Writing with the Masters 3: Jhumpa Lahiri

By: Jennifer Fiorile

Did you know that you're an expert in your mother tongue? Everyday, you speak with the coolness and ease that some language student somewhere in the world is trying to acquire. From your earliest days, you were engulfed and saturated in your native language. Little did you know that the adults around you were teaching you the right phrasing and cultural context to speak your language fluently. And you've even got your own little twist on how you use the language, as does every native speaker. Thus, it's no surprise that when it comes to our writing, we're all so absorbed in our native language, with a vocabulary that's been developing since childhood, that we can get into a rut and stop growing as writers in terms of language and phrasing.

Most of us writing and working for the WWBL are transplants, expats, non-Germans living in Berlin (though we do have one German on our team). In fact, many of our writers are also not native English speakers, so they're challenging themselves to write outside of their comfort zone on a regular basis (for which I have an immense amount of respect!). Our daily experiences here involve navigating life in a foreign language. Some of us have worked to master German (Mark Twain wrote a very funny essay on just that subject, The Awful German Language), while others operate in mostly English speaking circles. Whatever the case, the fact remains that we all must consider how we will go about our day handling a language that we only started learning a few years ago.

If you're not bilingual (or trilingual), you certainly remember your foreign language classes in high school. Learning a foreign language, even just memorizing phrases, challenges your brain to think and work in different terms. Those terms being that you must express your ideas and thoughts with a limited understanding of culture and a limited vocabulary. It's a sort of puzzle for your brain to break out of its normal way of asking, “May I have a cup of water, please?” You're forced to consciously apply grammar rules, something you never give a moment of thought to in your native language. You're forced to translate in your head and when you don't have the right word available, you have to explain what you mean in simpler terms.

This is where Jhumpa Lahiri becomes an interesting person to look at. Jhumpa is a British-born, American-raised author of Bengali descent. She's a native English speaker but growing up with non-native English speaking parents, language was surely always an interesting theme for her to come back to. For many, many years now, Jhumpa has been studying and writing in Italian, a language to which she had no prior connection. She's developed her language skills so much that she’s written essays and books (notably, In Other Words (In Altre Parole)) in Italian, translated it herself into English, as well as doing translation work for other pieces written in Italian. In an interview with The New Yorker, she said, “I think, see, and feel differently in Italian. I say things more simply but also more directly. And I tend to take more chances.” (Click here to read the full interview) This is an excellent little tool that we can use to deepen our understanding of how language and vocabulary affect our writing.

With the gift of online translators, foreign phrases and words are at your fingertips. Always wanted to learn how to express the beauty of the ocean in Hebrew? Try it out! Have a friend who's bilingual? That's a great way to connect with them through their special skill. Perhaps you could try writing a simple haiku in Japanese about a rainy day, using basic vocabulary words.

When you limit your vocabulary and cultural context, you're forced to think more precisely about what it is that you want to express. Don't worry about making mistakes-- because you absolutely will, and that's just part of grappling with the concept and function of language from a fresh perspective. What’s even more refreshing is coming back to your native language afterward and finding how easy the words seem to flow.

WWBL Author