What Learning Hindi Has Taught Me

Almost one year ago a reader asked me why I was learning Hindi. I wrote an answer here. Since then, lots of things have happened.

Just after I wrote that entry back in late 2017, I remember sitting with Sage and saying how bad I felt. After several years of study, my Hindi hadn’t improved much. Sure, I could now read and say a very simple sentence in response to a friend saying “Really? You speak Hindi? Say something in Hindi” The first several times someone said that to me I couldn’t even manage a word. Not even “Mera naam Todd hai.” – “My name is Todd.”

Sage, as many of you already know from my entries has always been a great influence on me and is never one to mince words. “You’re not getting better because you’re not working.”

As much as I hated to admit it, she was right. My teacher and I would meet about 2 hours a week. At the end of it he would give me a little simple homework – maybe 15-20 minutes worth. I would leave his apartment, and promptly forget to think about Hindi again until about 30 minutes before I would leave for class the next week. Then I’d rush through the homework and go to class.

Now, raise your hands if you’re surprised that I was having trouble improving my Hindi. Now raise your hands if you’re surprised I understood any Hindi at all?

After this conversation I went on a series of business trips. But I took Sage’s advice seriously and connected with a number of people on Conversation Exchange. So while I wasn’t with my teacher, I was spending a bit of time almost every day thinking about Hindi.

When I got back home, I went to see my teacher with another student and his door was locked and he didn’t come to it. After a bit of calling around I found out he had had a fall – a very serious thing when you’re in your mid 90’s.

The next time I saw him he was in hospital. I walked in, and after he offered me some of his meal we played his favourite card game, Seep. As usual he laughed loudly as he beat me soundly.

A few visits later, though, his condition had declined and after some weeks he had passed. But even on his last day, he gave me an important lesson.

After that some students and I found a local Hindi teacher. Not long after, though, another Hindi teacher left a comment here asking if I needed a teacher. “No, I’m OK, I have one.” I said. She persisted, though, and soon I remembered Sage’s advice. If I wanted to learn Hindi, I needed to take it seriously. And so, I figured, why not have two teachers?

Well, as it turns out, after just a couple of classes I knew that my teacher, Mitali, was special and amazing at what she did. She encouraged me to push past my limits, not just in Hindi but in life, introducing singing to our classes, encouraging me to write poetry (which I’d never done – even in English!), and share my cooking experiences in Hindi. It is always challenging and interesting and I have learned and laughed a lot.

We meet 2-3 times a week for a couple of hours at a time. In the past several months I’ve added daily practice, usually listening to or watching something for at least 30 minutes per day.

So what has this work brought?

The difference was noticeable. On previous trips to India I struggled with Hindi, having to form and rehearse sentences in my mind before talking to anyone. And once I did, they often would switch to English – it was clear I was having trouble.

In Delhi this meant I could talk with our cab driver to the hotel about his life, the weather in Delhi and Toronto, the fact that he had a son and daughter. His daughter had just been married this year.

When we got to an Airbnb we stayed with a family that spoke enough English to be very good hosts, but it was with Hindi that I was able to talk to them about their lives – to tell the story of how Sage and I met and hear about their own life. I learned about their daughter who was a teacher and their son who lives in Michigan. Sometimes, hilariously enough, I would turn to translate what they had just said to Sage, and I would try to speak to Sage in Hindi.

Every interaction I had with people in Delhi was almost exclusively in Hindi. After some time, Sage started asking me to ask permission from people to take their photos and so I was pushed even further. Like Mitali, Sage was also pushing me out of my shell, initiating conversations with strangers – something I never do back home.

After some time in Delhi, we went to Raipur – most of the details of that trip I will leave to Sage. It is fun to see her impressions – she shares many of the same details, but through fresh eyes it’s especially interesting. However, what was very special about this destination was that we were finally able to meet Mitali in person.

We had a wonderful four days. While I was there I met so many people and spoke Hindi with nearly every one from the people at the hotel to entrepreneurs at the workshop we led. Mitali was with us most of that time and I was constantly reminded of why it was that I was able to feel so much more comfortable with speaking Hindi. Several people asked me where I had learned to speak Hindi so well and I was proud to be able to say “I have a wonderful Hindi teacher and she is right here.”

On our first morning in Raipur, Mitali came to see us and performed a Rakhi ceremony with both Sage and I. Though the day of Raksha Bandan had passed some time ago, the meaning was still there – that we were family: sisters and brother, and would always care for each other.

Over our time there Mitali introduced us to several of her friends whom you’ll meet in other entries here. By the end of our time there we all felt like family.

Four days was far too short – shorter than I could ever imagine. And Monday afternoon we found ourselves together on the platform having a tearful goodbye, already missing our new family.

The internet has brought me many wonderful things. In 1991, it brought me Sage – excuse me: meri ardhangini. And in 2018, it brought me a teacher and a sister. Both of them work hard (and now work together) to make me a better person. I am a lucky human being.

Me, Sage, and Mitali on the right side of the photo

13 thoughts on “What Learning Hindi Has Taught Me

  1. Todd, reading your post has really inspired me. My mother tongue is Kannada. We always speak in Kannada. But most of my childhood was spent in Delhi. I never learnt to read and write in Kannada. After marriage in 1982 ,I have been here in a small town in coastal Karnataka. I learnt to read and write in Kannada with my children. But I do not have the speed that I have in English . So I could never really enjoy the wonderful books in Kannada. But now I am going to push myself and increase my speed and read those books. Thank you and to Sage too.

    1. I’m so glad to hear it. Learning a language was really challenging for me because it took so long to start reaping benefits. (Yes, some of that delay was my fault). But once I did the rewards began to come over and over. Now I’m much more able to follow what is being said and even ask when I don’t fully understand. It is a good feeling. I am sure that with some work your Kannada will improve greatly. If you can find a fun way to do it, all the better. Having fun with Hindi has made it so much easier to study and the things I learn stick with me more.

  2. आपको हिंदी में लिखते हुए मुझे बहोत ख़ुशी और गर्व महसूस हो रहा है। it’s just amazing .😊

      1. Dats great!! Besides practicing hindi, Do Follow my blog “Gourmet cravings” for amazing indian cuisines.

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