Thursday, August 06, 2009

Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language by Katherine Russell Rich


  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Pub. Date: July 2009
  • 384pp





When Katherine Russell Rich lost her job with a Newyork-based magazine, she didn't do the usual rounds of employment agencies, nor did she sent out a barrage of resumes to other newspapers, instead, she travelled to India to learn Hindi!!!

She enrolled herself in an Hindi immersion course in the palace city of Udaipur where the school arranged for her (and the other students taking this course) to live with Hindi-speaking families so that they listen to and have a chance to speak Hindi everyday.

This book then, is not only a memoir and/or a travelogue but a wonderful and exciting exposition of how our minds change when we learn a new language and how we come out of the experience completely transformed!

I've always been curious about what a new language might do for me. After all,learning a new language isn't simply about learning a whole new bunch of words...it's about being able to use those new words to appeal to the cultural sensitivity of the people whose language you are learning and thus, you are actually learning to both think and feel like someone else from a different culture. How cool is that!!!

The possibility that learning a new language could change the core of one's identity, one's beliefs, the way one thinks about friends, family, surroundings and even the way one thinks about time, is just dazzling to me! For instance, according to a Newsweek article, the gender of nouns can have an effect on how people think about things in the world... take the noun "bridge" for instance. In German, the word for bridge, Brücke, is feminine. In French, pont is masculine. So when in experiements German speakers were asked to describe a bridge, they saw prototypically female features; French speakers, masculine ones. Similarly, Germans describe keys (Schlüssel) with words such as hard, heavy, jagged, and metal, while to Spaniards keys (llaves) are golden, intricate, little, and lovely. Guess which language construes key as masculine and which as feminine? :)

And then, there's the question of how people whose language you are trying to learn actually feel about you speaking in their tongue? Most are chuffed that you are making the effort, but Russel Rich felt that some Indians resented her for doing that. She says, “I think to Indians, sometimes it feels like I’m eavesdropping on a private conversation, like I’m breaking the fourth wall.”

Also, and this happens in India particular, speaking in English is the privilege of the classes and a status thing...address someone like that in Hindi and you might get a dressing down!

As Rich's language skills improve, she also uncovers darker truths about friends, neighbors and the country in which she lives. She happened to be in India the year Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in the nearby state of Gujarat. Rich is startled to discover the mistrust and fear her Hindu friends feel for their Muslim compatriots. Then, when she tells her rickshaw driver shukriya or “thank you,” he gets annoyed at her. Shukriya is a word with Urdu or Muslim origins. The “pure” Hindi word, he tells her, is dhanyavaad. I don't think any dictionary will tell you the difference between the two "thank you's", these are things you pick up only when you live with a language and its people.

I am grateful to Rich for turning herself into a guinea pig in order to study the effect of language on the mind even if her writing at times appears to be rather scattered and in random order...this is a book I think every body interested in words or language will enjoy and I daresay will seriously make you consider learning a new language!

30 comments:

Stefania said...

This book sounds so interesting, I doubt that I could find it in bookstores over here, but I'll def try to buy it on-line.
I have a degree in Foreign Languages but I've never ventured into a language profoundly different from mine (Italian), even though I was thinking of studying either Hindi or Arabic, before I chickened out and chose English and French...
The title of the book makes me understand that the author is really fond of languages, because I think that dreaming in another language is the moment when you feel that you are slightly changing, that there is another side of you now. I loved the part when you explain the perception of a word in relation to the gender (I really can't cope with the fact that the moon is masculine in German!). Unfortunately English doesn't have genders for nouns (but Italian has)!
Do you think that a person who doesn't speak Hindi can read and understand the book?

Nanditha Prabhu said...

This book sounds very interesting. I have also always been fascinated by languages and tried to pick up languages of places I stayed ... ore due to necessity ....yes, language itself changes your personality , the way people look at you and you look at your self. Rich , seems to be a very brave lady for venturing and learning and even dreaming in a new language.Just the variations in the language use tells us the diversity you find in the mind set and attitudes in different parts of India itself. Yes , India is many countries weaved into one.
I will surely pick up this book.

Sanjay said...

Thank you Lotus for sharing with us, yet another wonderful review. The topic is interesting in itself, as to the need that one has to learn a new language. It is in a way going out of your comfort zone. Especially for a language and culture so different as Rich chose.
Since you allude to the possibility of learning a new language changing the core of one's identity, I must ask. Did Rich talk about it?
Is one's identity truly so malleable that learning a language would change it? Isn't one's identity a sum of many, often complicated things, language being just one? I do think that identity would not change unless one immersed oneself in the cultures, place and people that speak the language. But I could be wrong.
I found the Newsweek piece most fascinating. How interesting!
Does she share more examples of the things she overheard in Hindi? Because a natural assumption would have been that she would not understand or speak the language.
I think the video interview on youTube does share some of those, but they were more like responses from folks here in the US.
Does she talk about her dreams in Hindi? How were they different? Does she talk about interpreting them?
Sorry I asked so many Qs. Enjoyed your review as always and learned so much from it! Thanks.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Stefania!

Wow, what a cool degree to have! I would have loved to have done something similar but I am not sure I have a flair for languages! I have studied French but I had to put a lot of effort into it! Yes, I think this book is accessible to everyone. She discusses Hindi words a lot, but always provides an English translation.

Since you are a lover of language, have you come across the book "In Other Words" by Christopher J. Moore? He compiles a wonderful list of very intriguing words from around the world that don't always have an English equivalent. Every now and then I pick up the book to re-read and it entertains every single time!

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Nanditha!

This book has got me so fascinated with languages! I'd love to know how people who are multi-lingual (like yourself) perceive things as compared with monolinguals or even bilinguals (like myself). Guess that's a whole different book huh? :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Sanj!

Thank you for your comment and great questions!

Throughout the book Rich makes little revelations of how learning Hindi was changing her linguistically and culturally. One example I remember was how, when she returned to America, she kept referring to herself in the first person plural which is what we tend to do in Hindi (hum). It was a stunning revelation to her of how much she had changed because, Americans tend to be very individualistic but here she was starting to feel part and parcel of a larger group (In India, as you know, one is always a part of something bigger...like your family or your caste). Ofcourse things are changing so rapidly so I am not sure how relevant this point is anymore.

I wish I could think of more examples...

True that identity is the sum of many factors, but because language changes the way we think (it bends the mind) I am assuming it is a big player.

No, she doesn't really discuss her dreams...she just rejoiced when she had her first dream in Hindi because she knew then than she had crossed over so to speak!

The book has its flaws.....her writing is often scattered and she makes quite a few judgments on the Indian people as a whole even though she only visited Udaipur, but overlook that and it's quite an entertainer of a book.

kanmuri said...

That book looks really interesting. I'll try to find it online.
I agree that learning a new language can change how you view the world. Learning Japanese changed many small things in me and I think I probably see the world a little but differently now. Spanish and English did the same, too.

Marilyn said...

Glad you are back from your vacation to provide us with another stunning review. I can relate to dreaming in another language...seeing another culture with Western eyes...and ponder the differences as if I am making another discovery about the nature of what it means to be human.

It is difficult to find works like this in English in South Korea...

Kindest regards,

Marilyn

bint battuta said...

You should read this...

http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/archives/005833.html

Lotus Reads said...

@Kanmuri ~ The author mentions in her book that even the shape of her face changed as she got proficient in Hindi. This is how she explained it: "Most language sound systems have one central vowel. In English it's the "schwa" sound. 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"

Fascinating huh?

Lotus Reads said...

@Marilyn and Kanmuri ~ I have to ask you this: As you got more proficient in Korean or Japanese, did you find that you were no longer speaking the same English as you were earlier? Does a second language revise the DNA of the first language?

Lotus Reads said...

@bint battuta ~ On my way to Sepia Munity now..tks!

Stefania said...

No, I've never heard of "In Other Words": this thing of books about learning languages is completely new to me...

Shaista said...

Thankyou so much for this review - I live in Cambridge, England, do you think it might be published and available here? I was born in India to a Muslim father and a Parsi mother, but have always spoken English at home and at school. Languages come very easily to me, but nothing is familiar in the way that English is. Thankyou again for the review.

Id it is said...

Will definitely like to read this one!
I guess one's choice in semantics determines the response one gets in a social setting and that explains why we teach standard forms of language in schools as opposed to what goes on the streets and is often mistermed as colloquial :)

I was received very strangely when I first came to the US because of my accent which i was told was 'very difficult' to follow if one were not concentrating. However, I noticed that despite the difficulty, people still wanted to get to know me. This made me wonder until my brother, who had moved to the US some five years before me, explained how a British accent was perceived as 'elite' and gave you an unspoken advantage especially in an academic setting! Which made me wonder whether an 'American' accent would afford the same privilege in say London...

Lotus, sorry for the long comment but your post got me going :)

Aarti said...

I have heard about this book and considered doing it for Amazon Vine, but decided to go for Kate Grenville's new book instead. Maybe I should go back for this one! It sounds fascinating, and I have a trip to India coming up soon.

This is a really thoughtful review. I always think of language as a very complex barrier, and it sounds like Rich describes this well.

Zibilee said...

Awesome review! I think the study of alternate dialects is very interesting, and I have often thought about learning another language. I find it really interesting that she talks about how the words are masculine or feminine, and how people in India react to her when she is speaking their language. I am going to put this book on my list, and I will let you know what I think of it after I am done. Thanks!

Robin said...

What a fascinating sounding book! I experienced very similar experiences when I was an exchange student many years ago to Argentina and learned the language by immersion. The turning point for me with the language, and with the culture, was when I started dreaming in Spanish. I must read this book! Thanks for your wonderful review.

Lotus Reads said...

@Shiasta ~ You're so lucky to have a flair for languages. Wish I possessed that. I'm fairly certain this book would be available in the UK, or you can just order it from Amazon of Book Depository.

@Id ~ How interesting but not altogether surprising! I, too, have heard that the British accent is much sought after. Apparently companies in Canada prefer to employ British people to answer their phones as it brings the company more prestige...go figure!

Lotus Reads said...

@Aarti ~ Congratulations on your upcoming trip to India! Funnily enough, I don't think this book was well received in India. Some people thought she was too quick to lump all of India into one big bowl. But I think she can be forgiven...to me, it doesn't matter if she got India right or wrong, what matters is her contagious delight in learning a new language and embracing its identity. She's made me want to completely immerse myself in a new language and to that end I think she achieved what she has (inadvertently?) set out to do.

@Zibilee ~ Would LOVE to know what you think after you read the book. As you know, I value your insights very much.

@Robin ~ Ahh, so you will very likely relate to what the author goes through as she immerses herself in Hindi. What a great experience to have. Did you chronicle your learning experience at all?

iselldreams said...

Ah...it seems she realized one of my dreams....going to India and learning a perfect Hindi :D
Kya karu?! i have to manage with Movies and online sources for now...It seems quite an interesting book, i am gona check the bookstore this weekend whether it is available or not..i would love to have a closer look...Nice review :)

Michelle said...

Hi there

This is such a great review! Myself having a keen interest in languages, I think I would seriously love to indulge in a book like this one you've just reviewed, and "In Other Words", the book you suggested in one of your earlier comments.

It is interesting to study languages, and the extent to which the learning of the language itself can change one's perspective of so many different things. And language is very often the window through which it's corresponding culture is revealed.

I'll definitely be putting this book on my list of books to find in the library!

Robin said...

Lotus, in answer to your question as to whether I chronicled by learning experience in Argentina...I was 17 when I spent that year there, and I didn't keep a diary or journal. However, my dear father kept all my letters home. It's incredible to read back through them and revisit the young girl I was and the incredible experience I was going through at that time. I'm afraid many of the letters from the first three months were filled with homesickness, culture shock, and immaturity. However, my growth into a citizen of the world (rather than just a citizen of one country) is very apparent in those letters. It was a life-changing experience for me.

Lotus Reads said...

@Chhoti, thank you! I thought so much of you as I read the book! YOu really need to visit India and spend some time there, you will pick up the language simply by osmosis and I should do the same with regard to Turkish! :) Having said that however, have you heard of the Rosetta Stone series of language immersion via CD's and tapes? They are supposed to be fantastic. A little on the expensive side but the next best thing to living in the country whose language you wish to learn.

Lotus Reads said...

@Michelle ~ I, too, am a lover of words and languages. I just have to warn you of something though..some reviewers have said that the author's revelations of how language affects the brain are a little too long, academic and interrupt the story. Because my mind tends to have a scientific bent, I thought it was the other way around...the story interrupted her notes which I was completely fascinated with. When you read the book you can decide who was right :)

Lotus Reads said...

Wow, Robin, what an incredible experience to have! I hope one or both of my daughters decide to do something like this....like you say, it is a life-changing experience and it is also such an education...something no book can teach you.

iselldreams said...

You are so right and i would love to spend so much time in India for sure...lekin kya karu...my conditions (especially my job) doesnt let me to realize this dream of mine for now...Lets hope for the best...And whenever you want, you are very welcome to Turkey...ummm about Rosetta Stone series..unfortunately i haven't heard about that..but will check it...u know i m always curious :P
Khair, apna khayal rakhna :D

Ted said...

Great review. You have made me curious to read the book, for obvious reasons.

paddy said...

I have had experiences like that when I attempted to learn marathi when I just moved to Bombay (oops! Mumbai). I was even laughed at. I think I would love to read this one and more importantly relate to it!

Cheers
Paddy

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