Can a second language provide us with a new self?


A few years ago I read Budapest: A Novel, by the renowned Brazilian musician Chico Buarque. The story of a man who falls in love with Magyar—and its proxy in the form of a seductive tutor, Kriska—the novel contains scant information about Budapest. But it is original in its depiction of a Brazilian who wants a new identity and to fashion it in a language unrelated to his origins. The adventure begins when Jose, a ghostwriter on his way back to Rio from a conference in Istanbul, must disembark in Budapest because of a terrorism scare. Like another novel about selfhood and language—the allegorical Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy, where the conference-bound narrator gets on the wrong flight and winds up in some Babel that may also be Budapest—the opacity of the language overwhelms him. Then bewilderment becomes infatuation.

Is it an exaggeration to say that a second language can provide us with a new self? On the evidence of Katherine Russell Rich’s Dreaming in Hindi (Mariner; $14.95), immersion in another language results in moments of seeming "possession" by it. While less ecstatic, Deborah Fallows’s Dreaming in Chinese (Walker; $22) is also a story about how learning a language permitted her to inhabit more thoroughly an alien culture. You could say that sympathy and possession are weak and strong forms of the same outcome—a change of mind following mimeticism. The effect of mimicking another tribe’s sounds is enough to break down fluency in one’s mother tongue and even change the set of one’s jaw. One of the private benchmarks many language learners use to measure their degree of absorption is whether they dream in it, so it is no accident that two unrelated books on Hindi and Chinese invoke the dream as the vehicle for building on a new incarnation of oneself (being in India, Rich makes good use of that karmic metaphor) or for merging with the laobaixing (Chinese for "the common folk").

Rich’s story is a familiar one: an American on the plateau of middle age seeks renewal of purpose in—not unpredictably—India. But the linguistic research she intersperses throughout the book, and the amount of scrutiny she casts on her progress in Hindi, turns her quest into a case study on reorganizing the brain. Learning a language is "a preoccupation of the disoriented," she proposes:

This might explain the pattern I observed when I first began taking Hindi lessons. People would exclaim, "My daughter’s doing that! She was having trouble at Smith and had to drop out for a semester, and so she’s decided to study Mandarin!" Someone had retired and was learning Basque in a chatroom. Another, recovering from a breakup, was hot in pursuit of Greek.

Rich had, at 37, decided that she wanted "a more artistic life," but she had also endured two bouts of cancer, and language was going to be her cognitive therapy. It inspires her to poetic flights: she can hear "records of distant migrations" in its Sanskrit and Persian loan words; she is amused by the English loan words such as svimming kaustyoom (swimming costume) and motar gaadi (motor car) not in use in the United States "since Agatha Christie’s time." She swears that thinking in sentences where the verb goes at the end of the sentence induces physical vertigo. The disorientation begins her transformation, and it is the same kind of disorientation that confronts the poetry reader who falls for an incantatory rhythm, or who must work to synthesize line breaks, in order to arrive at a conclusive insight. Rich cites the linguist A.L. Becker: "The delight of defamiliarization is one of the genuine pleasures of languaging." Rich delights in dreaming in Hindi she doesn’t understand; she delights in the fact that her English "sometimes now feels spotty." She regresses to a childlike state, half understanding, half guessing what the adults around her are saying. Later she will describe as adolescent the feeling she gets when she understands pretty well what others are saying but lacks the expressive power to make her own desires known.

Fallows also recounts her experience of disorientation in Shanghai and Beijing. For every new destination that required directions, she pulled out "three or four maps for the city, spread them out on the dining room table, and cross-check[ed] against a variety of Web sources." Disorientation couldn’t get any more literal than this description of reading maps in various subway stations:

Sometimes south is at the top of the map, sometimes north. Sometimes there are two maps side by side, but oriented upside down from each other. Occasionally, there is a third kind of map, drawn from the real-time perspective of the person viewing it, like the diagrams tacked to the inside of hotel room doors that direct you to the nearest exit."

Mandarin also conflates the concepts of place and time "into a pair of antonyms, xia and shang." Shang corresponds to our spatial "up" or "above," but it also refers temporally to the past, as in "last" week. Xia points spatially "down" but refers temporally to the future, such as "next" week. Fallows had a hard time keeping them straight.

Disorientation and confusion are the first step toward breaking down the self so that a new one might be invented; or so that a new sympathy might arise amid one’s own newfound vulnerability. Children are naturally better at acquiring new languages for many reasons, especially physiological ones (their neural pathways haven’t hardened), but linguists also speculate that the traits that make adults most unchildlike—a strong sense of self and, perhaps especially, a strong sense of one’s own intelligence and command of situations—militate against language acquisition. We must have, Rich says (quoting linguist Elaine Taron), "a willingness to play, to pretend to be someone else," in order to fumble, garble, stammer and finally learn.

Rich also grasps the importance of emotion in branding cognitive information into our cortex:

The first time around, emotions help language set: "Bird? Bird? Can you say bird? Good boy!" your mother exclaims, to your gurgling delight. The limbic system, however, doesn’t get revved much in language class…. Heartache’s an iron press. So’s desire.

Fallows agrees: "Those Westerners with Chinese boyfriends or girlfriends learned the quickest." The rapture of a 3-year-old’s "naming explosion" recurs in the adult’s joy in finally breaking through disorientation to epiphany. The joy is both a result of learning and instrumental to it.

A neuroscientist, Arturo Hernandez, told Rich: "We think of language as ours, but it’s not. It’s on the news, and we speak it with people. We use other people’s language all the time." This already goes to show that language is a medium for sympathy across the permeable borders of our selves; further, words have sympathetic resonance with one another. "Spreading activation network theory" is the name given to the phenomena of words calling up other words, like in puns, jokes and poems. As Rich puts it, "every word you hear or read calls up every other word like it, rhymed cousins and distant cousins, ‘bell,’ ‘hell,’ ‘ball,’ linked concepts: belle-lettres." Sympathy and wonder struck Fallows after the 2008 earthquake that devastated Sichuan. While watching the televised spectacle of rescuers carrying survivors out of the rubble, piggyback, she was reminded of the daily spectacle of the laobaixing carrying baskets and bags in similar fashion all over the city. It moved her to an understanding of the Chinese not only as a rather rough and impatient populace (being pushed, jostled, overcharged and spat on are regular occurrences on the streets) but a tender and persevering one as well.

Such sympathy can cut both ways. Rich’s deepening identification with Hindi provoked an experience of what she termed a temporary "possession" when a scantily clad Western woman appeared in her conservative Rajasthani town and the first thing she thought of, in Hindi, was sharmnaak: "Shameful." Sympathy with her adopted culture was infringing on her sympathy for someone who was, by her admission, her own kind. Language is not a panacea; sympathy isn’t guaranteed; engagement with other cultures isn’t morally unambiguous. But perhaps what Rich and Fallows show, in their different ways, is that the sheer intellectual effort of trying to master a new language caused a kind of alteration in their self-perceptions normally induced by pharmacology. If I were a doctor, I’d start prescribing languages—the more difficult, the better.

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