Hindi Lessons

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As usual, we decided to go with Albert’s suggestion for a Hindi teacher, and (as usual) we weren’t disappointed.

Robbie came to meet us for the first time last week in the garden restaurant of Green Hills Cottage. “We have a unique situation,” I explained to him. “Sarah and I have very different goals for learning Hindi, and I have done a significant amount of study from books, while Sarah hasn’t.”

“Listen,” Robbie told us, “It doesn’t matter. I have my own system: I have thousands of students from all over the world. You study from books, you will never speak Hindi. Maybe ten, fifteen years you speak a little. Books have old system. I have my own formulas—thirteen, fourteen formulas. You learn, and you put in all new words, and you speak very good Hindi no problem. I give you all formulas in two weeks. Come tonight my classroom. You like, you take class. You don’t like, no problem: don’t pay.”

Robbie’s Hindi classroom is a tiny apartment filled with desks in a building just down the street from us. (It’s cramped even as a classroom: I can hardly imagine someone living there!) Every day he teaches us ten to fifteen Hindi verbs, and drills us on forming and listening to sentences in the most common tense and person.

They are simple lessons, and, academically speaking, I can’t say I’ve learned a lot from Robbie’s formulas and drills. But working with him has been invaluable for starting to bridge that gap between knowing about Hindi in an abstract way, and knowing Hindi in the practical, everyday sense that matters for communication.

Between hearing Robbie speak and having to weave together thousands of simple sentences, my comprehension has improved dramatically, and my willingness to throw out a Hindi sentence in daily encounters has also increased. (I am proud to report that, thanks to Robbie’s tutelage, I have had my first full Hindi conversation with a random shopkeeper that didn’t end up reverting to English in the middle.)

Robbie’s sense of humor helps our Hindi lessons go down with ease. He has an infectious chuckle that interrupts our lessons just the right amount: it keeps us engaged and interested, but also it doesn’t prevent us from doing anything but cracking jokes during our one hour sessions.

“Now say, ‘Sarah is making joint for me.’”

“Um…” Sarah and I looked at each other.

“You know joint? You don’t like?” (He was shocked to learn that we don’t smoke cigarettes either.)

“Sarah mere lie joint nahin bana rahi hai.” (Sarah is not making a joint for me.)

“Ha ha, very good.”

Robbie’s philosophy of language is quite practical—he is not at all interested in promoting shudda (pure) Hindi. He doesn’t give us a lot of nouns. “Hindi we do not say this these days. Just use the English word.”

Occasionally, I flex my book learning by using a vocabulary word he hasn’t given us. Usually it works out. Sometimes, I embarrass myself. (Although self-embarrassment, I am discovering, is a wonderful and humorous spiritual discipline.)

“Say: ‘I want to eat chicken.’”

Main murga khana chahata hoon,” I dutifully replied.

Robbie tried (unsuccessfully) to suppress a giggle through the next several sentences. Finally he confessed, “One of my students, she meant to say ‘I am living in Rishikesh,’ but instead she say, ‘I am eating Rishikesh.’ Ha-ha-ha.”

I wasn’t sure what this had to do with what I had said, but I decided that if he wasn’t going to tell me, it probably wasn’t too important that we know.

But then it happened again in our next lesson:

“Say: ‘I am eating chicken.’”

Main murga kha raha hoon,” I said.

Again Robbie erupted in chuckles. “Yes, yes,” he crooned, still laughing, “’Main murga kha raha hoon.’”

It took another iteration or two of this before he finally told us what was really going on. “Murga is the male. Murgi is female.” So evidentially I was announcing that I enjoyed eating rooster. “That is your sentence,” Robbie told me. “Nataniel ke pas murga hai.” (Nathaniel has a rooster.)

Apparently, take Hindi with Robbie and the rooster is free.

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