That’s a good name. Holy Grail Book. Get yourself a Holy Grail book and stick it on your shelf. Then start the journey to “find” it.

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6 Comment(s)

  1. Inspirational post Thomas.

    Months back I purchased the English and Thai versions of The Happiness of Kati.

    It will make a fine Thai Holy Grail.

    Catherine | May 20, 2009 | Reply

  2. I’ve got a copy of the first Harry Potter book in Japanese. I don’t want that to be my ‘Holy Grail’ book, because I’ve already read the English version and that’d be cheating a little.

    I’d like to get hold of a Haruki Murakami book that hasn’t been published outside of Japan. That’d be a good book to aspire to read. I’d say it’d be his upcoming novel, but that’s one of the few English books I’m going to read while studying Japanese.

    Nick | May 20, 2009 | Reply

  3. Wow Thomas, that’s so freakin’ cool! I should write a post about this, or could simply plug yours (as it’s really well-written).

    Also: Thai looks beautiful. Too bad I don’t want to learn it. Well, actually, I could certainly learn it as it’s a beautiful language. It’s just that I’m already doing Spanish (hardcore) and decided that German will be the next step (although I can already pretty much understand it, due to my Dutch).

    Keep up the learning, and you’ll be able to read your Holy Grail(s) sooner rather than later.

    Ramses | May 20, 2009 | Reply

  4. @Catherine: Sounds good, although I think having the English version defeats the purpose, especially if you read it!

    @Nick: I’d recommend picking an author you’ve never heard of before. Go against the common wisdom and just pick a book that has an intriguing cover. The picture will be there to tease you through the years. The unknown author will add to the mystery. The more it feels like you are uncovering a secret that only you know about, the better.

    @Ramses: Thanks. Feel free to do either or both. I like link love. :)

    I also think the Thai script is attractive. And I think they chose a nice font for the novel. I’ve opened it several times already just to look at it. It’s a bit like looking at old Mesopotamian text inscriptions at a museum, only better because I’m daydreaming about one day understanding what it says. Thanks for the encouragement!

    thomas | May 21, 2009 | Reply

  5. I really wanted that book! Oh well. Have you seen the movie? Its pretty good actually.

    If you are looking for an easier (and very useful) read in Thai, look for เด็าไม่เอาถ่าน. I read it in Thai, Korean and I just ordered the Japanese the other day. Lots of great sentences to mine. I suppose you should go and learn the alphabet first. Anyways, good luck!

    Gwindarr | Jun 26, 2009 | Reply

  6. Typo sorry, the book title is เด็กไม่เอาถ่าน

    Gwindarr | Jun 26, 2009 | Reply

4 Trackback(s)

  1. May 20, 2009: from JapanSoc
  2. Jun 5, 2009: from My Japanese Haul « Nihongo Noobie
  3. Jun 11, 2009: from Set Yourself Goals: Holy Grails | Spanish Only
  4. Aug 4, 2011: from Tell me a story!! (in Navajo) « Navajo Now

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