Becoming a Bilingual Reader Latvian & English.

For many people being a bilingual reader is no big deal. Nothing to blog about. They do it all the time. These days, with so many distractions, reading in just one language can be an issue. With all those audiobooks and videos online, why bother to read?

Reading doesn’t bring the same joy to everyone as it does to me.

One of my fond memories is sitting in my mother’s lap while she read to me from a book that I was going to take to a party and give to the birthday girl. I wanted the book but it had to go. Getting it read to me was the next best thing to keeping it.

Kriksis, the star of four books beloved by many Latvian kids. He was better than Lassie and Rin Tin Tin put together. Here Kriksis meets Tomiņš. They’re both Latvian refugees in Germany.

We were poor refugee immigrants who had to pinch pennies. Until I was ten my uncle lived with us. For a while, we lived communally with my uncle and my godmother, and her family in order to be able to afford rent. Nevertheless, we always had books in the house. I had lots of children’s books in Latvian and later in English. My parents bought Little Golden Books for me and even let me get comic books. They didn’t much care what I read, as long as I read.

“World of Wonders.” A book of fairy tales by the author of the Kriksis books.

During my early years in Tacoma, we lived only a couple of blocks from the library. My father and I would walk there to get books. When we moved to a different neighborhood farther from a library branch, we’d drive there together. In those days the local library system issued library cards in two different colors, yellow ones for adults, blue ones for kids. My little blue card was a proud possession. My dad would let me use his yellow card to get any book I wanted. I don’t recall reading anything shocking.

Unfortunately, I don’t have memories of my father reading to me the way my mother did. Was she the only one to read all those kids’ books to me? Both my parents probably read aloud.  When I learned to read well enough my father and I read Latvian books to each other for several years.  He’d read one chapter aloud to me and I’d read the next chapter aloud to him taking turns through the whole book. Most likely we got into this habit because I saw no reason to learn Latvian. We lived in America now and more than anything, except for a horse, I wanted to be an American. English was language enough for me. My father would have none of it. He insisted that I learn Latvian. The most fun way to do so was to read to one another.

This practice probably ended when he picked a translation of a Swedish book,  Black Horses, I think. A book about horses? YES! I want to read it. We read happily until one of the main characters got his eye put out. That was enough for me. I didn’t want to read any more of that book. By then, the habit of reading had been well established in me.  From then on, I chose my own books and read them silently to myself in my room.

An illustration by Alfreds Plīte-Pleita. “Herta is reading.”

Every year, the Latvian newspaper, Laiks, (Times) printed coupons called, “Book Dollars.” Still on his campaign to make sure I learned Latvian (I was a Latvian school dropout) my father let me use all the coupons to order any book I wanted from a Latvian publishing company called, “Grāmatu draugs” (Friend of Books) Tētis paid for the books. They were my gift for successfully completing another school year. When the books arrived from  “Grāmatu draugs” it was like Christmas in summer. As a result of my father’s generosity, during those years I read many novels by popular Latvian authors who’d immigrated to the US. The publisher who’d founded  “Grāmatu draugs” in Latvia in 1926, escaped the communist invasion in 1944, and resumed publishing, under the same name in Brooklyn, New York in 1951.

An illustration from “World or Wonders.”

I can still read Latvian, just not as well as I used to. There are too many books in English that I want to read, including ones written by Latvians.

Thanks to my father’s diligence in encouraging me in every way he could and demonstrating the importance of books and reading by doing his own reading, I learned to love reading in both languages.

My father wasn’t alone in promoting reading. I remember watching a TV quiz show aimed at teens. I can’t remember who their guest was, some academic, I think. When asked what the best way to get into college is he said, “Read, read, read.” I don’t think that necessity has changed, nor will it any time soon.

* **

I do intend to get back to Latvian diminutive but I had to write something different for a change.


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8 thoughts on “Becoming a Bilingual Reader Latvian & English.”

  1. hello,
    I was wondering if you have heard of a writer named Janis Princis?? Apparently he wrote poetry and folk stories. I think his son Peter translated a dictionary too.


    1. No, I hadn’t. I had to look him up. It seems that he wasn’t widely known. He was both in the 18th C. and was a Livonian. Wiki lists him as a cultural worker. He and two of his sons apparently translate the gospel of Matthew into the Livonian language. which has practically died out. That’s probably why Princis is not widely known. I saw nothing about a dictionary. Thanks for the interesting quesion.


  2. For some, our reading memories are some of the best memories we have. I remember closing Call of the Wild after finishing it, thinking about it for awhile, and deciding I didn’t like it and why. Your ties with Latvia are touching.

    Liked by 1 person

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