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Where Are All The Hindi Speakers?

Where Are All The Hindi Speakers?

November 04, 2010

Is Hindi disappearing? And what happens when a language is lost?

It’s been a while since I had a Hindi lesson. We went back to Australia; our friend and teacher had a vacation and work commitments. In the downtime, I’ve been keeping up Mir’s Hindi. I haven’t been keeping up my own.

A big part of learning a language is the mental commitment, the decision to actually take the learning seriously rather than dabble. In French, I’m a dabbler--I read the odd kids’ book and I skim magazines with pretty pictures. I can order my coffee in French and hold passable elevator conversations. But I’m not committed enough to take a class, or seek out conversational partners. The thing about French, though, is that it’s prevalent--we’re exposed to it in everyday life, from the French words that have crept into English (blond, carte blanche, creme de la creme) to the posh Valrhona chocolate sold in our local deli.

Although Hindi, Urdu, and Sanskrit have contributed words to English (bangle, bandanna, bazaar, and even shampoo are of Hindi origin), on the other hand, they’re not exactly everyday languages in the US, even in Indian grocers and restaurants. A local Indian convenience store, Food Land, spells its name in English with a Devanagari script; so does upscale restaurant Namaskar. On the rare occasions I’ve sucked up my embarrassment and tried speaking Hindi in a restaurant, the servers haven’t been Hindi speakers (that, or my accent is even more atrocious than I thought). Fortunately, Mir is still at a level I can keep up with--we discuss colors (lal is his favorite), numbers (I can count to 25), and his best subject, food and drink (pani, dud, baingan, and gajjar).

It’s frustrating to be stuck in Hindi limbo. It’s not a popular language in my corner of the US--not in terms of classes, or non-native speakers, anyway. Aside from Joe, who struggles with the same issues I do (though his grammar is better), my Dad (who it’s embarrassing to practice with), and our teacher (okay, she’s perfect, but I can’t speak with her more than once a week), there’s no one to have a conversation with (particularly since the few native speakers I run into can’t understand why we’re studying Hindi anyway). And the tapes and CDs around don’t help. Pimsleur have a couple of speakers with truly odd pronunciation; the Rupert Snell Teach Yourself discs are condescending, with poor attempts at humor throughout. In the current Age of Apple, there are a few iPhone apps for learning Hindi, too, but most of them are overly basic. Then again, World Nomads Hindi, did teach me a very important phrase:

Yeh nasheeli davaayen meri nahin hain, or “Those drugs aren’t mine!”

I know it’s a good thing overall, but I think the democratization of English is a large part of why Hindi is so untapped as a language. English is accessible all over the world, the new lingua franca for lack of a better term. Even some Indians are no longer sure of the value of learning Hindi or even Tamil, Gujarati, and Punjabi, because English is so widespread. But what happens when a language is lost?

Perhaps lost is too strong a word--Hindi isn’t appearing on the side of milk cartons and there’s no APB out just yet. But our appreciation of a the linguistic side of our culture may be on the wane. This isn’t to say I want Hindi to replace all my English-language interactions--I’m an English devotee, and the Oxford English Dictionary is one of my great loves--but I do think too many people take it for granted. Even Bollywood, arguably one of the last holdouts of Indian language, is caving into demands for more English dialogue and music, rather than relying on dubbing as it once did.

Language is an integral part of culture; there are certain words and concepts which don’t translate well, which help define a way of thinking, or encourage speakers to explore ideas in a new, and possibly innovative way. What I bring to the table as a native English speaker is different to what my father brings to the table as a native Hindi/Urdu speaker, which is different to what my uncle brings as a Slovak speaker. The way we interpret the world is varied; the words I choose say as much about me as our choice of clothing (knee-length mod dress and stockings), or drink (coffee with a Lady Grey tea chaser), or listen to (this morning, it’s The Clash and Sarah Blasko).

It’s a marvelous thing that Indian culture is widespread and appreciated. Although I’m not the biggest Bollywood fan, I’m happy to see it garnering more appreciation in the West. And perhaps my gloom and doom comes from being Australian--I grew up in a country where Aboriginal languages are disappearing every day. Or perhaps it’s that I regularly switch between US, UK, and Australian English, all subtly different, for work. Perhaps it’s just my frustration with the business of learning a second language as an adult seeping into my everyday life and writing. But I’m dedicating the time and effort to learning Hindi as an exercise in learning more about myself and my heritage so I can pass something about Indian culture onto my son. And so far, the best way--better than eating Indian food, watching Indian movies, and singing Bollywood songs--is by learning Hindi with all its subtleties and frustrations and overly similar vowel markings. Learning Hindi is a window into an important part of my history and Mir’s, a way for Joe and I to struggle and laugh through something together, a way for all of us to forge deeper connections with our family. So we’ll keep at it, speaking to anyone who’ll listen. With luck, someone will.


9 Comments

  • Sumit Kumar
    By
    Sumit Kumar
    15.06.14 09:17 PM
    प्रस्ताव: call me if required HINDI content-writing, translation, editing etc..91-9425605432 sumit kumar i can relocate in abroad if you are sincerious for HINDI
  • Smeet
    By
    Smeet
    21.09.12 09:18 AM
    Actually, Hindi is predicted to die out within the next 200 years. Now I now that sounds like quite a while, but speaking in terms of world history, its nothing, only about 3 generations. Even in parts of MP, UP, Bihar and such, parents are sending their children to English schools instead of Hindi schools because English is seen as the language of science, even though Hindi has words for virtually every concept of science. It is pitiful to see how Indian parents in India don't seem to care about their language anymore and simply care that their children study English to bring pride to their family as a sign of modernism.
    My only solution is to have children go back into all Hindi (or native language) education to bring back culture and the identity of the Indian people.
  • Bijal
    By
    Bijal
    23.03.11 03:05 PM
    I was born and brought up in the UK. My family is from Gujarat so at home we speak Gujarati. I was exposed to Bollywood films since the age of 3 and I loved watching Ramanand Sagar's Ramayan. This is how I learnt Hindi; through Bollywood, needless to say my Hindi is a little Filmy, but it's helped me a lot. So for those of us who don't live in India, I think as long as we're exposed to Hindi (through films and these days tv serials) we will pick it up, remove Hindi from these and this will affect the exposure we have (sadly more and more English is incorporated into Bollywood these days.
  • Anket
    By
    Anket
    19.03.11 06:02 AM
    Well I honestly doubt Hindi will die out completely..maybe outside India and certain regions of the main cities like Mumbai and Delhi, besides that, there are millions of Hindi speakers who grew up in a Hindi-speaking environment. However it should not be a huge concern, at least not now. Preferring a language is mainly due to the environment one grew up in, hence is comfortable speaking that they grew up with. My parents speak Hindi, but I don't speak it to be honest as I was raised elsewhere. People always say 'blame' the parents...well truth is it's NOT the parents' fault. When you grow up in a different environment, you have a different mentality than that of your parents. However, it NEVER took me away from my roots and culture. So langauge is NOT the only barrier to learn about your culture, just one tool you can have, but not everything! I still carry some my traditions with me and still celebrate with my wife, who's non-Indian. My kids enjoy it too, however as for langauges..I'll let them decide if they want to learn it. Nowadays people are learning languages for just a passion..so another way to avoid losing langauges, have a passion for it..however, DO NOT force it on anyone! Because that can affect your mindset and can make you abandon it as well.
  • suresh
    By
    suresh
    27.01.11 09:54 AM
    Dear all:

    I teach Hindi on line and take from Hindi translation assignments. My mother tongue is Tamil. I served a US NGO for 29 years in India and abroad. I am a commerce graduate. I spent 30+ years in Bihar, eastern part of India. Please check for my lessons at www.Ispeakhindi.com

    Regards,

    suresh
    sskay56@gmail.com
    Chennai,India.
  • Ankit Gupta
    By
    Ankit Gupta
    08.11.10 06:15 AM
    Also, Some NRIs even fail to pronounce their Names properly just because they do not know Hindi.
  • Ankit Gupta
    By
    Ankit Gupta
    08.11.10 06:14 AM
    Great post there! Language keeps you rooted and the decadence of Hindi speaking culture is sad.
  • Alfred Jones
    By
    Alfred Jones
    05.11.10 08:38 AM
    It is tough to learn a new language when you aren't surrounded by it - and especially if you're trying to teach it to yourself. Kudos for trying though.

    I've heard good things about Rosetta Stone's Hindi learning software. It costs a pretty package though (circa $250) so you might want to take it for a spin at your local library first.

    My wife and I have two young boys, six and four, and are based in the US too. It has been an interesting experience trying to pass on halfway decent Hindi (her) and Kannada (me) vocabularies to our kids. Here's my $0.02 in case it helps you as well: The whole learn the language by learning its alphabet approach was a complete wash. It took too much time, and required too much work before they tasted success. We switched tactics and they did a lot better with the listen and repeat approach which, in hindsight, is more natural I think. Plus it guarantees early success and builds confidence quickly. Any chance you have Hindi-speaking friends who'd be willing to help out? Maybe a once a week Hindi only hubbies/wives night out at an Indian restaurant where you can hear and try some live, conversational, day to day Hindi?

    Most of us growing up in (urban) India grow up bilingual, ie. English and whatever else is spoken locally. But over the last fifteen years I am seeing my younger cousins, nieces and nephews swapping in more and more English when they speak in Kannada, or Tamil, or whatever. It is sad to see but I can't really blame them, i.e. I don't think they're doing it because they don't care. I think, for a whole set of interrelated reasons, they find it vastly more convenient.

    Best,

    ~alfred
  • Mukund
    By
    Mukund
    04.11.10 07:15 PM
    In some parts of India Hindi is widely spoken. In contrast there are few pockets Where Hindi is as good as banned. However, people are realising the importance of speaking Hindi.
    Funny part is now NRIs when think of coming back to Mother Country they find it somewhat difficult to adjust with not only culture but even Hindi language. I know few NRIs from South, worked in US for couple of years. And when they want to come for good in India they found it difficult to adjust with Hindi learning (as in some schools Hindi learning in Mandatory).
    It's advisable to connect to the Indian cord by practising Hindi.
    You are well aware that even US Administration has introduced Hindi in many of Universities realising the importance of Hindi as bilateral trade between India and US is on the increase.
    After all it's individual choice of learning language.
    But the people interested in Indian culture, Yoga, Tourism and Kerala Ayurvedic treatment etc. are joing the band of Hindi learners.
    It's a good sign.
    So keep it up Hindi studying / practising.
    I for one will be keen to give trial lesson free of cost. It's my endeavour to help Hindi learners around the world.
    Best of luck.
    dhanyawaad,
    fir milenge,

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