Why I haven’t learned Hindi (where it’s kinda my fault)

I’m a big failure. In more than four months in India, I haven’t managed to learn Hindi when in five weeks of Iran, I had managed to learn a fair amount of Persian. What a shame really! You have to understand that to me, as amateur linguist, Hindi looked liked the Holy Graal. It would be my doorway to Sanskrit, the “Indo” part in “Indo-European language tree”. If I could learn Hindi, I would start to see the connexions (in vocabulary at least) between languages existing thousands of kilometres apart. How exciting! But I didn’t learn Hindi. I can’t even read the script. What a failure I am!

Let’s not lament for too long though. I think the reasons why I didn’t learn Hindi might be of interest, and that’s why I want to share them with you. It will give you a sketch of the linguistic situation in India, as usual based a 100% on my humble empirical experience. It will also give you an idea of all the places I’ve been to in India. What follow will pertain to motivation matters, language planning and attitude towards language. And geography :) . Ready for a linguistic dip into India?

Motivational up-and-downs

The alphabet-blow

I had once heard, I don’t know where, that there are only 14 alphabets in the world. I suspected that information not to be true but decided not to check it. Remaining in the dark about it allowed me to sign up for the challenge of learning to read them all. That’s what Küç and me where trying to do as we were travelling together. She was an enthusiastic partner and together we dutifully learned to read Georgian, Armenian and Persian. I had learned before how to read Cyrillic and Japanese, and of course I know the Latin script. So it was all going pretty well… until I came to India. One day, as I was explaining the alphabet challenge to a friend, he told me in a smirk to have a closer look at any of the bank notes I had in my pocket. I did. On an Indian bank note alone, there are SEVENTEEN different scripts! Some of them are quite similar, bringing the count down a bit, but still, there are clearly a lot more than fourteen scripts in the world and my chances of learning them all are now a lot dimmer.

An Indian 20 roupees note, the side with LESS scripts and the face of Gandhi laughing at me for being so naive.

In the meantime I found this pretty map of the world’s alphabets. Count them, it’s surely more than fourteen… (borrowed from boredpanda.com)

Perverse effects

For my first ten days in India, I was in Varanasi. A lot of foreigners stick around the place and a lot of them can actually speak good Hindi – or so I’ve been told. So if all those 60-something British tourists could learn Hindi that well, it would be dead easy for me, right? That’s when psychology comes in. It’s not the first times it happens to me. The same thing happened at the very beginning of my time in Iran. If you tell me (or if I convince myself) that one particular language is going to be easy to learn, I somehow subconsciously believe that it is going to magically come to me. I think that I won’t have to do much, I’ll just absorb it by sitting around. Well, it doesn’t work like that. To learn a language, you have to at least try, and try hard. Tirelessly and whole-heartedly. Then, depending on your personal language-learning abilities, you’ll end up having picked up more or less of it. But you definitely have to at least try! So I was way too lazy at first, because I thought I would be easy.

Change of method

Once I had realised I had to actively try to learn Hindi to get some results, I was actually quite motivated again. I had learn as much as possible of all the languages on the way, so why not Hindi? I was in fact so motivated that I was willing to try out a new way of learning languages: with a self-help book (the one I bought was quite explicitly called Teach yourself Hindi). Since I was going to stay several months, I thought I could learn it “seriously” with the help of that book. I chose the real stuff, the harder book. The version that gets you somewhere, gives you some proper grammar, not the simple phrase-book that, I knew it, would leave me frustrated after 2 days and 10 pages. So I bought the book… and never opened it. In the end I gave it away to a French girl who was living in Bombay and could already read Hindi. You see, my big mistake was that I had opened the book somewhere in the middle, and saw that you needed to be able to read the script to make use of the book. I thought that I would start with that, with he help of the locals. I realised way too late that the first 5 chapters actually had a transcription into English as well. So I could actually have at least studied those by myself and I would have learned a lot, even without reading Hindi. Needless to say that I was quite angry at myself…

A question of environment

So I realised that obviously, I wasn’t the learn-from-a-book type of learner. How I did I pick up the other languages on the way then? It’s all about the environment. I need to see and hear the language around me all the time, everywhere. I pay attention, I observe, I listen, I repeat, I take notes, I ask questions and in the end I have picked up something. But for this I need consistency. To learn Hindi, I would have needed the people around me to consistently speak Hindi between themselves (for that part, online hospitality networks usually come in handy) and everything around to be written in Hindi as well (or Hindi and English). If you believe that it is actually how things are over there, if you think that India is a continuous and homogeneous linguistic environment with Hindi all over the place from North to South, and West to East, you’re WRONG. A thousand times wrong! I’ll tell you how it has been for me and you will understand pretty fast where my Hindi problem laid.

(to be continued)

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