Since the book is concerned with language, with one person's attempts to learn another one, and since the person in question, ie, me, is not a blazing supernatural talent in that department, I think I should probably allow this right up front. I'm not that great, naturally, at learning other tongues. I simply love the process. When my mother traveled, she liked to eat her way through a place. Her trip journals were all about meals, never sights: Got up at 8. Went to the French quarter for beignets. At 11 had shrimp remoulade at Christian's. "I speak menu," she'd say. Me, when I travel, I just want to speak. I've always been fascinated by language in any form, the more unintelligible, the better. When I get on a plane, I lose myself in the vocabulary section of the guidebook, not excluding the sentences for businessmen. I can cite favorite lines from various lists. Is vakt sattewalon ne is chiz par kabza kar liya hai, from the Cambridge Self Hindi Teacher, is a good one: "Speculators have for the moment seized on this article." Cambridge stands out because it breaks form, which requires that the travelers' sentences be kept jaunty. It allows a measure of melancholy, even existentialism. "Unfortunately they are in such a bad condition we can't accept them." "The date of the arrival does not matter much." This is a quality I think sets it apart, though others might argue.
I love a lot of things about language study. I love the way it can make you feel like a spy, the covert glimpses it provides into worlds that were off limits, even the confounding difficulties, the tests it puts you to. For the purposes of this book, I interviewed a former Fulbright, a linguist named A. L. Becker, who knew Burmese, Thai, Old Javanese and Malay. "I sometimes think I study these things," he said, "because I have such a hard time with it," and I nodded emphatically. Also for this book, I interviewed a number of neurolinguists and people who study the science of language acquisition, for at the same time that I developed a passion for Hindi, a corresponding obsession kicked in: to understand what learning a second language does to the brain. The process, for me, was so frustrating and exhilarating and at times transcendent, all in a way that felt deeply corporeal, I could only believe that it was scrambling my brains. What I learned was that to some extent, a second language does. It makes you not quite yourself.
This might explain the pattern I observed when I first began taking lessons. People would exclaim, "My daughter's doing that! She was having trouble first year at Smith and had to drop out for a semester and so she's decided to study Mandarin!" Someone else had retired and was learning Basque in a chat room. Another, reeling from a break-up, was hot in pursuit of Greek. Conjugants, I began to think of us. I'm sorry to have to report to the Modern Languages Association that in monolingual America, no one much past school age seems to take up a language when their lives are going gangbusters, that it's a preoccupation of the disoriented. I've a feeling the same principle might apply to any pursuit that demands you start over as a beginner, given all the stories I've heard—of the divorces and dislocations that resulted in people learning, finally, how to swim, or play chess, or play the piano. Mandarin, mandolin—in a way, it's the same thing. You embrace pursuits like these as an adult, I think, as a kind of transfer when your life has snapped you into another place, when you've had to start over in some way. By immersing yourself as a beginner in a realm that's more controllable than your now-unwieldy and sorry whole existence, you keep yourself in one piece, at least in one place. The impulse is probably a perverted survival mechanism, but so what?