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The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongue [Paperback]

Wendy Lesser

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Book Description

July 12 2005
Fifteen outstanding writers answered editor Wendy Lesser’s call for original essays on the subject of language–the one they grew up with, and the English in which they write.Despite American assumptions about polite Chinese discourse, Amy Tan believes that there was nothing discreet about the Chinese language with which she grew up. Leonard Michaels spoke only Yiddish until he was five, and still found its traces in his English language writing. Belgian-born Luc Sante loved his French Tintin and his Sartre, but only in English could he find “words of one syllable” that evoke American bars and bus stops. And although Louis Begley writes novels in English and addresses family members in Polish, he still speaks French with his wife–the language of their courtship. As intimate as one’s dreams, as private as a secret identity, these essays examine and reveal the writers’ pride, pain, and pleasure in learning a new tongue, revisiting an old one, and reconciling the joys and frustrations of each.

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Review

"Intimate, entertaining and thoughtful. . . . It is impossible to do do justice to all of the outstanding essays in this volume." --San Francisco Chronicle

“Charming, moving and funny reflections on childhood, family, nationality, and ethnicity as well

as language. . . . Genuinely transporting” --The New York Sun

“Eloquently explores the links between childhood and language.” —Chicago Tribune

"Provides readers not just with a peak inside the heads of these dazzling writers, but a trip to each of their homelands, from Russia to Italy to Chile." --Condé Nast Traveler

“This delightful collection É vividly recounts the process that anyone who loves words goes through: the process of falling under the spell of language’s seemingly infinite potential.” --Publishers Weekly

“Intimate, entertaining and thoughtful É this volume provides fascinating insight into the way that grappling with language is a way people also grapple with life.” --San Francisco Chronicle

“This is a collection that should heighten anyone’s awareness of the potential and the limitation of the English language.” --San Jose Mercury News

“Ms. Lesser’s contemporary Conrads — writers who write in English though it’s not their first language — have delivered charming, moving and funny reflections on childhood, family, nationality, and ethnicity as well as language.” --New York Sun

“I laughed and cried over this collection of stories embracing the English language. {One of the 25 best books of 2004}.” --Seattle Times and Post- Intelligencer

“A rich and surprising book brimming with love of culture and respect of language.” --Tucson Citizen

“Powerful for their brevity É the richness and the range of the collection make this a valuable anthology.” --Kliatt (Massachusetts)

“This collection of essays is fascinating.” – Asheville (North Carolina) Citizen-Times

From the Back Cover

"Intimate, entertaining and thoughtful. . . . It is impossible to do do justice to all of the outstanding essays in this volume." --San Francisco Chronicle

“Charming, moving and funny reflections on childhood, family, nationality, and ethnicity as well

as language. . . . Genuinely transporting” --The New York Sun

“Eloquently explores the links between childhood and language.” —Chicago Tribune

"Provides readers not just with a peak inside the heads of these dazzling writers, but a trip to each of their homelands, from Russia to Italy to Chile." --Condé Nast Traveler

“This delightful collection É vividly recounts the process that anyone who loves words goes through: the process of falling under the spell of language’s seemingly infinite potential.” --Publishers Weekly

“Intimate, entertaining and thoughtful É this volume provides fascinating insight into the way that grappling with language is a way people also grapple with life.” --San Francisco Chronicle

“This is a collection that should heighten anyone’s awareness of the potential and the limitation of the English language.” --San Jose Mercury News

“Ms. Lesser’s contemporary Conrads — writers who write in English though it’s not their first language — have delivered charming, moving and funny reflections on childhood, family, nationality, and ethnicity as well as language.” --New York Sun

“I laughed and cried over this collection of stories embracing the English language. {One of the 25 best books of 2004}.” --Seattle Times and Post- Intelligencer

“A rich and surprising book brimming with love of culture and respect of language.” --Tucson Citizen

“Powerful for their brevity É the richness and the range of the collection make this a valuable anthology.” --Kliatt (Massachusetts)

“This collection of essays is fascinating.” – Asheville (North Carolina) Citizen-Times

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This anthology is as unique as it is interesting to read. Oct. 15 2005
By fdoamerica - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
All fifteen authors have one thing in common: they love words. All of them were drop-shipped, via their parent's fiat, to worlds where their mother tongue was no longer heard. These are the stories of how they lived, learned, spoke and eventual wrote English. Initially, their minds were full of ideas, but the words to express them were no longer understood outside of their family. The need to communicate burned inside of them and drove them to English, and maybe drove to the unencumbered freedom found in writing.

If you are looking for a work in the field of linguistics, keep looking, for this book is a `niche' book that gives one an unusual vista on the joys of words via quasi-autobiographies. This anthology is as unique as it is interesting to read. Strongly recommended
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Reading! Nov. 5 2005
By W. Harwood - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Wonderful collection of essays by first-rank writers on the transition from the native language to our American version of English. Starting of course with the example of Joseph Conrad they offer insights into their intial contact with English in their childhoods and how this shaped their perceptions of the US and ease their entry into our society. Since I have first hand experience with most of the languages and cultures described (living in Bangladesh, Poland, and Russia, Scottish grandmother), this rang true. Useful for linguists to see how their theories work, something I don't quite understand, but which they do as perceptive writers. The brief essays are well-crafted and easy to understand, much more accessible than their own writings may be or a sociological analysis of the transitions they outline.
5.0 out of 5 stars Book review – Wendy Lesser: Genius of Language Dec 1 2013
By Robert - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Wendy Lesser, a novelist, with a novel about collection of non-fictional essays from various authors.

Genius of Language is a collection of separate non-fictional stories by 15 different authors. The main subject of the book is differences between cultures and languages, english as a second language. The title refers to language skills, people sailing between two or more languages having difficulties to express their thoughts. Discustions are all different set up not related to each others. This subject is really close to the citizens of the United States (USA) of whom inherit pieces from different cultures from their parents or ancestors, who have moved to USA.

Fifteen individual author, fifteen different languages, and fifteen diverse backgrounds, however, a mutual second language, English. All of the stories cover some twenty pages, short stories about their author’s life’s. Most of the stories includes phrases or words that they find either impossible to translate or otherwize they find it difficult to adapt their culture into english language. Some of the stories have flashbacks, some of the stories are short chronological stories from the past, of which most of them included dialogs or short pieces of author’s domestic litterature references like poets and quotes. Every essay has their own identity and problems, of which few pieces are completely related to the language differences and rest of them are mostly in english but powerphrased with foreign words to explain the cultural differences. Most importantly the essays are written about their own lifes as a first person narration. The message of the book is adaption and the linquistical problems lacking ways to express thoughts.

The structure of the novel makes this piece particularly interesting. Because every piece is different at the same time sharing a mutual main subject. These facts made this book very easy to read and adapt, although the deeper message of a single essay might be harder to find. Depending on the writers skills each of the essays have various different vocabularies and different styles, which in my case is very productive towards my English progress. However, I was confused once in a while with thoughts trying to adapt them into my perspective. Nonetheless, all the stories were simple to understand the retorical questions followed by answers to their dilemmas, like in Amy Tan’s text: ”But just how seriously are we supposed to take this?”, made me imagine about my own identity and anxiety towards culural differences. The book made me feel like I wanted to write my own story about how Finns ”put the tv on”, or how they ”put the lights off”, or how is it so different to write language, compared to Finnish, actually has a future tense; postpositions changed to prepositions; and the articles, or was it an articles, or could it be without article at all?

I say, that all in all the book had a huge impact on me with its different approaches to litterature. I haven’t read a lot of books that makes feel start to read just for some twenty pages. The idea of the book is very clever in introducing languages difficulties to first offenders in the two language world and why not for the people who already share a huge experience of living among other cultures. A person who is in the middle of writing anxiety towards their own language should definitely use this book to broaden the view. It is not always easy to change almost everything at once and cope immediately, when suddenly is in the middle of new culture.

Works cited

Lesser, Wendy. "Chinese "Yes and No" Amy Tan." The Genius of Language. New York: Pantheon, 2004. 25-34. Print.
4.0 out of 5 stars A Freshmen view on The Genius of Language Dec 1 2013
By Siu Hon Li - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Wendy Lesser gathered 15 writers reflecting on their mother tongue language. All 15 different languages comparing with English and writers’ auto- ethnography. A lot of foreign students in the United States can relate to these writers because we have come here to study and English is essential for us to communicate on a daily basis. All the authors have a hard time finding a connection with their natives because their English level has exceed their mother tongue.
I personally can related to this, I was born in Hong Kong, China. Having to live in Qatar for 6 years and now in Tampa, Florida. The difference in culture is a great lot. I can relate mostly to the chapter “Yes and No” by Amy Tan. It shows differences between Chinese and English in “Yes and No”. In Chinese saying yes to the last piece of food on the table is bad. No matter how much I will like to eat it I always have to ask if anyone wants it and insist on giving it to the other person. In American culture, we fight for the last chicken wing on the platter. “Chinese people evolved into a mild-mannered lot because the language only allowed them to hobble forth with minced words…” We Chinese don’t want another person to lose face so we need to make it look like we are humbly accepting something. When we receive a present we say thank you then afterwards we have to give compliments to that person or our parents will give us a big slap on the head.
A lot of cultural references, translations, similarities and difficulties adapting from one culture to another. We can see a lot are lost in translation, there are phrases and words which don’t have a similar or exact meaning in English. All writers who learned English after their mother tongue or other languages encounter these problems all the time. What native English speaker might see as an “easy task” comparing with ESL (English as Second Language) speakers is seen to be a challenging and almost impossible task.
These 15 authors explores the idea of “lost in translation”, flash back memories of each author, cultural tales and their observation of the English speaking cultures. They are all 15 different short stories. Starting off anywhere from the book is fine. There isn't really a chronological order for the chapters. Great for readers who are interested in literature and culture, ESL speakers and people who have lived in more than one country. Also good read for short story lovers, they might all be comparing English with their mother tongue but the ideas each author have is different.
5.0 out of 5 stars identification Dec 1 2013
By kevin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The book is based on 15 well written essays by non- american speakers. The come from; China , Spain, Russia , Korea and others. And all those 15 writers, write about how the transaction from their first language to english changed them. They tell stories talking about their experiences.
I thought that the book was very interesting, because english is not my first language. Having that in mind I could visualize better how those writers felt, and those experiences were way more explicit in my mind.
I had a click with the teenager Ariel. He came from Spain, and he talks about his body language changes. Because Spanish is really similar to Portuguese( my first language), I noticed that my body language also changed when I came to America.
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