Dreaming in Hindi – Landmarks in Progress

I have finally finished one of my new favorite reads, a delightful book entitled “Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language” by Katherine Russell Rich.  Why do I love this book?  Probably because it would be my dream to be able to take off to India and study Hindi for a year. This is exactly what the author did and it resulted in a book that is part journal and reflection, yet loaded with recent research in second language acquisition.  Ms. Rich writes about her intensive Hindi program, politics in the region, her cultural informants, travel experiences, homestays, her classmates, and the idea of who do you become in another language/culture.  There is much to digest when reading this book, but she writes with intent, seriousness and a dash of witty humor.

There was so much that struck a chord with me in this book.  Ms. Rich writes about her early days in India, when she is living with a large family of Jains. (Jainism is an ancient religion in India that emphasizes non-violence to all beings in the world.) She writes about her early days of speaking in Hindi and how the family all sits down for dinner and asks her very simple, polite questions about the food, night after night.  Rich writes:

“Dinners go like this till one day, playing badminton in the drive, I give an automatic high-five.  The gesture startles everyone, shuts down the action. From then on, I high-five often. Did I like the soup? High-five! Did I like the lentils? High-five me more! They laugh so hard when they slap my palm, it ends all further discussion.”

This had me in tears, as I can completely relate to the American automatic need to high-five occasionally.  I recall an experience recently, despite all  of my years in the field of International Education, where I attempted to high-five a student who had recently arrived in the US  for university study.  I put my hand up, awaiting an enthusiastic hand slap in return, only to have the student continue with her remarks as if nothing was happening.  I caught myself quickly and instead moved my hand into my hair, as if to move it out of my eyes or something rather unnecessary. Ms. Rich’s description of the automatic American high-five had me in stitches, especially because it became a bonding moment for her and her Jain family, one that eventually allowed them to move past the basic “how is your dinner” kind of questions that we all get when we’re abroad and attempting to practice another language.

Ms. Rich’s humor shines through when she writes about her orientation to the language school which took place in Hindi – with the occasional warning coming through in English. Ms. Rich writes:

“The orientation leader, Vidhu, states: ‘If you see a group of sacred cows, we ask that you not disturb or frighten them as that can make them rush this way and that and possibly brush you. Last year cows strained a girl’s leg. She was a dancer.’ Vidhu warned, and then I was desperate to know what else they’d said.”

This had me laughing out loud and seriously wondering what I’ve covered in orientation to the US that has had my students mystified, horrified or hysterical!  (I’m guessing that the US health care system is the section of orientation that sends most of my students over the edge – it seems so very ridiculous to them when I describe how much a visit to the hospital can cost.  Come to think of it, it seems most ridiculous to me also!)

Much of this book with Ms. Rich’s personal experience as an intensive language student with fascinating research on language acquisition.  One simple statement that deeply resonated with me referred to the landmark of progress in language acquisition.  Ms. Rich writes:

“Some people say you’ve turned a corner when you can make jokes,” the linguist Ellen Bailystok says.’Some say it’s once they’re translating , others when they dream in the language. People put up landmarks of progress.’ ”

While I am not fluent in another language, I have studied Spanish, Italian and French and have taught ESL for several years.  I have seen my students’ joy when something “connects.”  And as a language student, I recall those landmarks of progress.  While living in Switzerland during graduate school, I had to navigate through the local food market every few days. I really wanted to order turkey from the deli counter, but didn’t know how.  After several weeks, a friend taught me the phrase in Italian and I practiced it daily, awaiting my big moment at the market.  One of those landmark moments, for me in Italian, was successfully ordering some turkey at the market.

Today, I pose the question:  What are YOUR landmarks of progress?

Take a moment to enjoy this playful video by Ms. Rich.  Note the high-five at the end!

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