Language is a beautiful thing. The more you learn, the more you realize how vast the differences are between people and how similar we all are. Of course, you don’t HAVE to learn a new language to know this. But once you start on this journey, there’s so much knowledge, so much beauty waiting for you. It might seem like I’m glorifying the concept of different languages for no reason, as if I’m trying to find reason in what has had me in a chokehold over the past few months. But trust me, I’m not the only one feeling these things.
Sometimes, we have no reason for doing some things. We just do them for the heck of it, to experience something new, to dive into a world that’s an escape from our present realities. And sometimes, we have strong reasons for doing them. For example, the language that I’ve been learning saved me over the past few months. When I was in a bad spot, it held my hand and guided me. I blindly followed it and here I am, with fresh dreams, a fresh perspective on life, and a whole new motivation in hand.
So, when I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir, In Other Words, in which she shares her journey of learning Italian, it was as if she was echoing my deepest, darkest fears. With the themes she tackles throughout the book, of immigration, of even sexism and colorism, she brings so many relatable concepts to the fore. Because when you start learning a new language, you not only discover how the different parts of the world are different. You also learn more about yourself, the grit and determination that constitute you, what your actual goals are, what you want to do with life, where you want to be at any given moment in time, and why you want to do whatever it is you want to do.
In today’s blog post, I’ll be talking about In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri and its themes. The lines that are in bold and italics are direct quotes from the book itself. The others, I’ve tried to make as much sense as I can in longer paragraphs as Lahiri has done in a few lines.
Lahiri starts off with an author’s note about why she herself didn’t translate the book, about how she had just started to write in Italian and that she didn’t want to move back and forth between both languages. This determination and the dedication that she showed towards her new language by wanting to keep it apart, is something that has filled me with determination. Once I become fluent in the language I’m currently learning, I will move on to learning Italian. And Lahiri will become my second reason for this. As I read about Lahiri’s determination, I also wonder when I will be confident enough to read, write, and talk in my current language of learning. But all in good time.
Lahiri uses metaphors to make her points, and what beautifully impactful metaphors they are! From talking about her languages as siblings to dominant languages being the lifejackets that you need to learn to stop using if you want to learn a new language, she stresses on the importance of immersion. The other language is always there to support you, to save you, she says before making the most important point that anyone learning a new language must remember: You can’t float without the possibility of drowning, of sinking. To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore. Without a life vest. Without depending on solid ground.
This was a much-needed push for me, making me determined to immerse myself and learn this new language I’ve been obsessing over. But how I will do this, I don’t know. I’m trying to get in touch with people who speak the language, but I’m still jittery, still unsure of myself. But someday, if I lose my mind and when I’ve had enough, I know I’ll do something like this. I’m already dreaming of moving, really, but there’s the small issue of money. 😛 Well, until then, that other language is supporting me. I just need to learn to swim, slowly but surely.
With this determination comes the question of the pull, the attraction that starts it all. Why do we feel such an insane pull towards some languages? When you listen to a foreign language and think of it as something you’ve always known as well as something you want to learn, how do you go about bringing these two to a common point? That strange feeling, that Lahiri so succinctly puts it in these next two lines: It doesn’t seem like a foreign language, although I know it is. It seems strangely familiar. I recognize something, in spite of the fact that I understand almost nothing. … It seems like a language with which I have to have a relationship. … I would be unsatisfied, incomplete, if I didn’t learn it. … What I feel is something physical, inexplicable. It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight.
When someone usually asks, “Have you ever experienced love at first sight?” they usually mean with a human being. But it does apply to places, experiences, food, and things as well. And for me – as it was obviously for Jhumpa Lahiri too – it was a language. I can’t really explain it, but without it, without this need, this urge, this excitement to know the language better, my life would feel a little less meaningful. I don’t need to do it, but somehow, without it, I feel incomplete. I don’t have a real need to know this language. I have only the desire. As in many passionate relationships, my infatuation will become a devotion, an obsession. There will always be something unbalanced, unrequited. I’m in love, but what I love remains indifferent. The language will never need me. And yet I move on. And yet I learn. And yet I keep looking for more reasons to immerse myself in the beauty of that new language.
While the whole practice of learning a new language seems rather Romantic, the actual act of it is full of obstacles. Learning a new language or wanting to learn a new language fills you with impatience at having to sit through months of learning before you can make sense as you speak. From personal experience, all I want to do is be able to download the language – vocabulary and semantics included – into my brain and start talking immediately.
Even if I did, however, there’s the question of fitting myself into the jigsaw that the language is part of. People. Country. Region. Reasons. And then the doubts arise. And then the questions arise. How is it possible to feel exiled from a language that isn’t mine? That I don’t know? Lahiri asks and I concur. I want to know this, too, because it’s a strange feeling, honestly. The more you strive to learn it, the more you discover exactly how much you don’t know about the language. It feels like a vast desert, where you keep walking, sighting mirage upon mirage, but nowhere close to an oasis. How will you learn a language in a desert devoid of people you can talk to? With whom you can have a dialogue?
Because in the end, to learn a language, to feel connected to it, you have to have a dialogue, however childlike, however imperfect.
This is how one can understand the mistakes one is making and will know to correct them in usage. Due to my circumstances, I am, by nature, someone who is afraid of sounding stupid. One tiny, stupid mistake and I will shrivel up. I’m getting better at learning that making mistakes is a part of the process, though, and I’m trying to be kinder to myself.
The problem is finding someone to help you out in that oasis-less desert, especially when you’re a broke bookworm and doing it for your passion.
Talking about being a bookworm, earlier this year, I went on an unintentional social media break, something I’ve spoken about in a blog post. During this time, I was so disoriented with everything and was arrogantly sure that nobody else had ever experienced what I was experiencing. Of course, Jhumpa Lahiri came along and put me in my place with these lines:
Suddenly none of my books are useful anymore. They seem like ordinary objects. The anchor of my creative life disappears, the stars that guided me recede. I see before me a new room, empty.
Reading, I feel like a guest, happy but disoriented. Reading, I no longer feel at home.
I had such a sudden sense of déjà vu as I saw myself sleeping, surrounded by books, hardly paying them any attention, eyes fixed on my phone as I tried not to think about anything other than what was playing on screen. It was debilitating, especially since books and reading were two things that my life centered around. The shift in perspective almost feels like a loss, but I know that my books are sturdier than anyone gives them any credit for.
While this debilitation pulled me into a new language, I’m gradually learning that learning a new language, as I mentioned before, isn’t all roses. It’s tough, learning a new language inside out, especially since we haven’t grown up with it. Lahiri says this exact same thing about Italian: I’m drawn to Italian and at the same time intimidated. It remains a mystery, beloved, impassive. Faced with my emotion it has no reaction. The unknown words remind me that there’s a lot I don’t know in this world. It’s proof that no matter how much we absorb, there will always be something that we miss out on. But we go after these things anyway because there’s that magnetic pull that we cannot seem to resist.
Yet, I sometimes fear that one day, my love for this new language will just end. And against all my fears, I desperately hope that that day never comes. Lahiri says, “When you’re in love, you want to live forever. You want the emotion, the excitement you feel to last. Reading in Italian arouses a similar longing in me. I don’t want to die, because my death would mean the end of my discovery of the language. Because every day there will be a new word to learn. Thus true love can represent eternity.” And with this, she puts all these feelings, these fears, these emotions into a nutshell and throws it at my face in the most loving, understanding way possible.
When you put these new words that you gather every day into a sentence, it’s a whole other world of joy altogether. It brings such a sense of accomplishment that it becomes difficult to contain. When I discover a different way to express something, Lahiri says, I feel a kind of ecstasy. Unknown words present a dizzying yet fertile abyss. An abyss containing everything that escapes me, everything possible. The other day, I wrote a full paragraph in the language I’m learning and like Lahiri, was so ecstatic about it that I couldn’t sleep until 5 in the AM. It is, indeed, dizzying.
Taking a break from all the gushing to remind you to please, please read In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, especially for its themes. If you speak multiple languages, you’ll love this. If you are looking to learn a new language, you’ll love this. If you speak just one language, you’ll see the attraction of learning a new language. I mean, you get the drift. 😀 Okay, back to the gushing!
Learning a new language is one massive lesson made up of smaller lessons. You learn the words, then the grammar, then construct sentences, and then hold conversations. But we must remember that a word is where it all starts. And that’s the metaphor, or the parallel, rather, that Lahiri brings to the fore as she asks: What does a word mean? And a life? In the end, it seems to me, the same thing. Just as a word can have many dimensions, many nuances, great complexity, so, too, can a person, a life. Language is the mirror, the principal metaphor. Because ultimately the meaning of a word, like that of a person, is boundless, ineffable. Nobody says it better than Jhumpa Lahiri!
And while our love for foreign languages is all-consuming, they can also turn into cracks in our realities. Why? Because A foreign language can signify a total separation. It can represent, even today, the ferocity of our ignorance. To write in a new language, to penetrate its heart, no technology helps. You can’t accelerate the process, you can’t abbreviate it. The pace is slow, hesitant, there are no shortcuts. The better I understand the language, the more confusing it is. The closer I get, the farther away. This is what meant when I said I wanted to download a language into my head! Jhumpa Lahiri, meanwhile, is, pulling me back to Earth, and telling me in no uncertain terms that look, there are no shortcuts. So don’t you dare!
But despite all this, I have this kind of desperation, where I want to be able to read books in this new language and have conversations. And for that, I need to know it inside out. It will take years but during this process, I have to accept the fact that, as Lahiri says, I can skirt the boundary, but the interior of the language escapes me. I don’t see the secret pathways, the concealed layers. The hidden levels. The subterranean part. But I know that a language exists in the bones, in the marrow. That the true life of the language, the substance is there. The hope, the dream is that one day, I will see this substance and I will be able to use it to the fullest. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Jhumpa Lahiri talks about the city of Venice and equates the water with English and the bridges with Italian. She tells us how she roams and roams, feeling lost and distraught, but then, she comes across a place with such a stunning view that all the searching, all the roaming and the journey feels worth it. Learning itself is a similar experience. It takes time for us to accept that all of this is part of it – and I’m not there yet – but it’s a beautiful journey, to be honest. I love this parallel where she’s talking about learning a new language and wandering a new city in the same breath. It’s a poignant way of making a point, something few writers are skilled at.
But while learning a new language is a beautiful experience, for people like me, the fear of forgetting and of making mistakes is one that’s always looming over our heads. As I mentioned before, I don’t want to sound stupid. But I’m learning to be kinder to myself and yet, these words from Lahiri showed me a mirror: I’m afraid I’ve already forgotten everything I learned. I’m afraid of being annihilated. I imagine a devouring vortex, all the words disappearing into the darkness. Because no matter the strong façade I put up, I’m terrified of this vortex too. This fear, this apprehension, of forgetting something important. Because a foreign language is a delicate, finicky muscle. If you don’t use it, it gets weak. What happens when you forget it? That’s the question, isn’t it? Be it because of distance or lack of practice or something else – it’s a world in itself.
I haven’t told many people about the language that I’m learning, about the new world that I am exploring. Because I want to keep it private, to myself. It feels too personal for me to share with the world right away, as if sharing it will cut off a limb or tear my heart out of my chest. But one person who I did tell it to, looked weirdly at me and said, “I mean… Why?” And I had to explain why while watching the incredulity multiplying in their eyes. There are a lot of reasons behind this, which I will not go into right now. But this form of fundamentalism is rather too tiring. We’re all global citizens. Why not treat other languages with kindness rather than suspicion? And Lahiri asks the same question as she says, A transformation, especially one that is deliberately sought, is often perceived as something disloyal, threatening.
However, learning a new language can be cathartic, and I say this from personal experience. I’m still at beginner level and I don’t even know if I can hold a basic conversation in it. But I’m sure that if I keep going the way Jhumpa Lahiri went at Italian, I will be able to do it.
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, with its themes and words and simple, stark, truthful sentences, showed me a mirror to my own feelings. It filled my heart, told me I am not alone, that I’m valid for choosing an unconventional language that not many will learn (I’ve since found this to be false because the Internet is filled with people wanting to learn this language), and that I never need to apologize or explain myself for wanting to learn it.
Thank you, Jhumpa Lahiri, for giving me this book, for giving me a glimpse into your life and for comforting me with your words. Thank you. ❤
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