It’s February of 2016 and I’m discouraged. I have been taking Hindi lessons for about 18 months, spending the better part of two hours reading, talking, learning some grammar, only to have to re-learn it again a few weeks later when it would completely fall out of my head. I felt like I was getting nowhere and in great part that was true. After all, if I’m truly honest – and I can be with you guys. Other than a Hindi film every few months, I would do all of my studying in the 30 minutes before that week’s class. I’d write my dictation corrections, dash out a few sentences in Hindi, and run out the door, catching the bus just in time to get me to class on time.
Finally, discouraged, I bring up my feelings to Sage.
“I feel like I’m getting nowhere.”
“Yes, well, how much effort are you putting in to the project? I’ve seen you studying for 15-30 minutes/week. That’s not commitment! If you really want to learn to speak Hindi, work like you mean it. Study!”
Faced with that, I say what’s been brewing in the back of my mind:
“What’s the point? I have nobody to talk to here. Nobody to study with outside of class. How can I practice if everything around me is in English? And besides, let’s be honest. What am I ever going to do with it anyway. I’m never going to get to travel.”
Sage tells me that that isn’t true and that if I actually looked for opportunities to practice, I would find them. To date I’d looked about 1/10th as much as I actually studied Hindi. So essentially I did an Internet search every few months only to give up for a few more months. She also reminds me that I actually can travel and that rather than waiting until I can, for example, plan for a 3 month unsupported bike trip, I could just go for a visit instead.
Part of me thinks she’s right but the better part of me is still discouraged. Why would anything be different. I’d like to say that from then on out I studied religiously every day, found practice partners here and abroad, and everything got better. Instead, though, I kept up in great part because of friendship.
My Hindi teacher was, at the time, 93 years old. He lived alone in an apartment and much of the joy in his life came from his students. He was sad enough when I would say “I’m sorry, I have a 3 week business trip to go on and I can’t come to see you.” – imagine if I said “I’m quitting Hindi.” And so, I kept going to class, but still, outside class, I was the worst student. I did only the minimum homework. Sometimes not even that. I’d stretch the truth and say “Oh well, work got busy. Maaf kijiye.” and he would say “Koi baat nahin.” It’s no problem.
A month later, though, after a very busy time at a customer site, I found myself with a bit of extra money. Instead of spending it frivolously on dinners out and another electronic toy, I bought myself a round trip ticket to Delhi that would leave in seven months.
The trip was wonderful. My Hindi was passable. Enough to tell people where I wanted to go, to negotiate with a rickshaw driver or ask for dinner. I could ask about people’s families and where they were from. But beyond that not so much. But it proved past-me wrong. I actually could go somewhere and really use my Hindi for more than just watching movies.
A few more months pass and in October of 2017 I’m back in the same mindset. Now, not only am I still without someone to practice with, I’m also traveling a lot. It wouldn’t even matter if I found someone in town to practice with. I’m not even in town. I can’t even take classes with my teacher. “What’s the point?” I think. Sage and I have a nearly identical conversation to the one over a year before. I think of quitting, she tells me that’s silly, and that I’m just not working hard enough. But this time something’s different. I’m really tired of being in limbo. I’m not working hard, so I’m not learning, but I’m taking classes sometimes. I’m not committed to learning but I kind of maybe want to learn so I’m giving a token effort. What would happen if I actually worked like I wanted to learn? This time I did some more searching on the Internet including Conversation Exchange. I’d looked at it before but felt self-conscious and told myself that it would be impossible to study with someone in India anyway – the time zones are too different. This time I decided that instead of failing hypothetically in my head, I would try and see if I failed in the real world.
Instead of failing, though, I found several partners. Some I would just share emails with. Others I would chat on Skype or Whatsapp with. And one I would eventually even meet in person. I scheduled meetings in mornings and evenings, and wrote when I had free time. When I traveled, I moved my smartphone from my pocket to my backpack. In its place, I put a smartphone-sized stack of Hindi flash cards. When I’d find myself bored in a lineup or waiting room, I’d reach for my phone, find my cards, and review them.
And along with all of this I booked another trip to India – this time with my son.
It’s now a bit over a month after my last trip to India. I’d like to say that after working like that I was now fluent and didn’t need to speak English at all. That wouldn’t be true. However, I did find myself more able to speak Hindi in more circumstances. I was able to ask people about their lives in a Rajasthani village, and to act as a translator for a guide who took us to a temple. I was able to speak well with the caretaker at a cottage where none of the staff and only a few guests were able to speak English. The work paid off.
So where am I now?
Sadly, my first Hindi teacher passed on in December. I saw him the night before he died, and pushed through a great deal of self-consciousness to speak Hindi loudly (he had his hearing aids out) in front of his children who spoke far better than I did. After our trip to India I got an email from one of his other students. They’d found another teacher and wanted to know if I’d like to continue. I’d searched a little for another teacher but hadn’t had much luck. So now we meet with her once a week.
A few weeks after that, I was contacted through this site with another offer from a teacher living in India. Though I already have one teacher, I thought “Why not have two?” and so I meet with her twice a week as well.
Today, wanting to help my vocabulary build I subscribed to an online service and will use that daily as well along with my other homework.
And how’s my Hindi coming? I feel it’s progressing well. I can say more things, I am better able to understand movies and television without subtitles. Of course I still make embarrassing mistakes that make my teacher laugh. But as I always say, it’s good to have an emotion attached to things we learned. If we hear a word we might remember it. If we misuse a word and are corrected while we all laugh together it will stick much better. Last week, for example, we were talking about how to cook a meal, and intending to say “First of all I turn on the gas.” (“Sab se pehale main gas chalu karta hoon”) I said “Sab se pehale main gas karta hoon.” Now I’m sure that if my teacher ever visits Canada, she will never come over for dinner because I had just told her “The first thing I do is fart.”
So, here I am, almost two years after nearly giving up, speaking Hindi nearly every day, visiting India almost once a year (Sage and I plan to go again in early 2019).
All of which is to say that before giving up something, it’s important to make sure that the reasons you want to give it up are good. If you’re giving it up because you don’t want to work hard, or you’re afraid that if you do work hard, you’ll find your goal wasn’t even worth it, you’d be wise to rethink it. Had I quit in 2016, I would have missed out on so many wonderful experiences.
(Inspired by “How to Stop Quitting” – it’s a pretty great article. Though it’s on a cycling-focused site, the article itself applies to all of us and there are some great suggestions – particularly in avoiding what she calls “sh*t quitting” – quitting for really dumb reasons like the ones I talked about here)