Byline: BY JHUMPA LAHIRI
TEACH YOURSELF ITALIAN
For a writer, a foreign language is a new kind of adventure.
My relationship with Italian takes place in exile, in a state of separation.
Every language belongs to a specific place. It can migrate, it can spread. But usually it's tied to a geographical territory, a country. Italian belongs mainly to Italy, and I live on another continent, where one does not readily encounter it.
I think of Ovid, exiled from Rome to a remote place. To a linguistic outpost, surrounded by alien sounds.
I think of my mother, who writes poems in Bengali, in America. Almost fifty years after moving there, she can't find a book written in her language.
In a sense I'm used to a kind of linguistic exile. My mother tongue, Bengali, is foreign in America. When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement. You speak a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you.
In my case there is another distance, another schism. I don't know Bengali perfectly. I don't know how to write it, or even read it. I have an accent, I speak without authority, and so I've always perceived a disjunction between it and me. As a result I consider my mother tongue, paradoxically, a foreign language.
As for Italian, the exile has a different aspect. Almost as soon as we met, Italian and I were separated. My yearning seems foolish. And yet I feel it.
How is it possible to feel exiled from a language that isn't mine? That I don't know? Maybe because I'm a writer who doesn't belong completely to any language.
I buy a book. It's called "Teach Yourself Italian." An exhortatory title, full of hope and possibility. As if it were possible to learn on your own.
Having studied Latin for many years, I find the first chapters of this textbook fairly easy. I manage to memorize some conjugations, do some exercises. But I don't like the silence, the isolation of the self-teaching process. It seems detached, wrong. As if I were studying a musical instrument without ever playing it.
In graduate school, I decide to write my doctoral thesis on how Italian architecture influenced English playwrights of the seventeenth century. I wonder why certain playwrights decided to set their tragedies, written in English, in Italian palaces. The thesis will discuss another schism between language and environment. The subject gives me a second reason to study Italian.
I attend elementary courses. My first teacher is a Milanese woman who lives in Boston. I do the homework, I pass the tests. But when, after two years of studying, I try to read Alberto Moravia's novel "La Ciociara" ("Two Women") I barely understand it. I underline almost every word on every page. I am constantly looking in the dictionary.
In the spring of 2000, six years after my...