I’m a language nut. Been that way ever since my first exposure to other languages on a Brownies trip to the library in second grade. The librarian was showing our troop around the different parts of the library, and as we passed a certain shelf, she pointed out that this was where the foreign language books were kept. ‘Foreign language?’ seven-year-old me thought. ‘That sounds cool.’ (This is where I add that I lived in a very white, very homogeneous small town that had been settled mainly by German and Scandinavian immigrants who farmed and worked on the canal. No one in my life at this point spoke anything other than English.) After the tour, I headed back to that section and started poking through the books, eventually settling on checking out an illustrated French book that taught me to say (as the book wrote it out) OOO SONG LAY TWAH-LET. (Où sont les toilettes, or, where are the toilets? As the person with the smallest bladder in the world, this is an endlessly useful first French phrase). I went on to study multiple languages in school, then married a man whose first language was French (and who can answer my question about the location of the toilets), and picked up a bit of the language of my ancestors when my daughter was young and I was too sleep-deprived to be able to focus on reading. All that to say, when I saw another book blogger post about In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf, first published 2015), about her fascination with and deep dive into the Italian language, I knew I had to read it.
In Other Words is a dual-language book. The left side is Lahiri’s original writing, entirely in Italian; the right side is the translation, done by Ann Goldstein (thus making this a fabulous book for students of Italian, whom I’m sure struggle to find reading material in their target language in the US. Boy, do I feel you *stares in person learning Norwegian*). Lahiri recounts falling in love with Italian, how it gave her a freedom she never felt in the two other languages she spoke (Bengali, the language she shared with her parents, and English, the language that she had to learn when she went to school as a child and the language she wrote her novels in). Language to her had always been charged with meaning, emotion, and tension: Bengali connected her to her parents; English thrust her into the rest of American society. But Italian…Italian had no such ties. Italian just was, and Lahiri was pulled in by it. For twenty years, she studied it here in the US, alone and with tutors, and then she made the leap: with her family, she moved to Rome in order to further her study of the language. (THAT is some seriously impressive commitment, and I’m more than a little jealous.)
So much of this book resonated with me. Her struggles with grammar, with words that resembled and sounded like one another but varied wildly in meaning, with sentences and phrases that, while technically correct, just didn’t sound quite right (a problem for any speaker of a foreign language. I used to tutor English as a second/other language, and there were often times when my student would come up with a sentence that I understood but that wasn’t technically correct. And that, for us, was fine; the goals of our program weren’t academic in nature, just communication-based. I’d let her know the grammatically correct way to say it, but tell her that she would be understood if she said it the way she had. She was such a great student and I miss tutoring). I’ve had these same struggles myself and found myself nodding vigorously. I deeply understood the pull of another language, especially one that isn’t a language spoken anywhere near where you live and with whom you have no one to speak it, her notebooks filled with vocabulary words and scrawls (I have multiple!), how the sound of the language felt like a home she hadn’t known she was missing.
This book is possibly the purest labor of love I’ve ever read, because literally every word was struggled for, fought for, wrestled into her brain by sheer force of will. Any language learned as an adult is hard, hard work, and I so appreciated being able to see Ms. Lahiri’s gorgeous Italian words across from the translated English. If you’re interested in language learning, if you’re wondering what’s possible via dedication and countless hours of studying and hard work, In Other Words is the book for you. (And if you’ve never really looked at Italian before, check this book out. I kept going back and forth between the pages, coming upon a certain English word and going, “Hmm, what’s the Italian word for that?” And I’d switch over to the left side and skim until I found it. So cool!)
In Other Words is a fairly quick read, a book about desire, hard work, and possibility. Read it if you’re interested in language learning, or if you’re looking for inspiration to begin that project you’ve been putting off.
What’s your experience with language learning? Were you forced into language classes as a child or high schooler? Have you attempted to learn another language as an adult? I’d love to hear about it!