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Books and Career Choices

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  • Let me warn you there be an involved story here.

    I did have a book that ended up influencing me a lot. When I was half-way through high school in Poland and still not sure what to do with myself later a friend lent me her English-language ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’. She knew the only thing I had confidence in in terms of skill was the English language, and she didn’t much care to read the book herself. So she lent it to me. It may not sound like much but when English is not your mother tongue and you’ve only been studying it 3-4 hours a week for about 5 years that book was an impressive challenge. It was a proper-sized book, one with no pictures, just words and all in English. I remember dreading it a bit, being in a bit of awe even. The only other time I felt something equal would be when I got my first copy of an OED at University. I had a reputation for being really good at English but that was a different level altogether from classwork. It was a proper book. But one way or another I did start reading it.

    And wonder of wonders – I found a total of 3 words in the entire book I didn’t altogether know. I can only remember one by now – ‘tabby’ for a cat with that very specific coat coloring. The word, once I found out what it meant – I mean everyone has seen that type of coat, but Polish had no word for it. English speakers and Polish speakers have all seen that most generic cat coat type and yet only English speakers had that super-useful label for it. I mean it’s like 70% of all cats are tabbies, it’s practically its own sub-species (don’t bite my head off, biologists, I mean that in a joking way), it *is* a useful word. So I not only found out I could read real, proper books in English, I found out English has useful words that Polish doesn’t. I started buying up the next installments of Harry Potter and started learning every consecutive book was more complex in terms of language, wordplay, everything. I realized that what I liked best about the Harry Potter books was the way J.K. Rowling would build her literary world with language alone. And it was done in a way that I liked but didn’t understand at the time that I now understand to be the fact that JKR respected the intelligence of her readers. She would drop these little word-gems off hand – names of magical ingredients, names of places, spells, creatures, even the invective and slanderous names for people of different blood status – those were all just words but they have constructed a complex, coherent and completely magical world everyone would love to live in. And I would have to construct this world out of the words and that was magic in itself.

    And that experience not only convinced me language is magic, but that I can actually learn English and about English that I have come to love and even make a career aout of it. I could have my cake and eat it. Better still, I could share it and share it endlessly and have everyone enjoy it. And I kept this fascination with language being able to construct entire worlds in mind.

    So how did all this impact my adult life? I went on to study English and Russian languages university level, wrote an MA thesis about the Russian translation of the books ( which is hilariously atrocious and I highly recommend it to anyone who speaks Russian – it’ll push all your rage buttons). And I went on pursuing my interest in how languages create realities we live in. I am now managing a psycholinguistic and experimental pragmatics laboratory at a Faculty of English at our local university and I do PhD-level research on the relationship between language, thought, and culture (yes, the lingustic relativity hypothesis, language geeks out there). And I know for a fact that the interests I pursue now all date back to that one experience with the first Harry Potter book. I like to think JKR would be happy to have dragged a soul into that kind of love of language 🙂

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