What language do I dream in, my friend Vanessa asked. Which really was the language closest to my heart?

The few dreams I remember in the morning have few words. When I try to recall the words, I remember only the anxiety or longing behind them, not the actual words. If I have to guess, I use two languages. Maybe even three. At a stretch, four.

Let me explain. I grew up in eastern India and spoke Bengali, spoken by a quarter billion people in the world. I loved its vast and powerful literature, its lilt and cadence, its myriad, mysterious accents, and the magical clouds orators seemed to weave with its haunting, sinuous words. I set about learning it well. When I debated or wrote in the school magazine, adults began to notice I was somewhat adept with words.

I wanted to do better. I wanted to know the roots of words, how they were created or modified. I took lessons in Sanskrit and Pali, languages from which Bengali evolved, read all I could lay hand on, and gained proficiency in both. Now I could split every word in its components and tell you the meaning of each.

The skill meant nothing when I went to college, where the instruction was in English. My father, always supportive, said, “If you have learned a language well, you can learn another.” I set about learning English well. It helped that both my parents knew English and several of their friends and colleagues did not know Bengali. I learned to read English newspapers and to carry on a conversation, but I knew real mastery lay far ahead.

I began to read more and more, and started paying greater attention to style. Addison and Chesterton impressed me with their elegance. But my eyes opened wider when I delved into Conrad and Nabokov. Their effortless mastery of words, the capacity to commandeer unexpected phrases for unusual impact, made me interested in handling language with their wizardry. I realized I had used language like the cleaver of a butcher; now I decided to use it like the scalpel of a surgeon. Of course, I wanted elegance, but I also wanted precision – and everything else. I wanted my own idiom.

My dreams might have turned bilingual at that point. An accident intervened. I was travelling in a train that broke down, and the passengers were stranded in a small station for hours. I finished the books I was reading and turned to another passenger who was carrying two books. We swapped and I had my first encounter with Camus. That heady experience led to Sartre and Malraux, and the determination to learn French.

A similar chance encounter with Jorge Luis Borges, the blind author from Argentina, turned me on to Spanish and I learned to speak Spanish.

The languages were certainly a help later in my diplomatic work and my ceaseless travels with a UN group.  But the biggest difference it made was not that windfall. Friends who note the convenience of traveling abroad and working seamlessly with foreigners miss the point.

Languages do more than confer a convenience. They change your life, if you will let them. They simply add an edge to your experience.

I explained to Vanessa the fact most important to me: A language is a different way of looking. More, a different way of thinking and feeling.

When you learn a new language, you walk into a new universe. A world, with a different culture, awaits you. If you want, you can be a different, more multi-dimensional person.

None of the two great masters of the English language I mentioned, Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, spoke English as their mother tongue. Conrad, originally Konrad, was Polish and did not speak a word of English until he was in his twenties. Nabokov wrote nine novels in Russian before he ventured into writing an English novella.

This is no accident. Speaking and writing a language from your childhood gives you an intimacy with the language no foreigner can match. That is an advantage so blatant that it blinds us to its disadvantage: once you are so wrapped up in a language, it is hard to escape its traditional byways or avoid its typical metaphors, phrases and expressions. Like a persistent paramour, the intimacy it offers is both easy and comfortable – and tenacious and choking.

An affair with another strange language can be difficult but liberating.

I told Vanessa I would keep dreaming in more than one language.


The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]