- Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- Pub. Date: July 2009
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!