The post about learning Hindi

August 12th, 201111:27 am @

There comes a point in every expat’s India stint where they finally get around to taking Hindi classes. For us, it’s taken two-and-a-half years.

Yes, this is rather slack.

The trouble is, there’s just no incentive to learn the local language. English is so widely understood that you can pretty much get by just being a lazy Westerner who occasionally makes their statements better understood by talking more loudly and slowly. Anyway, my limited amount of “rickshaw Hindi” was serving me fine: I could go a whole day with only needing to know the words for “keep going”, “stop” and “how much?” Really, what more do you need to know in any language, apart from “two beers, please.” (I’m multi-lingual in that phrase.)

But eventually people start to look down their noses at you when you answer: “Pretty crap, actually” to their question of: “So, how’s your Hindi?” – especially when you’ve been living here the aforementioned 2.5 years. And while Rajni, our maid, does a sterling job trying to understand my mimes, there’d be a lot less confusion around the house if I could communicate with her. I should say at this point that  her English is much, much better than my Hindi.

So my wife signed us up with a local Hindi school that starts with the easy bit – learning to read and write Hindi! This was not a good beginning. Really, I wasn’t looking to pen War And Peace in Hindi, I just wanted enough to tell Rajni that my gym kit doesn’t need ironing – I look like one of those special kids at school when she does that, the ones who have laminated notes excusing them from most activities in PE class.

Apart from the impenetrable nature of the characters in the Hindi lettering system, or Devanāgarī, there was their sheer number – in excess of 40, which  just seemed like an indulgence to me. I mean, English became the world’s lingua franca with a mere 26 and Hawaiian manages to get by with a ruthlessly efficient 13. Ok, the islands may not have taken over the world, but they did produce the leader of the free world. That’s something to think about.

Still, lesson one was encouraging despite the overwhelming sensation that I was in over my head, which is typical of all my learning experiences – on day one I tend to flick straight to the back of the text book and think: “None of this makes any sense, what am I doing?” Of course, I also fail to grasp in that moment of blind panic while I’m checking the course list trying to find something easier to learn, like tofu sculpture, that textbooks are written with the harder bits at the end in an academic attempt at building suspense.

Still, I told myself that I’d managed to learn Cyrillic for my two weeks in Russia, and that was tricky because it uses letters that look like English, but have cunningly different sounds.

By the end of the lesson I was feeling good about things (it helped that my wife – who has the unfair advantage of knowing some Hindi – was as far out to sea as I was when it came to reading and writing). And while my attempts at writing would have made a two-year-old feel good about their lettering, this was a challenge and something to be conquered.

And next time someone at a party snootily asks me: “How’s your Hindi?” I can reply with: “It’s going swimmingly, thanks. How’s your Devanāgarī?”


Image by Flickr user

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