I haven’t been reading many Italian books lately, but luckily I’ve come across a really interesting one.
The book is In altre parole by the Pulizer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri, basically a declaration of love for the Italian language.
In a sort of memoir, the writer depicts her relationship with the language and the challenges she had to face while learning it. She takes us by the hand and describes the journey she had to make from being an absolute beginner to being able to even write a book in Italian.
As a matter of fact, one of the things I found most amazing in this book is that it has been written directly in Italian. The language is excellent and it is mastered so well that it is almost difficult to believe her when she tells that she has struggled a real lot to learn our language.
The other thing that really struck me – as an Italian native speaker – is the incredible amount of love that she has for our language. Her love for Italian is absolute – and quite moving for an Italian like me – and surely is the moving force that gave her the possibility to get to such fluency in Italian. She has never surrendered, even when she apparently had no results whatsoever.
This is a great lesson for us language learners: in order to get to great results, we have to let our love for the language guide us. And never give up.
I have been told by some readers on Facebook that they found this book quite intimidating because she was really determined to learn the language and had a lot of resources to do so. Some people told me that they feel they’ll never be able to do such a thing and therefore will never get to the same results.
Well, this may be true, but I strongly believe that each of us has its own life, story, ambitions and learning abilities. She felt that she had to master the language as a kind of urge as if somehow she didn’t feel complete. This made her want to learn the language so badly she did everything in her power to do it (at a certain point, she even admits it was some kind of an obsession).
This doesn’t mean we have to have the similar approach. We may have less time, a busy life, less resources, but the thing we must not forget is to approach language learning with passion and curiosity. This will surely give results, I haven’t got the slightest doubt about it.
Moreover, the book is a really interesting observation on language learning in general.
At the very beginning of the book, she compares language study to a swim in a lake: she tells she has always swum by the shore, without venturing into the lake itself and she says that – for a long time – she has studied Italian in the same way, always keeping the English within reach, until she decided to move to Italy, finally swimming in deep waters, far away from the shore.
This is so incredibly true: we can learn a foreign language for years at home, but – sooner or later – if we want to make the language really ours, we have to leave all certainties behind and spend some time in the country where such language is spoken.
This is especially true for languages, like Italian, that are uneasily found abroad. As a matter of fact, Lahiri describes her relationship with Italian abroad as a sort of on and off one: she says the language was there when she was with her Italian teacher, then it disappeared when she finished her lessons.
Setting sail and finally diving deep into the language, as Jhumpa does when she moves to Italy, is the only way to be completely immersed in the language, every day, every hour of the day.
There’s another comparison which I really loved: she compares the process of learning new words to mushroom hunting. Every day, you go into the woods and fill your basket with words, instead of mushrooms. Words are everywhere and at the end of the day, the basket is full. But unfortunately, after a while, the words disappear, the basket that used to be full is quickly emptied and you have to go hunting again.
In this never-ending process, you’ll retain some of the words, some others will disappear and never come back, others are quite difficult to be kept in the basket, some others stay in the basket for a while and then disappear.
The key is don’t let yourself be discouraged, but enjoy this inevitable process.
Your approach to language learning must be the one of an explorer, you have to venture yourself in a new world of never-ending discovery and enjoy the adventure. If you are curious, passionate and consistent, you’ll undoubtedly see the results. It will take time, but you’ll eventually get the hang of it.
As I said before, the book is a very interesting and useful reflection on the way languages are learned. The writer gives her own perspective and tells us her own story, which can be equally inspiring and motivating in our own process of learning a foreign language.
The book has originally been written in Italian, but the English version is available too.
If you already have read it, what’s your opinion about it?
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