A life-changing experience
Learning a new language changes you. Your brain shifts as you begin to think and perceive in a new way. Research shows that people even express personality differently. With this in mind, I wonder why language memoirs are not more popular.
After all, many people have written successful books about travel, another life-changing experience. People have written memoirs about work, parenting, feminism, race, and politics. Where are the books that go beyond “How to learn language X”? Where are the books that describe the first person experience?
Examples of language memoirs
Whenever I do stumble upon a language memoir, I dig in.
Dreaming in Hindi chronicles Katherine Russell Rich’s experience of living in India for a year and learning Hindi. I remember appreciating the vivid descriptions of emotional ups and downs. Some days her brain is foggy and uncooperative, and other days she is astounded by long stretches of conversation flowing from her own mouth. These ups and downs feel very true to my experience of language learning.
In All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World, Zora O’Neill travels to different countries of the Middle East to explore the relationships between different Arabic languages. She ranges between linguistics, cultural perspectives, daily experiences, and reflections.
Both of these examples, I note, come from white, English-speaking women who are learning language out of interest – as are the majority of authors listed on Goodreads under “language memoir”.
Alternative perspectives on language learning
Of course, many multilingual people do not learn languages for pleasure. They learn because they need to find work, flee a home country, seek better opportunities, or revitalize a threatened Indigenous language. I would be very interested to read narratives about language learning from people with these lived experiences.
One starting place might be The Multilingual Self: An Inquiry Into Language Learning. The author is Natasha Lvovich, a Russian immigrant to the United States. In the book, she describes “at what price successful language acquisition and acculturation is realistic” (Goodreads). This seems like a different perspective. I haven’t read this book yet, but it is on my list.
Send your book recommendations
I would love more recommendations of language memoirs. Please post suggestions as comments below.