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Learning Hindi

Sitting on the floor, I balance my notebook on my knee. Together, we read a list of nouns and their plurals: larki, larkiya; larka, larke. Girl, girls, boy, boys. Our teacher, Binit ji, taps the whiteboard with his marker, adding percussion to our bizarre chant. Hindi class, which we do every morning, involves a lot of reading lists as we try to pronounce sounds completely foreign to us.
Every afternoon, I go to Banaras Hindu University and work on textiles projects with a professor there named Jasminder ji. As we work, students filter in and out of her office and stop to chat with her. Mid-conversation, they all burst into laughter, and Jasminder ji turned to me and explained the joke in English. “Marka,” she said, “you need to learn Hindi, because our conversation is so funny!”

I usually learn best by reading and writing rather than speaking and listening. In Hindi, this is complicated by the Devanagari script, which has thirty-something characters I am yet to understand. I can’t build my vocabulary by reading the words on street signs or billboards all around me, and instead I must ask people to repeat phrases as I try to commit them to memory. When I watch the news on TV with my host family, I hear snippets of language I recognize, but the keywords are missing. With my dictionary open to the alphabet page in front of me, I try to decode the flashing headlines.

My host family feeds me vocabulary while we drink tea. Watching a Bollywood drama, a god appeared onscreen, and I managed to construct a question: “Kya ye dev hai?” “Rama,” my host mother answered. She gestured to her forehead to call my attention to his third eye. It felt like progress to communicate in a full sentence. But an hour later, I was back to square one. I went with my family to a party, which I later learned was a pre-wedding blessing ceremony. All around me people chatted quickly in Hindi, laughing and gesturing and asking me questions I didn’t understand, to which I just nodded and smiled in response — ji ha, ji ha. Clearly I need to go through my flashcards once again.

Jasminder ji says she thinks Hindi is starting to fade. Only poorer families send their children to Hindi speaking schools; most students speak entirely English in the classroom from a young age. Even in her language and lectures she uses English words liberally in Hindi sentences. She tells me in twenty years, she thinks English will replace Hindi as the language used and heard on the street — when she goes to bigger cities like Delhi this is already sometimes the case. The students at BHU speak English perfectly, and their favorite movies are all American, so they’ve picked up lots of slang too. In fact, most teenage slang in Hindi is actually in English.

At first, this was discouraging. Why put in so much effort to learn a language if it may soon be unnecessary? But as I thought about it more, it became motivating. I don’t want to contribute to the dominance English is asserting over so many world languages. Even now, it’s expected that foreigners speak only English, to the point where asking how much something is in Hindi can knock a few rupees off the price. To come to India without trying to learn Hindi is to ensure I won’t move beyond surface level conversation in any language. So I will continue to practice.