In 2015, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri wrote her first book in Italian, a language she fell in love with as an adult. In Other Words highlights Lahiri’s linguistic journey, and the experience of learning to express herself in a new language.
Lahiri posits that learning a language is like cultivating a relationship. It requires not only perseverance and immersion, but love. If you’re trying to learn another language, or have ever tried, below are a few benefits of language learning, based on Lahiri’s experience.
Permission to be imperfect
Lahiri opens In Other Words with a compelling image of the language immersion process: swimming across a lake and leaving one shore for the other.
“To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore. Without a life vest. Without depending on solid ground,” Lahiri says.
Lahiri so desired this complete immersion that she made the decision to move her family to Rome. In preparation for this move, she stopped reading in English, and only read and wrote in Italian. While in the United States it was a struggle to find interlocutors beyond her Italian teachers, immersion in Italian language and culture offered Lahiri the space to communicate daily in the language she imperfectly knew, but desired to know better. She recognized her need to keep the conversation going, and accepting of the imperfection of her Italian helped her to keep speaking: “Because in the end to learn a language, to feel connected to it, you have to have a dialogue, however childlike, however imperfect,” she says.
And almost paradoxically, it is the mystery beneath the new language that has spurred her language learning. She notices she interacts with Italian in a different way than she does with English. “I can skirt the boundary of Italian, but the interior of the language escapes me.”
Because Italian is the first language she’s freely chosen to learn (Bengali and English were inherited from her parents and the wider culture in which she grew up, respectively), Lahiri finds she’s developed a relationship with Italian that allows for mistakes. “Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity. It stimulates. The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive,” she writes.
The newness also transforms the way she reads: “When I read in Italian, I’m a more active reader, more involved, even if less skilled. I like the effort. I prefer the limitations. I know that in some way my ignorance is useful to me.”
“Reading in another language implies a perpetual state of growth, of possibility,” she notes. “I know that, since I’m an apprentice, my work will never end.”
New vistas of creativity
This acceptance of inexperience, of the fact that you’ll always be making one mistake or another, makes language learning a much more dynamic process. It’s not as if you start at the base of a mountain (no knowledge of the language) and someday reach the pinnacle of perfection (the ability to speak the language as well as a native speaker). Instead, Lahiri imagines the process of expressing oneself in another language more like entering a cocoon as a caterpillar and emerging as a butterfly—someone different. As her friend and fellow writer Domenico Starnone told her, “A new language is almost a new life, grammar and syntax recast you, you slip into another logic and sensibility.”
For a writer of international acclaim to even temporarily renounce the language in which she first received that acclaim is no small step. As Lahiri notes, it can even be a bit intimidating: “The anchor of my creative life disappears, the stars that guided me recede. I see before me a new room, empty.”
But this empty room holds promise for the furthering of Lahiri’s creativity. It opens paths for her writing voice that she could not have traversed in English.
In the afterword of In Other Words, she says:
In learning Italian, I learned, again, to write. I had to adopt a different approach.” This approach is characterized by Lahiri as “moving toward abstraction. The places are undefined, the characters so far are nameless, without a particular cultural identity. The result, I think, is writing that is freed in certain ways from the concrete world.
This difference in approach manifests itself in Lahiri’s latest book, Whereabouts, her first self-translation of her work from Italian into English. Instead of following named characters of Indian or Indian-American origins through the narrative arc of a story, as many of her previous books have done, Whereabouts is episodic, following the life of an unnamed narrator in an unnamed Italian city. And yet, new vistas are clear. In Italian, she’s felt freer to be more autobiographical in her writing. In an April 2021 New York Times article, Lahiri notes that the Italian language has also led her to write poetry—a genre she could never have imagined exploring in the English language.
The need for others
The benefits of language-learning are myriad, including improving brain function like memory and cognitive flexibility and giving us “different [linguistic] frames” by which to understand the world in the light of another language and culture.
But perhaps one of the most important things Lahiri’s linguistic autobiography has revealed to me is that language learning is not accomplished alone. As she says of trying to learn the language mostly on her own in the United States, “I don’t like the silence, the isolation of the self-teaching process. It seems detached, wrong. As if I were studying a musical instrument without ever playing it.” Lahiri depicts those who helped her speak and write in Italian as her scaffolding, “a group of dear friends who guided and girded me, to whom I connect one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.”
The fact that In Other Words was translated into English by a translator other than Lahiri speaks to this vulnerability Lahiri felt at this stage in her language-learning journey. Of translating her work from Italian to English, Lahiri notes, “I am incapable of moving like an acrobat between the languages.” She describes it as an “unpleasant sensation of having to be two different people at the same time.” In Other Words was published as a bilingual edition with the Italian on the left and English on the right, signifying the presence of both languages in her life, while also showcasing the work of another person in helping Lahiri translate herself.
The publication of Whereabouts in April 2021 marks a new moment in Lahiri’s linguistic journey—a confidence in her own translation abilities. I wonder if translating the work of other Italian writers into English helped Lahiri feel greater ease in translating her own. The work of translation is intimate, Lahiri remarks, “a wonderful, dynamic encounter between two languages, two texts, two writers.” Though writing typically requires solitude, translation and the process of learning another language necessitates others. For without good teachers and friends, we will never leave our familiar linguistic shore for another.
What Lahiri discovers through In Other Words is not only other ways of expressing herself, but parts of herself that she’s never known before. Her journey is an invitation to see language learning in another light—as exciting as falling in love, as harrowing as metamorphosis. It’s an experience of stumbling and of being held up by others all at once. Ultimately, it is an adventure with no map to chart the terrain; and in that unknown territory exists new horizons of discovery.