My Journey with Hindi

After I wrote my last entry one reader, Sunil, left a comment.

Aap Hindi kiyon sikh rahe hai?

“Why are you learning Hindi.”

The answer is not so simple as many other westerners I’ve heard. I can’t say “I saw some Hindi films and wanted to understand them better.” or “My business takes me to India a lot and it’s good to know.”  For me the first is a consequence of learning – I am enjoying understanding what I see a bit better. The second is a dream. For all the business travel I did last year – over 100 days on the road – I really wish most of those were in India rather than the US.

So why am I learning? Let me tell you how it started:

In 1993, Sage and I went vegetarian for a while. American food has few decent obvious options for vegetarians. Food that some might think of as “Hippie food” was an option but much of it was somewhat bland. A bland tofu stir fry, tempeh reubens, beans and rice. We could have basic pasta with marinara sauce or even a cheese pizza. But beyond that the options we knew of weren’t that great. There was one cuisine, however, that seemed to have an infinite number of delicious options.  If we went out to lunch at an Italian restaurant we might be able to choose between salad, pasta with marinara sauce or maybe alfredo sauce (before dairy got the best of me). But if I went to an Indian restaurant I could choose from a dozen or more different delicious options.  We rapidly developed a taste for Indian food that to this day remains even as we stopped being such strict vegetarians.

But we couldn’t eat out at restaurants every night so I needed to learn to cook this food I loved if I wanted to eat it as often as I wanted to. So I got a number of cookbooks from the library including Lord Krishna’s Cuisine by Yamuna Devi. There were so many recipes in this book – I still haven’t exhausted it.  I got inspired and started reading the recipes and saw a number of ingredients I wasn’t familiar with and so I’d have to venture to the one Indian grocery in the town where we lived. Fortunately this book had something I haven’t seen in many other books. It had a great glossary:

hindi

I was intrigued by this list of words. Many were words for things I already knew: Chini was sugar. Jeera was cumin while others were brand new. For a while, Sage would review these with me and I gradually learned a bunch of words.  I remember surprising one Indian coworker who asked what was in a dish I’d brought to a potluck and I gave a list of ingredients including “hing”.  “How do you know hing?” he asked and I told him. He then told me about the seller who would bring hing to his grandmother’s house in his village back home when he was a kid.  I was glad for this story – it distracted a bit from the quality of the food I made. It was embarrassingly bad.  Years later I would find that it was so helpful to have in-person instruction. I wasn’t cooking my onions nearly long enough and using about four times the amount of tomato I should’ve been.

Other than food, I didn’t study Hindi for almost two decades. I knew the names of lots of foods that I loved and tried foods from anywhere in India or Pakistan I could get it. Dosas from South India, corn rotla from Gujarat, nihari from Pakistan and all manner of sweets from jalebis to gulab jamun. When I was living in an off-grid yurt in the woods in the middle of rural USA, I would frequently make a version of phaal for dinner, often over an open fire – the wood smoke made it taste so much better. One day I even made laddu.  We had no Indian grocery within a 6 hour drive but this was the early days of the Internet and one Indian grocery happened to be connected and very kind. I’d send them a list of things I needed and they’d mail them to me along with a bill that I’d pay by cheque. (This was in the days before e-commerce was really a thing).

In 2004, seeing the populace and politics of the US heading for where it is now did what many Democrats threatened to do. We immigrated to Canada.  Once we got here I realized: Our company does business with US companies and if things got slow locally I could be sent back – not permanently but I’d have to spend time there when I didn’t want to. But I had a plan. I would learn French and I could go to Quebec for work instead of back to the states.  Now I didn’t ever get my French skills up to the level that would be needed to work in Quebec regularly but I did get sent there once for eight months when  my technical skills were needed so much my language skills didn’t matter. And so off I went.

While I was in Quebec I tried to use French as much as I could and my skills improved a lot. But it was also really exhilarating. I was speaking another language and people understood me. And though I was a tourist, I felt like I was viewed as a different sort of tourist – one who was actually interested in the people there and not just there to see tourist sites.  This was especially true when I would go on bike trips outside of Quebec City where I was working. While Quebec City is a tourist city with most people speaking English and often 2-3 other languages, the area outside the city was very French and I met many folks who didn’t speak English. But it wasn’t a problem. I could manage. At first I could only manage to talk about food and necessities – where the bathroom was, how to get to the next town.  Mes pneus ont besoin d’aire. “My tires need air”. As I got better I could talk about things that were more distant from necessity – politics, the weather, how people were where I grew up. It changed a bike tour from an experience seeing sights and pretty vistas in to an experience meeting new and interesting people – something far more interesting to me.

But I never forgot about Hindi. It’s hard not to living in Toronto. There were many more Indian restaurants to try, groceries were never a problem – there were several Indian groceries within a short walk from our apartment. And there were a few theatres showing Hindi films. Out of curiosity we went to a few and really enjoyed them.  We got a few more from the library and then discovered the selection at our local paan shop. While they were not particularly legal copies they could be obtained for a mere $1 each and most had subtitles.

In 2010 I did my first long bike tour and did progressively longer ones every year. And then a crazy idea occurred to me.  What if I went to India and brought my bike? I read a few accounts and it sounded like it could work. And that’s when I put two and two together:  When I cycled in Quebec there were a number of folks who spoke English but speaking even a little French gave me an advantage. What would it be like to travel around India by bike and know Hindi?  I put the idea in the back of my head until 2013 – a year in which I tried to focus on doing today what I intended to do “someday”. I did some online searching and came across a teacher and began my classes.

This language was harder than any other language I’d studied. In high school I studied Latin for several years and so when I later tried learning Spanish (before having to drop out of the class due to work conflicts) it came easily thanks to the shared Latin roots. Vocabulary in French was similar – there were many words that were almost identical to their Latin counterparts.  But Hindi put me on completely unfamiliar ground.  Aside from re-learning how to read (and making the same mistakes the learners at the adult literacy centre I volunteered at made in English), there were a ton of things that tied my brain in knots.  A few examples (that likely I haven’t got quite right – friends in India feel free to correct/clarify:

  • Latin roots were no help
  • The word for yesterday and tomorrow are the same. “Kal” essentially means “the day before or after today – look at the verb tense if you want to know which.”
  • There were genders to nouns but often you had to just memorize what they were unlike French or Spanish in which the last letter of the word would tell you the gender.
  • Prepositions come after the word they are related to (so they’re called postpositions).  For example “Milk in coffee” becomes “Coffee milk in” which to this day confuses me and I am almost as like to ask for coffee in my milk.
  • The order of words is different than in English.  For example “I will go to your house tomorrow.” becomes “Tomorrow I your house to will go.”

This last one was one of the hardest things for me to deal with. At first I felt like my brain had to work hard to remember the subject and object (and distinguish them) while I waited for the verb to come. And then I’d get to the verb and have to go back and try to remember which was the subject and which the object. And then often along with this I’d have to wrack my brain trying to remember the meanings of the words. All of this means that when I would listen to someone speak there would be a long pause as I translated the words they said, reshuffled them in to the order my brain was used to and then understood the sentence. Then I’d construct my reply in my head the same way, put it in the correct Hindi order. In other words, a simple couple of sentences could take a minute or two.

Reading is hard also. I read a lot like a kid in Grade 1-2. I sound out my words slowly, putting together the sounds phonetically and then repeating them. It’s particularly funny when I read half way through a long word only to find that it is a simple transliterated English word that I know well.

Watching a movie was really hard at first.  Often I’d get one or two words from a sentence. It reminded me of how, growing up, our dogs would not understand full sentences of English but if they heard words they knew like “Walk” or “Supper” they would excitedly react. That was me but it would just be “Chelana” or “rath ka khaanaa” instead. On those times I would get a whole sentence I’d be so busy congratulating myself in my head I’d completely lose track of the film, no longer listening to the Hindi or even reading the English subtitles.

Last fall I finally made it to India. And all of my friends were right – I definitely didn’t need to have any Hindi. Most people spoke perfect English. But there were some moments where being able to speak a little Hindi helped or at least made it more enjoyable.

narayan

In Varanasi one of the first people I met was Akaash who owned a lassi / book shop. The next night when I was walking down the street I heard someone call my name. (Who could be calling my name? I’m on the other side of the world from home?). It was Akaash who was at this restaurant where Narayan, the gentleman in the picture, was making dosa. I joined them for a snack, having what is, to this day, the best chili and onion uthappam I have ever had.  Narayan and I got to chat a bit as the neighbourhood kids delighted in getting me to call him “Chote Lal” (anyone reading know why this was so funny?).  Because I spoke a little Hindi I got to hear about his wife and kids and that he’d moved with them from Chennai. I would end up going there several nights in a row partly for the great food and partly to share a cup of chai and a chat with him.

Another time in Varanasi I decided to walk the length of the city from Munshi Ghat where I stayed down to Assi Ghat and back.  I followed the river down and took the road back. As I walked down the road I passed a bunch of cycle rickshaw wallas who were chatting among themselves.  They offered me a ride and I told them “Main chelna pasand karta hoon.” I like to walk. And once they heard me speak Hindi we ended up talking about their families and they all opened their wallets to show me their wives and children.

When I went to Mumbai I had booked an Airbnb in Pali Hill / Bandra. Surprisingly, though this was a rather famous neighbourhood, my cab driver had no idea how to get there and had never heard of it.  He clearly wasn’t trying to cheat me as it was a prepaid cab. And so I solved the problem. Google Maps to the rescue. I put in the address and told Google to find their way. But my driver spoke no English. And so, Google took care of the directions to me and I would say things like “paanch sau metre ke bad baen jaenge.” (After 500 metres, go left)  It felt a bit surreal at the time but it did the job and I got to where I was going easily.

When I lived in Quebec City some of my best practice partners were taxi drivers. The same was true in India – auto walas were great to talk to.  In addition to helping me remember my numbers (Teen sau rupaiya?? Nahin, pachaas!), I could ask about where they were from and their families. One day in Delhi, when I was returning from a day on the town I needed a ride from Qutb Minar metro station to my Airbnb in Mehrauli. My host said never to pay more than 30 rupees to get back as it was really close by (but up a big hill).  The drivers all said they’d take me for 250 and I laughed and talked one of them down to 50.  As we pulled out the driver asked me the question nearly everyone I ran in to in Delhi asked me: “Would you like to see an exhibit of local crafts?” (Read: Would you like to go to a store and be pressured to buy something for much more than the usual price?)  I laughed and told him “Aaj Vaha tisera bar kuchh log ne kaha.” While it’s probably not quite correct he understood me: “This is the third time today someone told me that.”  He laughed when he heard it and told me that his auto rental was about 300/day but he could get 250/tourist he brought to the store.  Now it began to make sense.  He took me to my place and then asked me where I was from and if I had any money from there. I wondered if this was another way he was trying to get money but then he surprised me by pulling a massive roll of cash from his pocket and handing it to me. In it were bills from all around the world. He showed me his favourite ones and told me about the people who gave them to him.  Unfortunately I only had change from Canada at the time. But I did have a toonie ($2 coin) which to this day I think is pretty cool.

toonie

 

mun

I found wherever I went in India the best way to get a chance to practice my Hindi was to answer any “Hello” with “Kya Haal Hai” or “Aap kaisi hain?” (How are you?). People were often surprised and would often switch to Hindi and help me out.  This man, Mun, was one of those.  I met him in Munshi Ghat in just that way.  After a few minutes he suggested that we could practice together and meet the next day to do so.  We met and after we had chai we went back to his parents’ house where we sat in an upstairs courtyard.  He called to his younger sister who was still in elementary school and asked her to bring up her English books. And soon she was there with books and chai for us.  We drank and chatted a bit and then got to studying. I opened the book to find both Hindi and English script – or sometimes Hindi script and a blank where the student would write in the English words.  Then Mun told me: He couldn’t read.  But it was no problem. He might not be able to read, but I could. And so, I sounded out the words and he would explain what they meant.  We had a couple lessons like this switching back and forth between instruction and gapshap – chitchat as well as between English and Hindi.

So what I have learned over the past few years and a couple of different languages is that speaking a different language opens the door to having different experiences, meeting different people and different stories from the ones you would meet with a single language. In this sense, Hindi has delivered ek hazaar bar. – 1000 times.

And so, going forward, this is my motivation. To learn more so I can speak better and understand more. So I can learn from people with vastly different experiences from my own.  And maybe someday I will box my bike up, put it on a plane and ride through India, to meet the people who live between the big cities and hear their stories as well.

 

43 thoughts on “My Journey with Hindi

  1. I am starting to grasp a few Hindi words, the problem is that there are so many Indian languages. You try hindi and it may not be the language used! The recipe book link looks like it could be useful though. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely. Even my little Hindi was not very useful with many people in Bangalore. Further south it would be less so. But in Delhi, Jaipur, Varanasi, and Mumbai it was a definite plus to have around. Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks – it’s been a difficult journey. It took over a year before I could really start to construct sentences that I hadn’t already fully memorized before. I’m still needing more vocabulary but it’s getting better the more I practice.

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  2. i am Hindi teacher can i help u ?महोदय हिन्दी के प्रति आपके विचार देखकर अच्छा लगा |शुभकामनाएं

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    1. धन्यवाद मितालीजी – मुझे एक अधियापक नहीं चाहिए क्योंकि मेरे एक अधियापक टोरंटो में है | अभी मुझे बहुत प्रैक्टिस करना चाहिए |

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      1. मुझे बहुत ख़ुशी है महोदय कि आपको हमारी मातृभाषा से प्रेम है | आपको अन्य किसी सहयोग की जरूरत हो तो जरुर कहें | मैंने एक हिन्दी लेखिका हूँ कविताएँ लिखती हूँ

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  3. Wow! Well done! I’m terrible at languages, my mother tongue is Punjabi but I hardly use it. Living in UK, my parents brought us up to speak English so Punjabi was quickly lost. I still understand it and can communicate if the need be but I can’t read it at all! I also understand Hindi as is it very similar so I’m able to watch Bollywood movies! And your right about almost everyone in India speaking English, I think they speak better than me, without all the slang! … A really great post & once again, well done! X

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much. I know what you mean about the similarities between Punjabi and Hindi – my first Hindi teacher spoke Punjabi with his family when they’d visit and I’d catch bits and pieces. I’d probably catch even more if I had a more full vocabulary.

      I’m getting a little better with watching movies. I can manage a bit but I still need subtitles to understand fully. I’ve been practicing with other TV shows in the meantime. My favourite, which is REALLY hard to find, is Masterchef India. Everyone speaks slowly and clearly and there are lots of food words which is the strongest part of my vocabulary.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  4. I loved your post. About two decades ago Hindi was mainly spoken in North India. People in the south found it very difficult to understand Hindi. But things are so different now. Ours is a small university town and most of the students are from the north so shopkeepers and most people have learnt Hindi. My father worked in Indian railways and my childhood was in Delhi, Hindi became a second language. Regards

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    1. Thanks. That’s interesting how things have changed. I didn’t realize you grew up in Delhi – that’s awesome. What an interesting place to have spent your childhood.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. My heart warms up as I read your article Todd. Your snippets of stories as you traveled in India are so real and refreshing. Connecting with common people of the country is when you experience the real joy of traveling. I am so glad that your travels have been memorable in India.
    As an Indian, I respect the hard work you have been putting to learn Hindi. I was all smiles when you were pointing out the confusing positioning of words in a Hindi sentence. They indeed are true. But I would suggest you do not think about it too much… instead listen as much as you can, read it loud as much as you can. Don’t go behind the rules. When you keep listening and speaking the language, subconsciously your brain picks up the right way of saying it. I am not an expert… it is just merely my observation.

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    1. Hi Preeti – thanks for the kind words and encouragement. I really like your suggestion as well. I think you’re right. I certainly don’t think endlessly about grammar when I speak English. In fact, when working with new English speakers I’m sometimes asked questions about why we say things certain ways and I have to think very hard to figure out why. Sometimes I don’t even have a better answer than “Because that’s what we do.” Since writing this post, a few things happened. On the one hand, my teacher at the time I wrote this passed on (he was 94 so it wasn’t a complete shock). I made another trip to India with my son, found some more people to practice with, and most importantly, I found a new teacher. She’s been fantastic and one of the things she often has to remind me to do is “Mat translate karo.” I’m slowly learning that sometimes when I listen to a Hindi speaker, trying to translate slows me down and makes things more complicated. And if I translate when I speak, I may have a sentence that people can understand but it sounds awkward and nothing like a native speaker would say.

      The subconscious is very powerful. I’m trying to practice now by listening to more music and watching more movies. I still have a long ways to go but where a year ago I might have only captured a handful of words, now I’m hearing phrases. And possibly more importantly, I’m understanding what is said well enough that I can look up the things I don’t know the meaning of.

      It’s a long road but it has been a wonderful journey. I’m happy to be on it.

      Thanks again for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Reading this is overwhelming. I do get your struggles of learning Hindi. The script is difficult and the subject verb object rules. I have learnt some French- it was much easier for me to learn the gender things in French because Hindi is my mother tongue.

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    1. Oh right – I can imagine it is easier to learn French from Hindi. And you already have one word: ananas 🙂

      Where I had trouble with French was in understanding native speakers. I found it was difficult with the accent and speed at which they talked to understand where one word ends and the next begins. Oddly enough with French hip hop music the accent is much better and I can follow it. I’m still working on my Hindi listening. I can almost always tell where one word ends and the other begins but I’m still training my ear to understand the difference between the various t(h)a’s and d(h)a’s. It’s improving but it takes a lot of practice. The nice part is that means my “homework” is watching TV and movies!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah! The French accent and fluency is difficult to decode for me too. I remember when I was learning French, I could easily understand what my teacher spoke. And once when she had us do a listening assignment where she asked a French friend of her to record some sentences, it was difficult to crack it. I could catch only a few words.
        Have you been learning to write in Hindi too? What all have you watched in Hindi TV and movies?

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      2. So many lately. I’m hugely in to cooking so MasterChef India is a big favourite. I understand more of it than other shows as the vocabulary is really simple. On the subject of food, Raja, Rasoi aur anya kahiniyaan is pretty great. Lots of history in that also so the vocabulary is lots more challenging. Recently I watched Qarib Qarib Single which was pretty great though I didn’t really see what he saw in the leading woman’s character. Dangal, Secret Superstar, 102 Not Out was in the theatre here so I watched that. I’ll watch anything with Amitabh Bachchan though I have lots to catch up on with his older films. Hitchki was in the theatre here and my wife and I both saw that and loved it though you could hear sniffling throughout the theatre at the end. A very sweet movie. English Vinglish was also in the theatre recently and we both enjoyed that as well.

        I try to watch at least 30 minutes per day now. It seems like the more regular I am with practice the easier it becomes to make vocabulary “stick” without endless repetition.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I don’t understand what do people like in MasterChef.. They don’t really share the recipes. all you cna do is look at good food and dream of tasting it 😛
        Didn’t know about Raja, Rasoi or anya kahaniyaan.
        Wow! That’s a lot of movies. And all them are lovely movies. I haven’t watched Qarib Qarib Single, though it’s on my list because Imran Khan is in it. English Vinglish released this late? I remember watching it back in 2012 😛
        Yes, a daily schedule helps to learn better. Reach out to me whenever you need some help 🙂

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      4. Thank you for the offer. I may just!

        For me it is about inspiration. I see something on a show and then get inspired to go look for the recipe or think “that doesn’t look as hard as I thought” and try making it. And I also get inspired to just create things without a recipe after watching someone else try it.

        English Vinglish was re-run in an arts cinema here around Sridevi’s birthday. Hindi films get released a little later here than there though as a rule.

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      5. Yes I am. It feels like a combination of magic and art. And just the act of doing it feels good. Shopping for the right ingredients, putting them together and then at the end your family is happy and fed.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. This piece is so very interesting. It was amazing to read how/why you started learning Hindi. Your fascination for language is a gift. And, i so agree with you that you can connect with a place at a different level altogether if you speak in the language of that place. Those personal connections you made with people are truly treasures that make for such heart warming stories. One advantage that all of us at India is that everyone will speak at least two/three different language – mother tongue, english, hindi. I realised this when an American colleague pointed that out to me.

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