Reflections on Language from In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri



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In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri recounts a novel experiment in language learning. Driven by her long-standing passion for the Italian language, the bilingual Bengali-English speaking author moves to Rome with her family and completely immerses herself in the language: she reads and writes only in Italian for three years. The book In Other Words is the pinnacle of her immersion experiment.  It was written by her entirely in Italian then later translated into English by another translator.  In it, she describes the arduous task of discovering her voice as an Italian writer; a task she compares to climbing a mountain while poorly equipped.

Of course, I had to read this book! And when I did, I discovered some poignant observations about language learning, writing and reading in a new language, as well as some tips for getting a grasp on the tricky parts of Italian grammar.

Here are some of my favorite quotes and the lessons I took away from them.

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A foreign language is a delicate, finicky muscle. If you don’t use it, it gets weak.

Well said.  Like physical exercise, consistency in language learning is key. We all lead busy lives, but it is absolutely essential that you “exercise” your new language several times a week. To go longer without contact is like sitting on the sofa instead of going for a jog for several days in a row. You’ll feel it when you get back out there!

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Lahiri comes to terms with being imperfect in her new language. In fact, she thrives on it.

What does [imperfection] offer me? I would say a stunning clarity, a more profound self-awareness. Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity. It stimulates. The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive.

Lahiri also quotes the words of writer Agota Kristóf, a Hungarian writer, who wrote in French, as saying that even after thirty years of speaking the language, she still had to use a dictionary to write. Like Lahiri, I found it comforting to hear that such a revered writer had said this.  Learning a language is truly a life-long pursuit.

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I don’t recognize the person who is writing in this diary, in this new, approximate language. But I know that it’s the most genuine, most vulnerable part of me.

Have you had the experience of writing in a new language and feeling that you express yourself more freely? It’s as if the new language takes away a filter and makes you express your thoughts more genuinely. Keeping a journal in your new language is not only a linguistic exercise, but it’s also an exercise in expanding your ways of thinking.

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And of course, like writing, reading in your new language – from street signs to novels – is an invaluable exercise.

Lahiri writes that she has trouble knowing when to use or not use the articles in Italian. For instance, she says parliamo del cinema (we’re talking about the movie) instead of di cinema (about movies).

…but reading Elio Vittorini I learn that you say queste sono fandonie (those are lies). Thanks to an advertising poster on the street, I learn that il piacere non ha limiti (pleasure has no limits).

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Last, but not least, Lahiri had some wise words for students of Italian.  She too has problems with the dreaded imperfect / simple past in Italian, e.g. era (it was) and è stato (it has been). Her teacher shares with her a trick for distinguishing the two:

To help, my teacher provides some images: the background with respect to the main action. The frame with respect to the picture. A curving line rather than a straight one. A situation rather than a fact.

But in the end, alas, she finds no rule is perfect (pun intended).

it depends on the context, on the intention.

You can hear Lahiri reflect more on this experience and hear snippets of her reading in Italian for the audiobook in the Penguin Random House Audio Studio in the video below.