Photo of Lecture with Jumpa Lahiri

Your Metaphor for Learning Italian

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“In italiano ho la libertà di essere imperfetta”
“In Italian I have the freedom of being imperfect”
(Excerpt from Jhumpa Lahiri’s In altre parole)

Do you cherish the experience of learning Italian? You’re invited to follow in Jhumpa Lahiri’s footsteps and share your own metaphor for learning Italian (check eligibility below). Submit your metaphor in either Italian or English.

In her new book In altre parole, (In Other Words) Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri draws from a broad palette of metaphors to describe the process of learning a new language, and Italian in particular. Well-known for her refined word crafting, Lahiri engages with the act of learning Italian, describing it as an exercise in discipline, a journey into her own identity, a new creative adventure, a challenging path, and ultimately a humbling process reminiscent of the magic of learning at any age, in any place, with any tools.

In her book Lahiri employs numerous metaphors to describe her simultaneously exhilarating and frightening voyage into the Italian language: her images are as simple as they are powerful. Here are a few examples that may function as models and inspire you as you think about your own experience in learning a new language. (Click on the metaphor to see the translation on the bottom):

  • IL LAGO: “Per vent’anni ho studiato la lingua italiana come se nuotassi lungo i bordi di [un] lago. Sempre accanto alla mia lingua dominante, l’inglese. Sempre costeggiandola. È stato un buon esercizio. Benefico per i muscoli, per il cervello, ma non certo emozionante. Studiando una lingua straniera in questo modo, non si può affogare. L’altra lingua è sempre lì per sostenerti, per salvarti. Ma non basta galleggiare senza la possibilità di annegare, di colare a picco. Per conoscere una nuova lingua, per immergersi, si deve lasciare la sponda. Senza salvagente. Senza poter contare sulla terraferma.”
  • IL COLPO DI FULMINE: “Non avrei un vero bisogno di conoscere questa lingua. Non vivo in Italia, non ho amici italiani. Ho solo il desiderio. Ma alla fine un desiderio non è altro che un bisogno folle. Come in tanti rapporti passionali, la mia infatuazione diventerà una devozione, un’ossessione.”
  • IL PONTE: “[S]ia a Venezia, sia sulla pagina, i ponti sono l’unico modo per muovermi in una nuova dimensione, per superare l’inglese, per arrivare altrove. Ogni frase che scrivo in italiano è un piccolo ponte da costruire, poi da attraversare. Lo faccio con titubanza mista a un impulso persistente, inspiegabile. Ogni frase, come ogni ponte, mi porta da un luogo a un altro. È un percorso atipico, seducente. Un nuovo ritmo. Adesso mi sono quasi abituata.”

Create Your Own Metaphor
Create your own metaphor about learning Italian, and share it with us here. You can use just one image or tell a brief story (6-7 sentences) in which you compare learning Italian to an action, object, feeling, or space that conveys how you see your own voyage into the Italian language.

The three best metaphors will be posted on the Inserra Chair’s webpage, and the students who authored them will receive a free copy of Lahiri’s book, with a personal dedication by Jhumpa Lahiri herself, and a set of books that have been generously donated.

ELIGIBILITY: Students of Italian currently enrolled at Montclair State University, as well as at Community Colleges and High Schools in New Jersey, are eligible. (Please send a transcript verifying enrollment to in order to receive approval for participation)

Jury: Videos will be judged by a distinguished panel that includes:
Maria Teresa Cometto (NYC contributor to Corriere della Sera and Co-Vice-President, Executive Board, IACE)
Patti Grunther (Teacher, Watchung Hills Regional High School)
Donatella Baldini (Attachée for Cultural Affairs, Italian Cultural Institute, New York)
Jury Chairperson: Dr. Teresa Fiore (Inserra Chair, Montclair State University)

“Your Metaphor for Learning Italian” is sponsored by the Inserra Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies at Montclair State University in collaboration with the Italian American Committee on Education (IACE) of New York.

Excerpts from In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri. New York: Knopf, 2016:

  • THE LAKE: “For twenty years I studied Italian as if I were swimming along the edge of that lake. Always next to my dominant language, English. Always hugging that shore. It was good exercise. Beneficial for the muscles, for the brain, but not very exciting. If you study a foreign language that way, you won’t drown. The other language is always there to support you, to save you. But you can’t float without the possibility of drowning, of sinking. To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore. With no life vest. Without depending on solid ground.” (p.5)
  • LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT: “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. Yet ultimately a desire is nothing but a crazy need. As in many passionate relationships, my infatuation will become a devotion, an obsession.” (p.17)
  • THE BRIDGE: “Yet both in Venice and on the page, bridges are the only way to move into a new dimension, to get past English, to arrive somewhere else. Every sentence I write in Italian is a small bridge that has to be constructed, then crossed. I do it with hesitation mixed with a persistent, inexplicable impulse. Every sentence, like every bridge, carries me from one place to another. It’s an atypical, enticing path. A new rhythm. Now I’m almost used to it.” (p.101)