Sec­ond Language

By – December 19, 2011

In this col­lec­tion of beau­ti­ful­ly craft­ed short sto­ries, Ron­na Wineberg deals with unful­filled long­ings, deeply-held secrets, the effects on aging on the mind and the body. For exam­ple, in The Coin Col­lec­tor,” a wid­ow, whose hus­band hid the coins he col­lect­ed in a ham­per, encoun­ters a coin deal­er who had a sim­i­lar fate of hid­ing from the Nazis inside a ham­per dur­ing the war. In The Lapse,” a reli­gious Jew who is mar­ried to a cul­tur­al” Jew tries to come to terms with the deep, unbridge­able gap between them. In The Search,” a woman seeks out her real father, only to find that he is a com­plete dis­ap­point­ment. And in The Vis­i­tor,” a woman who must face her own chil­dren as she ages real­izes that by watch­ing her body age, she is only a vis­i­tor to this world, that there are no easy ways to go through tough parts of life.”

Each of Wineberg’s sto­ries sparkles, with some thought, con­clu­sion, or moral about life and its mean­ing. In one sto­ry, a char­ac­ter remarks, the way to under­stand life is to keep mov­ing for­ward.” This is a beau­ti­ful col­lec­tion, with char­ac­ters who do not nec­es­sar­i­ly expe­ri­ence fairy tale endings.

Bar­bara S. Cohen is a tri­al attor­ney in Los Ange­les who spe­cial­izes in child abuse cas­es. She is a mem­ber of NAMI and a sup­port­er of NARSAD, and is an advo­cate for those who suf­fer from men­tal illness.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Ron­na Wineberg; Ques­tions by Hol­ly Saari

The Coin Collector”

  • Saul says, Peo­ple have no pride in any­thing any­more. Noth­ing new is meant to last.” Lat­er in the sto­ry, Mr. Ves­pers repeats this feel­ing. Does this explain any­thing about Saul or Mr. Ves­pers? What about the themes of the story?
  • Saul nev­er had the coins appraised, and nei­ther count­ed nor mount­ed them. Rather, he hoard­ed them,” as Sonia says. The coins have a deep­er mean­ing to Saul. What is that? What do the coins represent?
  • Sur­vival is one of the themes of this sto­ry. How does Wineberg show this using Sonia, Saul and Mr. Vespers?
  • When Mr. Ves­pers again talks about the imper­ma­nence in life and search­ing for a loved one’s soul, Sonia replies, Some­times the soul you’re look­ing for is your own.” How does this go back to coin col­lect­ing and encap­su­late one of the story’s main ideas?

The Lapse”

  • Why is the first per­son point of view in this sto­ry successful?
  • The Lapse” is about the dif­fi­cul­ty of hav­ing a spousal rela­tion­ship with some­one with dif­fer­ent reli­gious beliefs, but there is more. What are deep­er themes that can be seen from this main storyline?
  • One con­flict in the sto­ry is ide­al­ized reli­gion ver­sus progress, such as Joanne puts it. What are the oth­er con­flicts seen in the story?

A Crossing”

  • This sto­ry gives insight into a fam­i­ly struck with can­cer. How does Wineberg por­tray an event such as this so realistically?
  • Alice has a timetable for her life, with the right time for every­thing, but it is thrown off when she real­izes she has can­cer. Con­sid­er­ing this, what do you think this sto­ry says about life?
  • In sev­er­al of Wineberg’s sto­ries, spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and reli­gion are touched on. Alice’s moth­er, Edna, speaks about it in this sto­ry. What do you think about Edna com­par­ing med­i­cines and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty as a route for hope?

After We Went South”

  • Lau­ra states there is no such thing as a hap­py or unhap­py mar­riage, of mar­riages at all.” What does she mean by this?
  • How does your answer to the above ques­tion lead you to think about the theme(s) in the story?
  • At the end of the sto­ry, Laura’s atti­tude about her mar­riage end­ing has changed. At what point in the sto­ry does Laura’s out­look change?

Bad News”

  • Ill­ness occurs in sev­er­al sto­ries in Sec­ond Lan­guage. Sheila finds out her moth­er has can­cer and is over­whelmed with the thought of los­ing her moth­er. How does she cope with this?
  • What pur­pose does Jim serve in the story?
  • Why do you think Wineberg chose not to include a sec­tion in the sto­ry where Sheila meets her mother?
  • Dis­cuss what you think may hap­pen when Sheila meets her parents.
  • Helen is con­sumed by the piano. When Helen is at the piano she thinks about the nature of love. Does the piano stand for some­thing more in her life? What does it symbolize?
  • What theme do you think Wineberg is try­ing to present in the story?

Sec­ond Language”

  • Wineberg’s book shares its title with this short sto­ry. Are there sim­i­lar­i­ties in this sto­ry that can be seen in any oth­er sto­ries? Is there one over­rid­ing theme that all the sto­ries togeth­er advance?
  • Lucy has a sec­ond lan­guage; it is part of her job and her life. Do you think this is where the title of the sto­ry comes from, or is there anoth­er mean­ing for sec­ond language?
  • Lucy once read that when you learn anoth­er lan­guage, you gain anoth­er soul. Do you feel this way? How does this per­tain to the sto­ry as a whole?

The Search”

  • Search­ing is an aspect preva­lent in Wineberg’s sto­ries. Whether it is search­ing for hope, com­fort or faith, her char­ac­ters seem always to be search­ing. This search finds Patrice try­ing to locate her father. Is Patrice simul­ta­ne­ous­ly search­ing for some­thing else? What?
  • Wineberg uses point of view well. Why do you think she choos­es to have Patrice tell her sto­ry in the first person?


  • Infi­deli­ty is anoth­er char­ac­ter­is­tic com­mon in this short sto­ry col­lec­tion. Why do you think this is? Does it help devel­op the main theme(s) com­mon to many of her sto­ries? If so, how?
  • What makes this sto­ry inter­est­ing is that we see a reverse side of the infi­deli­ty seen in After We Went South.” Often­times, a read­er can become sym­pa­thet­ic for a main char­ac­ter even when there are not so sym­pa­thet­ic qual­i­ties to him or her. How is this achieved in the story?
  • Doris feels that if she can only sell the ency­clo­pe­dia set, her life will be in order again. At the end of the sto­ry, she changes her mind and decides she will keep the set. Why does she do this?
  • At what point in the sto­ry does this trans­for­ma­tion occur?

The Vis­i­tor”

  • At the end of the sto­ry, Pauline and Cora rec­on­cile their rela­tion­ship. How is this an effec­tive or inef­fec­tive con­clu­sion to the story?
  • Cora thinks a cou­ple dif­fer­ent times that life is an arrange­ment. Why does she see life this way?
  • Pauline says, After all my search­ing, it’s just fine where you are.” What does she mean by this, and can this idea be brought into any oth­er sto­ries in the collection?

Verse of the Han”

  • Why is the Verse of the Han the first thing read? How does it relate to the story?
  • A theme of this sto­ry is tak­ing con­trol of your life and doing what needs to be done for your­self. What oth­er main ideas devel­op from Verse of the Han?”

The Night Watchman”

  • What is the func­tion John­ny serves in the story?
  • Why is Sofia so affect­ed by Johnny?
  • Ben says, But no one has the absolute pow­er. To heal.” How does this relate to the main idea pre­sent­ed in the sto­ry? Does John­ny sup­port or oppose this statement?

The Doc­tor”

  • An impor­tant idea in this sto­ry is friend­ship. What oth­er the­mat­ic con­cepts do you think deserve discussion?
  • How does the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the two men improve the under­stand­ing of the two men’s friendship?
  • Mel finds it dif­fi­cult to con­sole Her­bert when his wife dies, yet still stands by him. What does this say about their friend­ship and/​or friend­ship in general?

A Ques­tion to End

  • Now that you have dis­cussed each sto­ry and have got­ten a feel for the book as a whole as well, what do you think about the title?
  • In the short sto­ry, Sec­ond Lan­guage,” Lucy real­izes the first lan­guage is love. Based on the oth­er sto­ries and this one, what do you think the sec­ond lan­guage is? Why do you think this was cho­sen as the title of the book?