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.