The exquisite joy of being understood

Inspired by Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest — In Other Words

Some authors inspire you to think, some inspire you to write, some inspire you to observe, some inspire you to reminisce. Lahiri does all of those to me.

I was seven when we moved to Hyderabad. I started school at one of the many convents in the city and we were given the option to pick a second language, besides Hindi. Our options were Telugu, Urdu and Sanskrit. Learning a new language was my dad’s idea. So we picked Urdu, more practical than Sanskrit. Telugu was never even considered, since I speak it at home.

I remember being petrified about stepping into my Urdu language classroom my first day. My dad came to school to give my Urdu teacher some context. My first day in class was a harrowing experience. All the kids knew how to spell words and form sentences, while I was stuck learning the alphabet, at the ripe age of seven. I made a 40/100 on my first test. I failed. I remember telling my teacher that I knew the answers but didn’t know how to write them in Urdu (since Urdu was phonetically similar to Hindi, a language I was more familiar with). It was always harder to write than to read and understand. My teacher suggested I write my answers in Hindi when I didn’t know how to write the Urdu words. As the year progressed, I wrote more Urdu and less Hindi in my tests. I had the second highest marks in my final exam. My dad was so happy with the encouragement from my Urdu teacher and the progress I made in class, that he bought my teacher a gift at the end of the school year.

The following years in Urdu class were quite enjoyable. There was a greater sense of accomplishment and triumph when I fared well in that class. I went home to parents who didn’t know the language and couldn’t help me with my Urdu homeworks. It was my personal journey and every answer I penned was the result of an intimate conversation with my Urdu dictionary. A dictionary that is still with me today. My Urdu is still quite rudimentary, but I can still read the script after 15 years, so I consider that a successful journey.

That’s where my affinity for learning a language was born.

If you have ever fallen in love with a language, it’s people, it’s literature, it’s land, as I have with German and Germany back in 2006, when I took my first German class, then you will enjoy Lahiri’s In Other words. I have been fortunate to keep in close touch with German and Germany due to Prabhav’s residence there, and so I face the frustration of my inadequacy quiet often.

To someone who has not fallen in love with a language before, it might look like Lahiri romanticizes her frustration with picking up a language in it’s entirety. Imagine loving someone deeply but not being able to communicate with them; Lahiri attempts to put that angst into words in her book. While she describes her journey of flirting with and learning Italian, I draw parallels with my own experiences with German and Urdu. So I can’t help but empathize strongly. I am going to adopt her idea of maintaining a journal in German. I am sure it will contain many interesting anecdotes.

A couple of years ago, I was on vacation in Germany, but I found myself cooped up in the apartment. My two years of college German wasn’t getting me any where. When I decided to brave the outside world, attempt to reclaim my freedom and immerse myself in this little German town, I was quite nervous. I was an adult walking around with the conversational skills of a child. Even asking the bus driver for a ticket to a destination of my choice turned out to be a humiliating experience. I told myself he was one grumpy old man. I had to trudge along. I couldn’t let small losses take over.

I reminded myself that learning a new language requires a lot of shamelessness, and some bravery. It also requires me to stop reaching for perfection.

One morning, I went to the city public transportation office to get a weekly bus/tram pass. The lady at the counter didn’t know English, so I had to put my German to use again. I practiced all the sentences I would need, to ask for a weekly pass. In return, she kept questioning me, “erwachsene?” (adult?). I didn’t understand her, this was a foreign word at the time, so I kept insisting I was a “touristin” (tourist). The vexation was apparent on her face, she probably mumbled “of course you are”, and finally gave me the ticket. When I recollected this mortifying experience, I was actually quite happy. Her inability to tell if I was an adult, was actually a compliment. Small wins.

I had to keep trying. I told Prabhav I would make our next restaurant table reservation. I wrote down all the sentences I would need and successfully made a reservation over the phone. I jumped with joy, but that joy was mine alone.

Every recipe that I wanted to execute turned into a project. I had to find translations for the ingredients and the German equivalents of the American counterparts. I was experiencing the true immigrant life.

The most painful of foreign experiences is getting excited about a cute little bookstore across the street, stepping in, not understanding anything substantial in any of the books and walking out without a single book. I couldn’t deal with this helplessness for very long, so I resorted to browsing in the children’s books sections of bigger brand stores. I am the happiest when I go to a café and find a few children’s books along with the glossy German magazines. I have always had a soft corner for children’s books, now there is a new found love.

Over time, I have realized that learning a new language as an adult forces you to be a child all over again. There is so much beauty in that childlike curiosity and perspective. So now, I surrender, to enjoy this ride, where I lack all control and authority. I will continue to fumble and correct myself, over and over again, till I am understood.

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