The trials and triumphs of learning to read in a second language

Deputy Web Editor Anoosh Chakelian and Sub-editor Yo Zushi share their stories of learning to read in Armenian and English.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Anoosh Chakelian on learning Armenian

Even as a child, I had an inkling that Sunday morning was culturally held to be the laziest part of the week. But for me, it always marked the highest-pressure situation a five-year-old could ever experience. Because Armenian school started at 10.30am. And I hadn’t done my homework. I had never done my homework.

Every Sunday would be the same. I would wake up/be woken up. I’d drag myself downstairs/my parents would coax me downstairs with the promise of a thrilling breakfast cereal, maybe, or something exciting (Stevie Nicks, David Bowie – George Michael’s Careless Whisper, if I was lucky) on the hifi.

I’d have to forgo my important weekly digest of The Funday Times. My father would lay out my pencil, exercise book and Armenian school textbook on the table, and each week – with tears, unfinished cereal and a growing suspicion about the provenance of the languages of the Caucasus – I would cram in all knowledge of my ancestors against the clock.

And, weirdly, it worked. I was brought up bilingual, so could always speak and understand Armenian. But learning to read and write the bloody thing is another story – a story usually involving allegorical apricots, or a peasant pulling up a giant turnip with morally significant results.

Armenian is a language like no other, said to have its own branch on the language tree. It doesn’t really sound like Russian or Turkish (Armenia’s bossiest neighbours), and its alphabet doesn’t really look a great deal like their alphabets. Or Arabic. Or anything, really. Perhaps this is unsurprising, as it was said to have come to a man called Mesrop Mashtots – a name that surely defies any conventional alphabet – in a dream. He invented the 36-letter (now 38-letter) alphabet in 405AD. And his legacy was a frustrated Nineties child in west London trying to make sense of the looped and jagged twists and turns of one of the world’s most obscure national languages.

The dedication of my Sunday mornings to Armenian school until the age of 14 was a bit of a trial at the time (cutting sleepovers short to be picked up and driven off to classes, shaking off the Haribo hangover; an agonising weekly hiatus from texting and playing Snake on my Nokia 3310; always missing the first ten minutes of The OC when I got home), but I’m now grateful that I was encouraged to put the time in. It may not be the most useful language to learn – unless you’re visiting Armenia, or certain glam households in California – but simply knowing it feels like a small act of linguistic revenge against those throughout Armenia’s tumultuous history who have tried to wipe it out.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman's Deputy Web Editor.

Yo Zushi on learning to read in English via Bob Dylan

Moving house takes a lot out of you – hiring the van and the man in it, making sure the mirror doesn’t smash into a thousand cursed pieces, figuring out what to do with the half-dead cactus on the kitchen table. It’s particularly hard on pets.

Back in the late 1990s, a neighbour’s cat started showing up outside our kitchen door. It was a black cat, old and maybe a bit flabby when we first started letting it in for a snooze on our laps while we watched Homicide: Life on the Street, or whatever was on. I was 16 and we would all play with it: my brother, my sister, my friend Winson, who liked taunting it with a red foam ball. The cat was an extra sibling.

One summer, the neighbours moved out. We’d hardly spoken to them anyway so we didn’t give it much thought. But a few weeks later, the cat returned. It came to our kitchen door as usual. We let it in. It went away after a doze. Then it started dozing at ours every day, the vagrant cat with no home, the littlest hobo of north London. Eventually it got ill and stopped coming – it probably died in an alley somewhere. Moving house is traumatic for pets.

Between 1987 and the mid-2000s, my family moved roughly every two years. We didn’t own any pets. I always liked cats, though, and, as it happens, my favourite comic book character was one. It was a blue robot cat from the 22nd century that travelled through time using a flying rug, accessed via a schoolboy’s desk drawer: Doraemon.

Comics were the extent of my reading. I was a music fan, and hearing Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited sent me to the library, where I trawled the CD and cassette racks for obscure blues, rock’n’roll, jazz, anything and everything. I left the books there alone, however, unless they contained the words “Bob” and “Dylan” in their titles. I was hungry for mind expansion. But books, then, weren’t really to my taste.

Moving house had something to do with this. The first time my family moved was from Hiroshima to Newport Pagnell, a small town in Milton Keynes, in 1987. I was a small child at the time and I cried when I realised we’d left Japan for good – I was no young nationalist but it was a big change. I didn’t speak, read, or write any English. But within a few weeks, I was at the local school.

Most people utter their first word at 11-14 months. It’s usually “mama”. My first word in Japanese was no doubt “mama”. My first word in English was “toilet”, uttered in class at the age of six. I needed to go and was suffering; I heard someone else say it and copied him. It was a revelatory moment.

A teacher eventually sent me and my brother to a separate classroom and had a man give us English lessons. The first written word I really understood was “samurai”, because . . . well, you know. Within a year, we had pretty much caught up with the rest of the class. We could read and write and talk and even swear (“shitto!”). I don’t know how we did it. Kids’ brains are sponges.

I would still read in Japanese. And what I read were comics, in big anthology magazines such as Korokoro and, later, Jump. I quickly started to think in English but I still had some Hiroshima in me.

We moved again when I was eight and came to London. At our school in Hampstead, we’d read aloud bits of some Robin Hood book that had been adapted into a TV show. Or it was a novelisation of a TV show, I can’t remember. It was good. But that didn’t inspire me to read. The Gameboy had been invented and, being Japanese, we were early adopters. I skimmed through some Rosemary Sutcliff when I had to. King Arthur couldn’t compete with Mario, though.

It was listening to Dylan as a teenager that changed all this. I became obsessed as soon as I found him. Bruce Springsteen once said that hearing the opening snare shot of “Like a Rolling Stone” felt “like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind”. It was the same with me. I listened to the lyrics and jotted them down – in those pre-internet days, you couldn’t just google them. Words suddenly started to have an almost supernatural power over me. These were spells.

One night, I was watching Homicide on TV. The hobo cat, by this point, was dead and gone. In the episode, Detective John Munch was investigating the murder of a man who had been buried alive. He harassed the prime suspect by reciting lines from Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Black Cat”, a tale of an alcoholic who kills his cat. I thought about our lost hobo sibling cat. Moreover, I recognised Munch’s lines. I’d been looking up Poe in Swiss Cottage Library because there was a Dylan lyric that went: “When you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue. . .” – a reference to Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. Something clicked.

So I read some Poe short stories and loved them. There was a horrific one about a guy who cut out the teeth of his fiancée and accidentally buried her alive. It was gruesome and terrible and beautiful at the same time. Reading Poe led to reading crime books in general. I still sit in the café at lunch, listening to Dylan and flicking through. . .  Stephen King.

Today, I have too many books, mostly wacko stuff about UFOs, Princess Diana, horror movies, crime, conspiracy theories, and weird music – things like that. There might still be a few Doraemon issues in there somewhere, too.

Yo Zushi is a Sub-editor at the New Statesman. His album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now.

This piece is part of the New Statesman's literacy week. Read an introduction here.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. Yo Zushi’s latest album, “Unconditional Love” (TWGDOYP Records), is out now

Free trial CSS