Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language

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Overview

An eye-opening and courageous memoir that explores what learning a new language can teach us about distant worlds and, ultimately, ourselves.

After miraculously surviving a serious illness, Katherine Rich found herself at an impasse in her career as a magazine editor. She spontaneously accepted a freelance writing assignment to go to India, where she found herself thunderstruck by the place and the language, and before she knew it she was on her way to Udaipur, a city in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, in order to learn Hindi. Rich documents her experiences—ranging from the bizarre to the frightening to the unexpectedly exhilarating—using Hindi as the lens through which she is given a new perspective not only on India, but on the radical way the country and the language itself were changing her. Fascinated by the process, she went on to interview linguistics experts around the world, reporting back from the frontlines of the science wars on what happens in the brain when we learn a new language. She brings both of these experiences together seamlessly in Dreaming in Hindi, a remarkably unique and thoughtful account of self-discovery.

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  • Katherine Russell Rich
    Katherine Russell Rich  

Editorial Reviews

Elle
"In her deftly written memoir, DREAMING IN HINDI, Rich makes us wish we to could come alive in a foreign world, fearless of mistakes, misperceptions and mishaps, and enlivened by the unfamiliar ... a natural journalist, [Rich] gracefully sprinkles reportage about neuroscience and linguistics, as well as her own poignant insights, into her narrative."
Language Log

"…a charming intellectual travelogue, partly about the culture and history of India, partly about the nature of language and language learning, and also, as usual for great travel writing, very much about its author…. ‘I ski Hindi,’ [Rich writes and] elsewhere in the book, she skis psycholinguistics, in long, gleeful conversations in university laboratories and the pages of books and articles; and just about every other language-related discipline gets at least one downhill run as well."

— Mark Liberman

Daily Beast

"DREAMING IN HINDI: Coming Awake in Another Language…is a riveting memoir about an American woman who spends a year in Rajasthan learning Hindi. The book illuminates the truth that when we learn a language, we learn an entire culture. One of the best foreign observers of contemporary India, Rich''s gaze on the country is witty, empathetic, and intimate."

— Suketu Mehta

The Oprah Magazine - O
"Fortified with neuroscience and laced with humor, DREAMING IN HINDI is a crash course in emotional agility, in an understanding too deep for words."
Language Log - Mark Liberman
"…a charming intellectual travelogue, partly about the culture and history of India, partly about the nature of language and language learning, and also, as usual for great travel writing, very much about its author…. ‘I ski Hindi,’ [Rich writes and] elsewhere in the book, she skis psycholinguistics, in long, gleeful conversations in university laboratories and the pages of books and articles; and just about every other language-related discipline gets at least one downhill run as well."
Daily Beast - Suketu Mehta
"DREAMING IN HINDI: Coming Awake in Another Language…is a riveting memoir about an American woman who spends a year in Rajasthan learning Hindi. The book illuminates the truth that when we learn a language, we learn an entire culture. One of the best foreign observers of contemporary India, Rich's gaze on the country is witty, empathetic, and intimate."
New York Times - Susan Dominus
"...a work that will inevitably be compared to Elizabeth Gilbert’s "Eat, Pray, Love"...it traces the far-flung adventures of a thoughtful, soul-searching single woman from New York."
The Oprah Magazine O
"Fortified with neuroscience and laced with humor, DREAMING IN HINDI is a crash course in emotional agility, in an understanding too deep for words."
Elle
"In her deftly written memoir, DREAMING IN HINDI, Rich makes us wish we to could come alive in a foreign world, fearless of mistakes, misperceptions and mishaps, and enlivened by the unfamiliar ... a natural journalist, [Rich] gracefully sprinkles reportage about neuroscience and linguistics, as well as her own poignant insights, into her narrative."
Daily Beast
"DREAMING IN HINDI: Coming Awake in Another Language is a riveting memoir about an American woman who spends a year in Rajasthan learning Hindi. The book illuminates the truth that when we learn a language, we learn an entire culture. One of the best foreign observers of contemporary India, Rich''s gaze on the country is witty, empathetic, and intimate."

— Suketu Mehta

Language Log
"...a charming intellectual travelogue, partly about the culture and history of India, partly about the nature of language and language learning, and also, as usual for great travel writing, very much about its author.. 'I ski Hindi,' [Rich writes and] elsewhere in the book, she skis psycholinguistics, in long, gleeful conversations in university laboratories and the pages of books and articles; and just about every other language-related discipline gets at least one downhill run as well."

— Mark Liberman

Publishers Weekly

Rich, the author of The Red Devil: To Hell with Cancer-and Back, recounts in this wonderful memoir her subsequent life's journey: immersing herself in the transformative complexities of learning Hindi. Fired from her New York City magazine job, palpating the possibility of being a full-time writer and tempted by the "foolproof out" that was traveling to India, Rich ensconced herself in a yearlong language program in Udaipur, in the northwest state of Rajasthan, where with three other students she struggled to get her brain, and tongue, around the disorienting "monsoon of words" in the total immersion program. A delicate balance of social graces determined success or failure, as the author learned painfully when she felt compelled to relocate from the home of her host family, an extended Jain clan, because of misunderstanding over her nonmarried status. Fluidly interspersed within her witty, tongue-in-cheek account of the nutty fellow students and nosy, however well-meaning, Indian spectators are comments and elucidation on second-language acquisition from experts, and observations while visiting a school for the deaf. Homesick, rattled by the violence, Rich nonetheless arrived at making jokes and actually dreaming in Hindi, and in her deft and spirited prose depicts being literally "possessed by words." (July)

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Kirkus Reviews
An adventurous writer travels to India to learn Hindi and absorb the culture through language. The challenge in learning a second language as an adult is part of the impetus for this memoir of one woman's journey of self-discovery. In fact, the linguistic investigation emerges as the central focus of her adventure and the most interesting aspect of the narrative. Journalist Rich (The Red Devil: To Hell with Cancer-and Back, 2002) clearly articulates linguistic concepts, philosophies regarding language and the neurological and cognitive phenomena associated with learning a new language. These sections are far superior to the author's descriptions of the people, places and events she encountered while on her language-immersion program in Udaipur. Most of the characters enter the narrative in an amorphous, ephemeral fashion, and the dialogue and personal events are often melodramatic and tedious. Although Rich tries to imbue these day-to-day relationships with a sense of immediacy-including scenes or histories involving the threat of terrorism and violence from increasing Muslim/Hindu tensions-the autobiographical aspects of the book seem like filler. Rich ably investigates controversial topics like Noam Chomsky's nativist theories and the more recent-though equally contentious-interest in the Whorf Hypothesis, and her conversations with linguists and neuroscientists are always engaging. The details of Hindi-from odd idiomatic expressions to the way in which it seems inextricably connected to the Hindu religion and its strict social mores and taboos-are the book's strongpoint. Rich's involvement with a school for deaf boys in the region also produces some interesting anecdotes andfascinating explorations of sign language and gesture, but readers may desire more specific detail and aspects of real-world usage. An unsatisfying memoir but a provocative account of second-language acquisition. Agent: Betsy Lerner/Dunow, Carlson & Lerner
The Barnes & Noble Review
Katherine Russell Rich hit the skids with a bump and crash. Recovering from two bouts of cancer and getting fired from her magazine job left her with a life that, she says, "no longer made any kind of sense to me." So the tradition of Eat Pray Love, she set herself on the path to reinvention by studying Hindi. "I no longer had the language to describe my own life. So I decided to borrow someone else's." Using her skills as a journalist, Russell Rich dove into researching second-language acquisition (SLA) and how it affects the brain. Living like a college student for a year in Udaipur with a local family while attending classes was at first a welcome distraction. "This book was going to be solely about the near mystical and transformative powers of language," Russell Rich writes. She found that words have destructive powers too, "to reshape people" and leave them twisted and broken. During her sojourn, Russell Rich witnessed a teacher's violent accident, a fellow student's mental breakdown, and her own views of both home and host countries -- and herself -- tested in the wake of 9/11. Though eloquent and thorough, Russell Rich's memoir bears a hint of apology for falling short of clearly illustrating the changes wrought by the ephemeral nature of language and communication. It's okay, though, for as she pulls us through her year, we too are ensnared in the tendrils of speech and culture, caught up in the colorful world they define. --Lydia Dishman
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618155453
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 7/7/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

KATHERINE RUSSELL RICH was the award-winning author of The Red Devil: To Hell with Cancer—and Back . She wrote for the New York Times Magazine , the Washington Post , Slate , and Vogue , and taught writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, until her death in 2012 after a nearly quarter-century battle with breast cancer.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 29, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    The creators of natural languages are children, not adults

    Katherine Russell Rich was born into a Christian Science family. She suffered from chronic otitis, went almost completely deaf. Then her mother broke from their church and took six-year old Kathy to a doctor who soon cured her. But much in her life was already set: she could read lips until high school years. She became at times isolated, at times a long wolf on the periphery of social groups. In her adult years she was twice stricken by cancer. When she went to India in September 2001 to immerse herself for a year in Hindi, Kathy's doctor made her promise to have periodic blood tests. Kathy had made a career in magazines. Fired from her eighth job, unlucky in love, she felt that she was sleep-walking purposelessly through life. She needed a shock, something utterly unlike her life to date. She chose India and a language school in arid Udaipur, Rajasthan, north of Bombay. She hoped to become a full-time writer.

    Despite frustrations, Ms Rich after two semesters was fluent in speaking, reading and writing Hindi. She had also volunteered every Friday at a school for boys born deaf and raised in isolation until their parents sent them there. A condition of Kathy's being permitted to assist in teaching art was that she learn Hindi sign language. She soon understood that there is no limit to things to be learned about how humans communicate through language. Language can be through gestures, also spoken, written and signed.

    Suddenly Muslim terrorists attacked the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. Hindus all around Kathy gloated that now America would teach Pakistan a lesson. Hindus overwhelmingly longed for a world without Muslims -- excepting, of course, their personal friends. Thousands died to the south in Gujerat in Hindu-Muslim massacres.

    When her year in India was up 2002, Kathy Rich spent months spread over the next four years reading into neurology and linguistics to make sense of her language-learning experiences, including sign language. She also interviewed leading experts in both fields. Recent discoveries among deaf children in Nicaragua motivated Kathy to return to Udaipur in 2006 and revisit the deaf school where she had taught art. Coached in advance by a distinguished linguist in the States, Ms Rich attempted to prove by scientific experiment that those Indian deaf boys had created an entirely new language on their own. She got her proof but it was merely anecdotal. The boys' teachers did not have a clue what the lads were signing outside the classroom. They had indeed created a new language. Its grammar was utterly unlike that of Hindi, either spoken or signed.

    This fact supports the views of theoreticians like Noam Chomsky that language learning ability is innate, hard wired. And children, not adults are the creative, driving force in language. Kathy argued that gestures precede mimicry, followed by rule-free pidgin, then more sophisticated creole and finally the rich languages of grammar and tenses.

    This book abounds in insights into many subjects. Unfortunately its structure or narrative frame, loosely chronological, is too weak to support so many excursions into neurological and linguistic theory. The book would be better if it were divided into three monographs. -OOO-

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 14, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A fascinating memoir full of sprightly descriptions and memorable passages

    "Dreaming in Hindi", Katherine Russel Rich's memoir of her adventure in India, about the year she spent in Udaipur living with a Hindi speaking Indian family, for the purpose learning Hindi, is an intriguing and fascinating book. Learning a new language in middle age, especially a language as alien for her as Hindi is not an easy task. But the author demonstrates that where there is will, there is a way.

    When she writes about India and describes Indians, her writing is lively and entertaining: "Vanita's (saris) were starched to within an inch of their lives, even the dupatta scarves. Her scarves never lay down on the job, but remained frozen in a fluff, giving the impression that a hooded snake had reared up behind and was about to swallow her."

    She is a keen observer, and her descriptions of what she has seen in Udaipur are memorable. I was impressed with the marvelous description of the marble driveway of her hosts' immense house: "The driveway, though hazardous to pedestrians when washed, possessed a peculiar grandeur: inlaid circles set against squares, rich browns fitted into mossy greens; a display fit for a museum, a board game leading out to a street of pigs."

    The author has chosen to write about the science of learning a new language also, and interspersed though out the nineteen chapters of this book are the author's explanations and personal opinions and impressions about the process of learning a language, and how the human brain functions. These passages dealing with the technical aspects of learning a language are sometimes tedious, and in these sections the author's impressive prose loses its charm and elegance. Without these tedious passages, "Dreaming in Hindi" would undoubtedly have been an outstanding memoir. On the whole, this is an impressive book, written with humor and wit, and with an abundance of vivid, sprightly descriptions and memorable passages.
    Yesh Prabhu, Plainsboro, NJ

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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