A Word with Jhumpa Lahiri on Learning a New Language

Learning a new language can be hit or miss. Some students get the hang of it easily, while others may feel lost.  If you are one of those who struggle with language, good news; you are not alone.


Jhumpa Lahiri

Author, writer, and Italian enthusiast Jhumpa Lahiri chronicles her experiences as a struggling student of Italian in her recent book In Altre Parole and in her New York Times article, “Teach Yourself Italian.”  Born in England to Indian parents and raised in Rhode Island, Lahiri’s native language was Bengali, but, she says, her Bengali isn’t perfect. So she has always felt like what she calls a “linguistic exile,” not only in English, but also in her mother tongue.

Lahiri studied Latin for many years and then decided to Italian on her own from a book.  Her Latin helped her to grasp the first few chapters, but she soon felt isolated as she didn’t have anyone with whom she could speak the language she wanted to learn.  So she enrolled in an Italian language class taught by a woman from Milan.  Lahiri did the homework, passed the tests and after two years, she felt she was ready for the challenge of reading Alberto Moravia’s novel La Ciociara (Two Women).  It was something of a reality check: she could barely understand it and ended up underlining almost every word to look up in the dictionary.

Eventually, Lahiri packed her bags and moved to Rome with her family to fully immerse herself in the Italian language and culture.  But even in Italy she continued to struggle with the language, making simple mistakes.

“My comprehension is so meagre that, here in Italy, it doesn’t help me,” she writes. “The language still seems like a locked gate. I’m on the threshold, I can see inside, but the gate won’t open.”

Her linguistic turning point came when Lahiri met Marco and Claudia, two Italians who ran an Italian publishing company.  She convinced them to speak only Italian with her even though their English was much better than her Italian.  Like parents correcting a child, they corrected Lahiri’s  every mistake.  And that conversation, she says, was the key. “Because,” she writes, “in the end to learn a language, to feel connected to it, you have to have a dialogue, however childlike, however imperfect.”

Face the struggle and join the conversation!  At Sentieri Italiani, we make learning a new language fun.  Registration for our Spring Quarter is now open.  Sign up and reserve your spot today!

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