Reflections on Learning Hindi

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Hindi is a fascinating language. And getting off Main Bazaar (where, in Sahid’s words, “even the dogs speak English”) has only increased my desire to become proficient in it. I have been spending most of our downtime in Rishikesh buried in a copy of “Teach Yourself Hindi,” that looks like it’s been with me for a lot longer than the two weeks it has been since I purchased it.

Of all the languages I have studied, Hindi is the most like English in its grammatical mentality. At first, I credited this to the fact that I haven’t spent time with a lot of living languages. I did Spanish in high school, which inherited the stern regularity of the Romance languages, and I dabbled in Arabic and Modern Hebrew in college, which are from an entirely different family of languages. When I have spent time with ancient Greek and ancient Hebrew, and a little time with Latin, my goal has been to develop reading, not speaking capacities. So perhaps these similarities are borne out of my own desire to draw connections out of my own limited experience, rather than being rooted in reality. How much can two languages spoken on opposite sides of the world have in common with each other, anyway?

But as I have spent more time with the language and more time in the culture, I have come to think these grammatical parallels do indeed exist. They arise out of deep similarities in cultural experiences and social mentality: both English and Hindi, after all, are languages that emerge from contexts of long-term multi-cultural conversation.

The resultant linguistic similarities might be described this way:

  • Like English, Hindi is a language with a mixed linguistic lineage. Its everyday vocabulary draws from Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, and English. They say that eighty percent of words in an English dictionary come to us from other languages (mostly Greek and Latin.)
  • Both Hindi and English incorporate this broad range of vocabulary by regular use of auxiliary verbs (like “is” and “has” in English).
  • Hindi verbs, like English verbs, have fairly simple endings that often don’t have much more distinction than singular/plural.
  • The system of honorifics in Hindi is fairly similar to the (now defunct) you-thou differentiation: it is essentially a question of “plurality.” (“You” was originally an honorific plural, “thou” the informal or intimate singular)

Of course, the very systems of hospitality and deference that makes Hindi similar to English also makes it a language that very few English speakers feel very inclined to learn. Most Indians speak at least some English: indeed, in India, being educated implies speaking English. So despite the increasing amount of trade, business, communication, and cultural exchange being conducted between the two countries, very few Westerners have any interest in studying the language.

My Hindi is coming along slowly. I think it is going well; I am spending a significant amount of time with the language. But then I have never studied a language like this. Every day my Hindi is evaluated by the situations I encounter on the street, or in conversations I strike up with Amar or the hotel manager. And, as of yet, I’m not making a passing grade.

I can only understand a fraction of what is being discussed around me. I only occasionally muster the courage to whip out a Hindi sentence I’ve strung together, and when I do it, I feel like I am shooting in the dark. And most people I meet speak much better English than I speak Hindi, so even if I start a conversation in Hindi, we usually end up speaking in English.

I’ve come to realize that there’s a big difference between the abstract intellectual mastery of linguistic paradigms and ability to interact on a day to day basis. It occurs to me that even if I suddenly had the sort of “mastery” in Hindi that I normally aim for in language study, I would still have a significant amount to learn about the way people interact in this context before I could communicate with ease and fluency.

It is a very new challenge for me, and a challenge that I am very glad to have forming me in this season. I am glad to be learning Hindi with my life, my blood, my sweat, and my tears, rather than simply attacking it in a distant library or a classroom.

Perhaps I have over-intellectualized the language learning process. This is easy to do in far away and comfortable America, and I think we do it often as a culture. We are frequently too eager to offer answers the world and not sufficiently prepared to practice compassion. Sure, it’s good to be able to offer constructive solutions to practical problems. But I think that it is better to sit and share the deepest substance of our souls.

God calls the children of Israel to treat “strangers” compassionately on the basis of a deep, enacted memory of their own “stranger” experience in Egypt. Middle-class, suburban Americans don’t have a lot of opportunities to be strangers—so perhaps this time in India is our “stranger” experience.

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