"From Mulieris Dignitatem to Przygoda Słonia," said Benedict Ambrose as he walked into the sitting-room this morning.
"It's all the all the same to me," I said, looking up from the bright green picture book that tells the story of The Elephant's Adventure.
This is not exactly true, for I have to look up a lot more words in the Polish translation (or original, let's face it) of Mulieris Dignatem than I do for Przygoda Słonia. But what is true is that reading Polish is reading Polish, and picking up The Elephant's Adventure is a lot less daunting than the thought of another chapter of MD or St. Augustine's Wyznania.
Yesterday I met a Polish stranger in a sunny park for a "language exchange," and she told me (in Polish) that her dream was one day to speak English as fluently as she speaks Polish. I felt then that I had met a kindred spirit because of course I would love to speak both Italian and Polish (and a whole list of other languages) as fluently as I speak English.
Since both my new acquaintance (perhaps a future friend!) and I are well over 14, fluency is going to be a lifelong project, and it is unlikely that we will ever speak our foreign-to-us languages without strong accents. However, this doesn't really matter as anglophones find accented English charming (or, if not charming, normal), and Poles find accented Polish miraculous. (I don't know what Italians think because, bizarre as this sounds, I don't have any born-in-Italy Italian friends, and have had the same Italian tutor for years.)
What will get my znajoma and I to our linguistic goals is deliberate practice and love of our chosen languages. I doubt we have talent for languages because I less and less believe in talent and more and more believe in the power of deliberate, obsessive practise at something that a practitioner loves, especially if this practise is done before the age of 20.
I now realise that my easy ability to put down words in a sonorous order is thanks to keeping a diary as a child. Being read to, and obsessively reading books, and listening to my parents discuss books also has something to do with it, but I am sure I put in my 10,000 hours of writing by the time I was 20. My brother Nulli undoubtedly had put in 10,000 hours of piano practise by the time he was 20. I wrote and he played because I loved writing and he loved playing.
I'm not sure how deliberate our practise was, though. I am sure at least half of his must have been painstaking challenge, and I probably looked up words in the dictionary. My brother had good teachers, and I had good models: P.G. Wodehouse comes to mind.
The more I think about it, the more gleefully I dance on Divine Talent's grave and read books like Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice by Matthew Syed. Realising that you can excel at something that you really love as long as you put the right kind of practice in is very exciting. The trick is that you really have to love doing it because otherwise you would need superhuman discipline.