Book Review: Dreaming in Hindi

Dreaming in Hindi

I was introduced to this book while browsing the web in search of interesting references. As somebody working almost daily in at least a bilingual context, I found fascinating the idea of exploring the mind settings we develop while learning foreign languages. I become bilingual at five years old, without being aware of the philosophy of practising another languages. I needed to understand and talk in more than one tongue, and didn’t pay too much attention of the details: I was able to switch from a language to another, answering the various contexts I was part thereof. This almost natural-born bilingual structure of my mind was enriched by a new language at the age of 10. English is the fourth on my list – at around 17 -, almost self-taught, after the failure of my mother to play anymore the role of teacher. Years after, I can understand this situation as the result of our second language experience, I didn’t want to acquire – who would like at the age of 5, to spend time making conversations in a language spoken exclusively by the adults? But this linguistic experience defines my linguistic history, as until now I am aware by the limitations of fully mastering all the other languages I acquired by now (almost 10, out of which one who required to learn a new alphabet, learned as in the first grade, with pages of hand writing exercises and loudly voice spellings).

Given this experience, I am trying to do not insist too much upon because it is not my book I intend to write about now, the lecture of Dreaming in Hindi had for me the effect of a linguistic therapy.

Entering the dream

I started the lecture with a 75% enthusiasm. The rest of 25% was represented by the reserves on the topic of Hindi, India. My very recent experience was the Eat Pray Love book, an example about the stereotypes of spiritual journeys. We are learning foreign languages because of personal or sentimental failures, we are keen to know the world and other countries because we failed to know ourselves. We are unable to go out of our lonely shells and we recognize the merits of the culture only in direct relation with the success brought in our personal achievement. There are some discrete references to this kind of issues in this book too, but there are wrapped intelligently. Of course we are looking for something when we are travelling or starting to learn something new – be it Chinese painting or Hindi – but this is more than killing some time between two relationships. We acquire knowledge for better understanding the world around and afterwards, using this knowledge to induce change.

The references to India are well pondered: you will not find here first-hand experiences about illuminations and spiritual awakenings after spending a couple of days, weeks or months in an ashram. In a very journalistic and alert style you will find information about this part of India Katherine Russell Rich is discovering while starting the learning of Hindi, during and shortly after 11/9. This part of India where people are living and making a living, dying or killed, facing terrorism and fearing for the security of their children and their families, getting married, looking for a mate or falling in love, surviving as women, temporary visitors or tourists. The recent history or the history on the making, the ethnic or geopolitical conflicts being reflected at the level of the language. And I am the first to recognize that the success of learning a foreign language rely upon the immersion into the culture of the linguistic family whose richness you want to share. The pages dedicated to the social and historical description are limited by the purpose of reflecting the sociolinguistic processes taking place with the author aka. the Hindi student.

I found the style sometimes arid, sometimes mid-way between a scientifical expose and a journalistic description. In some fragments, it was like recollecting automatically segments from disparate notebooks recording the diary of the year spent in the ancient city of Udaipur. But this gave to the story a mysterious note of authenticity.

Knowing the brain

The main reason I loved reading this book was the intelligent mixture between the personal discoveries and the scientific research, looking for understanding the mechanisms developed in our secret black box while learning a new language. We are rarely aware of the complicate processes taking place during the linguistic adventures of the brain. I experienced some of them myself – and I observed more clearly to my daughter, who by the age of 12 was overexposed to multilingualism and forced to master daily three different languages. Our brain is both flexible – adapting to new sociolinguistic contexts – conservative – in relationship with the other languages, including our first tongue.

And I will give an example: we are aiming to learn a new language, for various reasons. By learning, direct practice, exercises, we could acquire the new skills in a certain amount of time. But, the linguistic structures already acquired, including our mother tongue, will be affected. If not used any more over time, we are forgetting the details of the grammar or our vocabulary is including funny and clumsy approximate translations from a language to another. During this process we can experience as well the unpleasant situation of blocking: we are unable to switch immediately, if ever, from a language to another. Or, the overexposure to a certain foreign linguistic environment create difficulties in recognizing what used to be once our familiar context. The social and psychological contexts are playing a very important role in our linguistic development – or blockage. A certain experience in relation with a certain event connected to a language might close the ways of communications in this language.

More we learn, the bigger our possibilities to make fast connections and to diversify our brain activity – with results including on our life-spam, according to recent studies. With influence on our deepest conscious and unconscious activities, as it is the case of dreaming. The strangest might be to dream in a foreign language without understanding the words you or the others present in the dream are talking. The intermediate level is, according with my understanding of the book, when you are able to tell and understand jokes in a foreign languages, meaning that you acquired a least familiarity and subtlety for juggling with significations. As for me, being able to read the newspaper is the best level you acquire before upgrading for having access to the language of the elites.

As well, being able to read and write on one hand, and being able to speak a language, however, are two different skills, not automatically inter-connected. In my case, for the non-European language I am in process of acquiring, I was able first to talk and understand the language of the street, but took me much more to read fluently while I am still facing problems in writing correctly. For the different alphabets the photographic memory might be helpful. I lived for one year in a Asian country and I was able to recognize a couple of disparate characters, only by over visual exposure – usual signs for “open”, “closed”, “metro”, “street”, the symbol of the currency etc.

The limits of our communications from a language to another are not exclusively limited to the cases when we have to switch from a system to another – as, such as, from a alphabet-based to a sign base. Not everything can be translated and for some cases the expression of privacy – in the case of Hindi a non-existent term – and feelings differs significantly. It is why we are assuming that some nations are “colder” and some are “warmer”: we are what we talk.

My curiosities

The book opened me a series of questions and left unanswered a couple of curiosities. I don’t find too much details about the experience of writing in another alphabet. Did she tried to? What are the transformations observed reading in a different writing universe.

The reader lacking expertise in Hindi is left frustrated with not acquiring any information about what it is this Hindi alphabet about. I found only one explicit about, at the end, when trying to read the terrible news about the killing of the journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. Do they read from left to right or from right to left? It is possible, as in Chinese or Japanese to read horizontally and/or vertically?

Maybe I would like to read and find out more also about the author’s experiences with Hindi after this year spent in India: did she continue practising? what happened with the linguistic luggage in her familiar cultural environment? Or did she start to learn other languages too and how she connected this experience with the one of learning Hindi?

My plan was to dedicate one hour to this review. After three long and intensive writing hours, I am approaching “the last dot” moment with a certain shadow of regret. This book made me think about a couple of direct experiences, gave me some hints for reevaluation others and observing some evolutions in my future linguistic wanderings. Enough reasons for encouraging others to read it too and to start learning at least other foreign language than the one used by birth.

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