Jan 15 2010 6:08pm

An apple has two names

In the early nineties, when I lived for a short period in Europe, I was visiting a couple of Brazilian friends living in Amsterdam. They had a lovely daughter, a four-year old who whoopied around the house, showing me all her toys, craving for my attention. She was a very happy girl, but her mother told me she had gotten through hard times upon entering pre-school months earlier.

“You know,” she told me, “We speak in Portuguese at home, and only speak in Dutch when friends come in. When the time came to put her in school, we realized that she could hardly speak a word of Dutch, and she wasn’t able to understand the children and the teacher. The first day was awful—she came home in tears.”

I couldn’t even begin to imagine how it must have been hard for the kid.

“But an amazing thing happened after a few days,” her mother went on. “Suddenly she came home smiling, and told me, very proud of her discovery: ‘Mommie, the apple has two names!’”

Her teacher had shown her the picture of an apple and asked her what it was. She answered in Portuguese, maçã (/mah-san/), and then the teacher showed her the Dutch word for it (Appel).

And with that, she had just found out a simple thing that many of us, alas, may take an entire life to find – and most never do: the miracle of understanding a language other than your native one. This expands our universe of knowledge and leaves us wide open to new sources of information. New cultures. New ways of life. New modes of thinking. Things outside your comfort zone. Things that are alien to you.

The story of the apple with two names comes to my mind now, almost twenty years later, when I’m starting to write in English. My native tongue is Portuguese, and all of my books so far (a short story collection, a novella, an academic essay on the work of William Gibson, and a novel) were written in that language.

Now, though, I’ve been writing fiction in a language I didn’t speak at all until I was eight years old. In 2009, I published nine stories in English (written originally in English, not translated from Portuguese), two of them podcasted in StarShipSofa (there’s another one coming soon). I’m also writing a novel in English. It’s been a wild, exhilarating experience.

Because this is what I learned: an apple can have as many names as we may care to learn. Maçã, manzana, apfel, appel, pomme, ringo, mela. All these languages are ours. The more languages we are able to use, the more intriguing, interesting, real worlds we will be able to create for science fiction and fantasy. Readers and writers, everybody wins.

Fabio Fernandes is a writer and translator living in São Paulo, Brazil. He loves reading, cooking, swimming, and traveling between alternate Earths.

Fernando da Silva Trevisan
1. fstrevisan
Great. That's the "ideal world": openness, curiosity, knowledge, share. Great start, Fabio!
2. chiptotec
Hey, nice story / história / tarina / racconto!
3. felipeaom
I just loved the girl's discovery. Nice post.
4. Sammy Newton
Congratulations for your first post, Fabio.
Lovely story.
Roland of Gilead
5. pKp
That's just great. For me, raising a kid to be bilingual is one of the greatest gifts you can give him/her.
6. Crimsonsilk
So glad you brought this up! It's exactly what I'm hoping to do with my stories... the breadth and variety of languages enhances the sense of true diversity of cultures... and the believability of being immersed in an entire world. Something Tolkien knew and Cameron used to great effect in Avatar :)
Fabio Fernandes
8. fabiofernandes
Obrigado / grazie / gracias / merci , chiptotec! :-)
Fabio Fernandes
9. fabiofernandes
felipeaom, Sammy: Thanks. It´s good to be a child and to be able to figure things out for the very first time. I'm not much of a nostalgia guy, but I certainly miss this kind of feeling.
Fabio Fernandes
10. fabiofernandes
pKp: For me, this is what speaking in tongues is all about. To communicate in more than one way.

(Of course we already do that even when using our native language, but consider how many times we multiplicate the polysemy with every new language we learn!)
Fabio Fernandes
11. fabiofernandes
Crimsonsilk: yeah, people are much too busy discussing story and FX in Avatar and most of them pretty much ignored the creation of the Na´vi language. Another excellent example for the movies is the primeval language Anthony Burgess created for Jean-Jacques Annaud's great film The Quest for Fire. It gave the story more ambience and complexity.
Marcus W
12. toryx
It's a fantastic thought. I wish all children could go through the thrill of that discovery. I certainly wish I had.
13. Veitarginis
Nice post!
Fabio Fernandes
14. fabiofernandes
I wish I could have had it too, @toryx. I was too old to have this kind of epiphany, alas.

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