'In Other Words' Review | A Beautiful Book for Italian Learners

'In Other Words' has to be one of the best books I've ever read. It tells the story of Jhumpa Lahiri's journey into the Italian language, a journey I relate to...

In Other Words Review | A Beautiful Book for Italian Learners

One day, a couple of years ago, I searched the keyword 'Italian' on my local library's website. The book 'In Other Words' came up in the search results. The book looked interesting so I saved it to my 'for later' shelf. Over a year later, I finally took it out. 

I'm so happy I did. I expected the book to be good, but it went above and beyond, surpassing my expectations. 

As you can tell, I'm really passionate about this book. Let me explain why.

Why 'In Other Words' Appeals to Me - The Backstory

Learning a language is tough. You have to be super self-motivated. Some languages, like French or Spanish are easier to learn, and I'm not just referring to difficulty in the cognitive sense. It's just generally easy to find people who speak those languages. They're pretty common, and so you likely hear them often. 

How about a language like...Italian? Not so much. For me, learning Italian has been quite a unique challenge, the sort of challenge that puts your patience and dedication to the test.

My Italian journey started on Duolingo. I'm so happy for that app. It opened up to me an exciting world with the amazing possibility of being able to teach myself to speak in another language, something that I viewed at the time as being extremely valuable. As I still do now.

I still remember my excitement as I used the app everyday. I started in England and shortly after I moved to Canada I completed the whole tree on Duolingo for Italian. It was like a game, but better than any game. I didn't need any games on my phone when I had Duolingo, learning and mastering phrases was a superlative experience. 

A few years ago, after completing Italian on Duolingo, I bought an Italian textbook and studied it by myself. I've done a lot to try and bring myself in contact with the language as much as possible.

I've been really committed to my Italian journey. 

But throughout this time, I've actually not known anyone who was pursuing Italian the way that I am. 

Then, through her book, I met Jhumpa Lahiri. 

A Powerful Book with both English and Italian

A huge sense of shared experience and understanding swept over me as I started reading In Other Words. By the middle of the book I was shedding tears. 

In Other Words, or in Italian, In Altre Parole, is essentially a huge thought-piece on Jhumpa's journey of learning Italian, becoming fluent, how she is perceived by the world along the way, and how her self-perception is shaped. 

It's hard to describe how much I related to the sentiments in In Other Words. Jhumpa is an extremely talented writer, and her words go straight to your heart, especially if your journey is similar to hers. 

The style of the book is just captivating. The metaphors, faithfulness to reality, the boldness to say things as they are, it's all so beautiful. In Other Words created word pictures that really resonated with me.

The book was extremely relatable, but it was also very educational. For me, the reading of the book was a very slow process. I wanted to savour every word. In the beginning, this desire became arduous as it prevented me from enjoying the flow and really getting the meaning. 

I don't very often come across Italian texts. In Other Words soon became a gem for me, because it does much better than Google Translate or even a textbook that teaches me Italian grammar: It's an authentic Italian novel that teaches me how an Italian speaker would actually speak. And not just in a short text excerpt, but rather through 200+ pages. 

Like I said, in the beginning I would try to decipher every word. But this frequent pausing resulted in a loss of reading rhythm and being able to really connect with the story. So then I decided to just read the Italian, and look over at the English, without a dictionary in hand.

This did so much for me. During the period that I read In Other Words, I think I learned Italian at a faster pace that at any time before. I read the book to find a relatable experience, but it became the best way for me to learn the language: verbs, tenses, colloquialisms, and all. 

Reading this 'real book' was the best way to learn, but also the easiest way, besides moving to Italy. It was entertainment, but it killed two birds with one stone. 

Italian is a romantic language. And Jhumpa's writing style truly reflects and embodies the spirit of Italian. The book is full of such carefully crafted ideas and sentences that would make me pause...and think. And smile. 

Let me share some of my favourite quotes from the book with you, and I hope you see what I mean:

My Favourite Quotes From 'In Other Words' ('In Altre Parole'): 

1. "Non avrei un vero bisogno di conoscere questa lingua. Non vivo in Italia, no ho amici italiani. Ho solo il desiderio...Mi sono innamorata, ma ciò che amo resta indifferente. La lingua non avrà mai bisogno di me."

" I don't have a real need to know this language. I don't live in Italy, I don't have Italian friends. I have only the desire....I'm in love, but what I love remains indifferent. The language will never need me." (pp. 16-17).

That is one of my favourite quotes in the book, perhaps my favourite. Italian is not one of the top spoken languages in the world, so when I tell people I'm learning Italian, they often think it's strange. So seeing this quote on the page induced a sigh of relief that someone gets it! I love Italian, and there's no real reason why I should learn it, except the desire itself. Jhumpa's various metaphors for the Italian language are so beautiful -  yes, "the language will never need me", but I love it.

2. "Grazie al primogenito riesco a vedere il secondo, ad ascoltarlo, perfino ad ammirarlo un pò.

Thanks to the firstborn, I can see the second - listen to him, even admire him a little." (pp. 122-123).

Jhumpa describes her relationship with Italian in many ways. She describes a maternal relationship where English is her firstborn and Italian is her second child. She wants to coddle Italian like a newborn, she wants to protect it as it is the weaker language. English is strong, independent and confident. But she has a special attachment to the younger sibling. At the end of the chapter though, she explains how her knowledge of English has helped with with learning Italian. I agree, understanding the nuances of English has helped me see the beauty in Italian. You notice the differences and similarities, and are able to appreciate both languages. 

3. "Chi non appartiene a nessun posto specifico non può tornare, in realtà da nessuna parte...Sono esiliata perfino dalla definizione di esilio." 

"Those who don't belong to any specific place can't, in fact, return anywhere...I am exiled even from the definition of exile." (pp. 132-133). 

What a beauty, raw and honest thought. It's true. Having many countries, places and languages in your background causes you to feel a sense of exile. Even if you look settled. You seem to fit in everywhere because you have connections everywhere, yet you don't really fit in anywhere. The natives in each country still view you as a foreigner, because you've been marked by the other culture, tragic! I guess home is ultimately where you make it. 

4. "Non sembra una lingua straniera, benché io sappia che lo è. Sembra, per quanto possa apparire strano, familiare. Riconosco qualche cosa, nonostante non capisca quasi nulla."

"It doesn't seem like a foreign language, although I know it is. It seems strangely familiar. I recognize something, in spite of the fact that I understand almost nothing." (pp. 14-15). 

Jhumpa describes her initial attraction to Italian. Even before knowing the language, there was a strong pull, a certain familiarity. I similarly felt drawn to Italian right away, after hearing just a few words and phrases. 

5. Continuing from the above quote - 

"Cosa riconosco? È bella, certo, ma non c'entra la belezza. Sembra una lingua con cui devo avere una relazione. Sembra una persona che incontro un giornon per caso, con cui sento subito un legame, un affetto. Come se la conoscessi da anni, anche se c'é ancora tutto da scoprire." 

"What do I recognize? It's beautiful, certainly, but beauty doesn't enter into it. It seems like a language with which I have to have a relationship. It's like a person met one day by chance, with whom I immediately feel a connection, of whom I feel fond. As if I had known it for years, even though there is still everything to discover." (pp. 14-15).

Italian has often being voted one of the most beautiful sounding languages. For learners like myself, it's beautiful, but it is so much more than that. We make a personal connection, we attach ourselves to it and make a commitment. I remember those early days on Duolingo, I was learning fast and being amazed at all my new knowledge. Now, many years later, I'm still on the journey and yet my enthusiasm for learning Italian is as strong as it was in the beginning. 

6. "La mia relazione con l'italiano si svolge in esilio, in uno stato di separazione."

"My relationship with Italian takes place in exile, in a state of separation." (pp. 18-19).

Trying to learn Italian while not living in Italy or having anyone nearby to converse with is tricky, and could indeed be compared to "being in exile". I'm in a state of separation from the land where the language originated and is used, so all I can do is try my best, and get as close to perfection as possible. 

7. "C'é una trafittura in ogni gioia. In ogni passione folgorante, un lato cupo."

"There is pain in every joy. In every violent passion a dark side." (pp. 134-135).

The chapter in the book titled 'Il Muro' ('The Wall'), was particularly moving. The chapter begins with the above quote. 

Jhumpa addresses a topic that's quite important and does so in a fearless manner. Jhumpa explains how despite how well she speaks Italian, she will always be judged by her apperance. She speaks in particular of an espisode where she was in a store with her husband, and the saleswoman just assumed that her husband was Italian because of apperance (He is an American, she is of Indian descent). Her husband doesn't know Italian as well as her, and he speaks it with a Spanish accent. Yet, in Italy many would ignore her and speak directly to her husband, based on what they inferred from her appearance. 

There is pain in every joy, and the dark side of Jhumpa's journey and indeed the journey of every language learner from a minority group, is that you will often not be seen for what you are. People will make assumptions.

The pain for her is realizing that she will never fully be accepted as a capable Italian speaker, despite her ardent passion and commitment to Italian for decades.

She writes: "I feel like crying. I would like to shout: 'I'm the one who desperately loves your language, not my husband. He speaks Italian only because he needs to, because he happens to live here. I've been studying your language for more than twenty years, he not even for two..."

This chapter resonated with me. It triggered an overwhelming sense of empathy and understanding.

There are many other stories and quotes in the book that I love, but these are just a few of my favourites. 

Final Words

As you can tell, I really enjoyed reading 'In Other Words' by Jhumpa Lahiri. I expected good things, but it turned out to be amazing. 'In Altre Parole' will be a book that I buy, reference repeatedly and underline, for both the language and the author's stylistic depiction of her experience. 

Thanks for reading. This post took me a really long time to write, and in fact I put it off for a while because I knew I was going to have a lot to say about it. If you are learning Italian, of course I recommend that you read the book, and if you have the time, read it anyways, you might discover something really cool from a totally new perspective. 

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