Reading in a foreign language – beware!

I used to read a lot in French, not only for pleasure but because it improved my vocabulary. Now I read in English so as not to forget the words I already know. But the other day, a family moving back to the Metropole were selling their books, so we went over to see what they had. And there I came across Autoportrait de l’Auteur en Coureur de Fond (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running) by Haruki Murakami. Now, I’m always up for anything he writes and since it’s translated from Japanese, it doesn’t matter if it’s in English or French. It isn’t a novel but an artful comparison between writing and long-distance running, and one immediate consequence was to remind me I need to get fit. So on went the trainers and tracksuit and off I trotted round the block, perfectly happy with my progress until boing! Some sort of muscle behind my knee that I never knew I had. So now I’m hobbling around like Long John Silver. Just thought I’d warn you – though reading in a foreign language may improve your vocabulary, it can have painful side effects.

At a Loss for Words


When I started writing, I thought if I used a thesaurus, I was cheating. A bit like using Bisto to make the gravy. But I was younger then, and my brain was chock-full of words. Opinions differ on the matter, but many will agree with Steven King’s assertion: ‘Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.’ That was indeed my position until language attrition set in.

Nice as it is to be bilingual, there’s a downside. Anyone massively exposed to a second language knows what I mean. You don’t forget your mother tongue, but unless you use them regularly, the words don’t come so easily anymore. They’re still there, but hiding away like bugs that are scared of the light. Coaxing them out can take a while: you know there’s a word you want, but it just won’t come. It’s called the TOT state (tip of the tongue) and it’s frustrating. I realised how far the attrition had gone when people in Britain started saying to me, ‘You speak very good English.’

So now I use a thesaurus. When the word I’ve come up with isn’t quite right, either in meaning or in rhythm, I look for alternatives. And joyfully browse for a while, rediscovering words that had slipped away into the shadows of my mind: fusty, arrant, bray, chary, nosh, drub, noisome, pudgy – the list could go on. Not that I’d want necessarily to use those words myself – there’s a definite limit to the number of less common words you want to pepper your writing with. Nosh or pudgy, certainly, if the context is right. I’d think twice, though, before writing arrant or noisome. But whether I use them or not it’s always nice to get back in touch with friends I’ve not seen for years.