Rating: 4 out of 5
Reviewed by Laura Crawford
Laura Crawford studied language and linguistics before becoming an in-house editor for Lonely Planet.
Katherine Russell Rich, author of Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language, certainly doesn’t do things by halves. After losing her magazine job in New York, she reflects on a life that ‘no longer made any sense’, and takes up Hindi lessons. From there, she jumps into a full-blown language program that sees her spend a year in Udaipur, Rajasthan.
Cue a tale about how she learnt the true meaning of god/got her groove back during an affair with a yoga instructor?
Well, no, actually. The central theme of the narrative is the learning of Hindi, and her life in Udaipur revolves around this earnest, sometimes painful pursuit. Outside the classroom, the author’s networking skills and energy are impressive – she’s socialising at functions and dinner parties, meeting with notable poets, and even volunteers at a school for deaf children. She’s fascinated by the nuts and bolts of the language-learning process, using her journalistic skill to observe and analyse her own progress: coming to terms with being an intelligent adult having to bumble around like a child with, as she puts it, ‘a voice that’s the Indian equivalent of a US sitcom character named Babu’; rejoicing in the breakthroughs of even the simplest of conversations.
Her experience raises many questions about how people acquire language, and what goes on in the brain as we do. Again, Rich dives in. She interviews and studies the research of prominent neurolinguists, psychologists and language specialists. The narrative is a personal memoir with all the dramas, challenges, humour and encounters with locals you would expect, but interspersed throughout are regular linguistic asides – a kind of taster course in the broad field of second language acquisition.
When not discussing the science, Rich’s conversational style is occasionally disorienting, leaving the reader to quickly fill gaps when dropped threads are picked up again. Some of the people in her life in Udaipur are less intriguing than others (her classmate’s confusing personal life involving a maharana gets a bit wearisome). But, in all, this is an engaging and satisfying read. Her experience is an interesting exploration of how, more than just mimicking sounds and memorising grammatical rules, mastering a foreign language can involve a thrilling and confronting transformation, as the learner wrestles themselves into a different way of evaluating the world.
If you’re not curious about language learning, or need a good exotic romance with your travel memoir, this might not be for you. Others will likely find themselves googling ‘Hindi courses, India’ (or insert language and country of your choice) and imagining the possibilities for their own intense, total-immersion adventure.Publishers: Please send titles to be considered for review to:
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