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The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongue Paperback – Jul 12 2005

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (July 12 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400033233
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400033232
  • Product Dimensions: 20.3 x 1.4 x 13.2 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 181 g
  • Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,611,720 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


"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 Inside Flap

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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.3 out of 5 stars 13 reviews
7 of 7 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
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
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Reading! Nov. 5 2005
By W. Harwood - Published on
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Freshmen view on The Genius of Language Dec 1 2013
By Siu Hon Li - Published on
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Excellent concept, middling execution Oct. 26 2014
By Jennifer Grey - Published on
Format: Paperback
A hit-or-miss collection, the brilliant premise of which is only occasionally adhered to by its fifteen contributors. Amy Tan and Ariel Dorfman both knock it out of the park, but many of the other essays are simply ruminations on the childhoods or difficult family lives of the writer, which could be interesting, but aren't exactly to the point. Several of the authors start off well before sliding into digressions which they then forcibly drag back on track in the final paragraphs, as if realizing that they were supposed to be headed somewhere specific but hadn't quite managed to make it. The reader's experience is thus much as if they were in a car whose driver, whilst going 75 miles an hour, suddenly realized he was about to miss his turn and swung the wheel hard to the right, and leaves you feeling bumped, jolted, and a little disgruntled.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful observations for transplanted immigrants and lovers of languages. June 8 2014
By laprofe1 - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Each story is a gem and hits a nerve for me. I am Mexican, was raised speaking Spanish and came as a child to the US. I have studied many languages and for each one I have different emotions and sensibilities. The authors of each story have similar experiences in the languages they dominate and speak. There is no need for sequential reading, pop the book open to any story and enjoy!