Where is the definitive spot at which we become usefully fluent in another language? When we understand jokes and can tell them, when the televised news doesn’t disappear in unknown words? Some people believe that it’s when we dream in the new language – thus the title of Katherine Russell Rich’s Dreaming in Hindi.
Rich, author of an account about her struggle with cancer (The Red Devil), has had enough of dealing with blood draws. She seeks to fly. She seeks to become other than she is – no wonder, when her existence is under daily internal threat. With her cancer in remission in early 2001, she leaves the US for a year in India, learning Hindi.
She joins a small academic program in Rajasthan, a northwest Indian state of deserts and palaces (the palaces are popular sites for weddings), whose western border abuts Pakistan. A local family hosts her. Then another. Through no fault of her own – but plenty of misunderstandings on either side, for Rich knows little of gossipy India and how she’s expected to behave – she moves several times as she dunks herself (immerse is too strong a word) in Hindi, one of India’s two official languages (the other is English) and the governing speech of the politically adept north.
Dreaming in Hindi is full of Rich’s experience and skillfully described perceptions. They’re not all academic, for she attends cultural events, volunteers at a school for the deaf (where language is made visible), and details the ins and outs of romance among her fellow students. As she gains Hindi, she understands more what she’s been blind and deaf to: rivalry between teachers, tension in her host family, misogynism (more than once, men literally shove her in the road).
In early 2002, in the neighboring state of Gujarat (southwest of Rajasthan), violence that was later proven to be government-fomented killed thousands of Muslims. Rich relates from her own safe but troubled town the degree to which religion-based biases are acted out, while trying, as a self-exiled New Yorker, to understand what 9/11 did to Manhattan.
I have a tiny bit of Hindi myself, as well as more knowledge of other languages, so the second focus of Dreaming in Hindi, Rich’s exploration of past and current research on second-language learning, excited me. What’s the best and quickest way to learn a language? How does the brain process new words and structure? Does learning a new language change the way we see the world? Does it change who we are?
They’re academic arguments, but Rich weaves them into her tale so easily they’re like bright red threads in the fabric of blue, like notes of sparkle. You can ignore them entirely and still enjoy her story, but they’ll enrich your understanding of the many adjustments the brain makes in taking on another way of speaking.
If you’re a language person, or grew up bilingual, this is an affirming book. If you’re still as monolingual as many Americans, Dreaming in Hindi will help you understand the importance of challenging yourself to speak in someone else’s tongue.