Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Monday, September 9, 2013

Learning a Second Language: Dreaming in Hindi

"To learn a second language, you must be willing to give your self up, the self encoded in your first one.  You are no longer a person who speaks with facility and authority.  You are less than you were as a child:  You cannot transact a phone call without help, discuss matters more complex than the color of fruits and vegetables.  You cannot signal who you are."

Dreaming in Hindi:  Life in Translation
Katherine Russell Rich

I picked up Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich when I was still in Seattle.  I had my doubts about it - the reviews of the book on Goodreads were very negative - but the subject matter interested me.  Here is woman, a New Yorkaise, with Stage IV breast cancer who throws up her career and goes to India for a year to learn to speak Hindi.

Why?  I don't know and I suspect that Rich didn't know either.  She had just gone through 10 years of treatment.  I went through one year and between the chemo and the radiation there were days when all I could do was take it one day at a time and desperately hope I still had a functional mind when it was over.

Her response to that period between treatments was to take a Hindi lesson and she found something in that exercise that may sound flippant but makes perfect sense to me:  "I no longer had the language to describe my own life.  So I decided I'd borrow someone else's."

Dreaming in Hindi is the story of the year Rich spent in India trying to master Hindi  - a year out of time, place and self.  From one culture and language to another on the other side of the planet.  It was meant to be, she said, a story about "the near-mystical and transformative powers of language:  the way that words, with only the tensile strength of breath, can tug you out of one world and land you in the center of another."  In the end it became something else: a powerful book about identity and its destruction and reconstruction through language.

It's a path I'm familiar with.  I started my own immersion here in France 20+ years ago and it's a journey with no end in sight.  Learning a language and a culture is a process that lasts a lifetime and there is never a moment when I'm not learning something new about this place I call home and the beautiful language which still has dark spaces for me.  After 25 years I still stumble when I'm tired, my pronunciation degrades under strong emotion and stress, and every so often someone points out a misuse of the subjunctive and I feel angry because I wish someone had mentioned it earlier - like 20 years ago, maybe?
"There is still the daily schism to contend with, of having the mind of a woman who's worked to have one and a voice that's the Indian equivalent of a U.S. sitcom character named Babu."
Rich's journey toward competence (not fluency) in Hindi will be very familiar to second language learners everywhere.  From the difficult, humbling and tentative efforts to express anything in the other language to that worst of both worlds where the new language hasn't settled and the old one starts to degrade:
"Hindi pollutes my English and vice versa.  I construct clunky Hindi sentences using English syntax;  total groaners, all wrong.  The courtly politeness of Hindi filters into my English, 'by your kindness," "I am obliged to your honor.' It leeches my American personality, makes me feel I've gone pale.  I never realized before the extent to which we reside in language.  We are how we speak."
And then there is the agony and humiliation of failure:
"'You have arrived when?' he asked. 'You are still speaking like this?  You should be ashamed.  Your school should be ashamed.'"
But what an incredible sense of accomplishment when things began to click:
"At school, I'm still dead last, too self-conscious to push myself in front of the others, but outside, I ski Hindi, have long, gleeful conversations in shops (gleeful for me, long for my interlocutors).  I kick off and really fly sometimes. 'Your Hindi is very good,' rickshaw walas say, by which they mean it's intelligible.  I talk until I drop."
The more language competence one has, the more one becomes aware of this world within the world that was inaccessible before.  Yes, we can read all we like about other cultures and how things work elsewhere but we don't, I contend, really see it until we can access it on its own terms.  Our first language/culture are an impediment to understanding, not just participating, because the certainty that comes with our mother tongue, and our efforts to translate that experience though our original language, are an exercise in defiance - a refusal to be changed.  We all want firm ground under our feet and yet, as long as we refuse to let go of what we were, we cling to all that cultural baggage,  not because we love it so much, but because we are too afraid to cast ourselves into the darkness, throw ourselves over the ledge, step on what looks like quicksand, and wholly embrace something that is both seductive and terrifying.
To acquire a language, I flog myself, you have to give up your accumulated assurances - this is how you say things, this is how it's done.  Pretty soon, I give up my American pretenses that things should be any way at all.
What's fascinating about Rich's book is that she analyzed what was happening to her over the course of the year.  She observed, for example, that her face was different after a few months.  Plausible reasons for this are changes in the environment like diet (I dropped 10 pounds within a few months of arriving in France) but it's possible that language is a factor, too.  She quotes A.L. Becker:
"'Most language systems have one central vowel.  It's the schwa in English.  In French, it's Uu.  It's that central place that shapes your face at rest.  When you're speaking, it's the recurrent place.  If it's far back, it changes your cheeks, changes the way your mouth looks."
If Rich had simply written about her experience with language, the book would be a satisfying meal.  It becomes a feast when she went beyond that to talk about culture (something she had to learn at the same time she was leaning the language) and how her relationship to her home country changed.  Rich was from New York and was in India during 911.  Here she was thousands of miles away while her city was burning surrounded by people whose interpretation of events was very different.  They ran the "facts" through their own prism of experience and had their own ideas about what it all meant :
"Swami-ji announced the latest international development, usually a dastardly act by Pakistan. 'Pakistan is going with Bin Laden,' he informed us when we returned to the bus for the next leg.  By the end of the day, China was rolling toward the border, Israel had bombed Afghanistan, and I'd figured out Swami-ji's news source:  the bus driver, who was getting his facts from other drivers when we stopped.. 'India is on red alert,' he announced as the bus pulled out of the Garden of the Maidens. 'Within twenty-four hours, America will bomb Pakistan.'  The teacher all shook their heads gravely."
It sounds surreal and yet this is what happens.  However we imagine that the global media and government propaganda agencies work, the reality is that people don't necessarily take what they have to say for the gospel truth, or may even be convinced that reporters are outright lying on behalf of this or that interest (something that is certainly true in some cases).  If a person is outside of their home country when some seminal event occurs in the homeland, the host country and culture interpretation is very powerful and, to some extent, as a resident one cannot help but be influenced by it.  This is normal since one is not directly part of the national conversation and one's sources of information (local news, local gossip) are very different.  I am often surprised when I talk to Americans in the homeland about 911 to see just how far apart we are.  We didn't experience the event in the same way and while they were having an internal conversation about it, I was right smack in the middle of another amongst people who had a very different point of view.

This can lead to a disconnect between the homeland and its diaspora which might actually be useful if those outside perspectives were welcome.  My experience (and yours might be very different) is that the homeland is not feeling secure enough yet to have that kind of conversation.  I'd give it another 10 years.

Rich was gone for one year.  I've been gone for nearly 20 now.  And yet, I think we both ended up in the same place, at different times:
At night, I lie in bed and worry that we've become a little like the Raj, the other students and I:  dumb to the ways the homeland's been altered, loyal to old notions, too floridly assured now, out of sync and out of time.  In the right here and now, we're citizens of the America we left at the beginning of September, a country still blessed by sheltering geography, a country that's impregnable and will always stay fortified.
For all these reasons and many more,  I recommend this book to you.  There are two editions and be sure to get the version published in 2011.  It was the 2010 edition that got so many bad reviews and with cause - it was very poorly edited.

Katherine Russell Rich died of breast cancer in 2012.

4 comments:

Blaze said...

Brave woman. What an adventure for her.

I think I see a movie coming. Or, is that a terribly American expectation?

Victoria FERAUGE said...

She was very brave, Blase, and she was a damn fine writer. If you look around the Net there are quite a few interviews and comments about her life.

She is now on my list of people I plan to look up when I pass on. I have so many questions to ask her.

Blaze said...

@Victoria: I hope you won't be passing on for a very long time. So, it may be a while before you are looking her up. When you do, what an amazing conversation you will have--in English, French, Japanese and Hindi. Wow.

In the meantime, we need you here!

Julia Gandrud (aka JuliaLikesFrogs) said...

Good for her. And wonderful for us that she wrote about it. Thank you for bringing her work to our attention.