In Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2015 book “In Other Words,” the author describes her desire to swim across a lake. “I’m aware that the lake is very deep in the middle, and even though I know how to swim I’m afraid of being alone in the water, without any support.” For a while, she hugs the shoreline. “It’s good exercise, but not very exciting.” Then one morning, Lahiri finds the courage to swim. “After a crossing, the known shore becomes the opposite side: here becomes there.”
Lahiri isn’t really swimming; she’s writing about learning Italian and eventually finding herself in Rome after her love for the language leads her to move there, the middle of the lake. Without English as a crutch, Lahiri is forced to learn Italian through trial and error. She can no longer rely on the comfort of the known shore; she has to swim through the imperfect.
Even though it is scary, swimming feels good. Lahiri, who is the daughter of immigrants, writes that in America she never felt rooted, nor was she able to speak her parents’ native language perfectly. Italian is totally foreign; it escapes that dissonant feeling of inadequacy.
“Language is a place of struggle,” as bell hooks writes, where shame might lead to isolation if you cannot speak the language of your elders or connect with your learning community. For many writers in this magazine, learning, teaching, or forgetting a language raises profound questions about their identity and place in the world. But attempting to communicate in an unknown language can also be a source of healing if we trust ourselves to speak despite our fear of being wrong.
“In Italian, I’m always uncertain,” Lahiri writes. “My sole intention is to be understood, and to understand myself.”
Healing: Finding My Voice After Losing My Native Language
Policy and Politics: Reading to Live: Dyslexia and Racial Disparities in Minnesota
Education: Ojibwe Language Learning
Bookshelf: Sisterhood, Not Cisterhood
Education: Decolonizing Language
Money & Biz: Cooperative Economic Justice
Thoughts: How I Will Save My Tongue
Pets: Language Beyond Words