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

The beginning of the story is here. [...] 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 just tell you how it has been for me, and you will understand pretty fast where my Hindi problem laid. Plus as a bonus you’ll roughly know what the heck I’ve been doing all that time in India :) . And double bonus, I’ve drawn fantastic maps to help you visualize everything. How kind am I?

I spent the first week in Varanasi. Hindi around, yes, but I had just been reunited with my Austrian friends Julia and Simon with whom I use German. And since I was staying for once in guest-houses and not using hospitality networks, I had no friendly host around to teach me or to listen to. Add to the list that India can be quite overwhelming, and I was just busy taking it all in. I did pay attention to Hindi but found that it was spoken awfully fast (and remember that I was fresh from Iran where I had fallen in love with Persian). I couldn’t even make out the syllables from the soup of sounds I seemed to be hearing.

One night in the train later and I was in BhubaneswarOdisha (formerly Orissa). No Indian host answered my hospitality request in time and I ended up with… five Italians! I spoke English and French with them. I only stayed one night and one day, then I went on my own to Konark, also just for one night. Since I was only passing by and mostly in contact with foreigners, I didn’t even notice that in Odisha the language had changed to Oriya and I had barely realised that the script was different as well and completely unrelated to the Hindi alphabet.

One more night in the train and I was in Hyderabad in the state of Andhra Pradesh, where the official language is Telugu, along with Urdu. It has its own script of course, otherwise it wouldn’t be so much fun, would it? I spend a few nights in Hyderabad at my first proper Indian host‘s, Yogi. He was supposed to teach me how to read Hindi, but we were too busy communicating in English. I had a thousand questions about the Indian culture and society for him!

One more night in the train and I was in Bangalore, Karnakata. The local language is Kannada, and, try to guess… it has its own script, yes. It looks quite beautiful and quite complicated at the same time. I stayed only for one night with a lovely couple that wasn’t originally from Bangalore. I think they were Hindi-speakers though, at least one of them.

One last night in the train and my cross-all-India-in-a-week adventure had come to an end when I arrived at Amma’s ashram in Kerala. An ashram such at Amma’s is a very peculiar place and certainly not one where you’re focused on learning languages. And there I met Julia and Simon again, so at first I was using German with them and English with all the other interesting foreigners we kept meeting (I was my usual undercover French person there so I didn’t say I was from France and kept using English with everyone). There are plenty of Indians at the ashram, but the Indian/foreigners groups don’t really mix that much. I stayed for ten days.

After that I went to Trivandrum, the capital of the State of Kerala.  The real name is Thiruvananthapuram. That’s when I decided that my new aim would be to at least be able to remember and pronounce the local names of all the places I was going to. Getting out of the shsram, I realised that the local language was Malayalam (often shortened as “Malu”). Needless to say that it has its own beautiful script (I wish I had taken pictures of all those scripts as I was travelling there but I didn’t realise I’d need them for this article at the time). In Trivandrum I stayed with Aashish who would become later the person from whom I learned most of my Hindi. He speaks Hindi…. terribly fast! I remember it struck me back then. But of course Aashish doesn’t come from Kerala, he comes from the North, where Hindi is the official language. Kerala is proud to have the highest level of literacy in India.

Leaving Trivandrum I was travelling with an Aussie girl, a Spanish and an Indian guy. English required, obviously, and we let our Indian friend in charge of the communication with the locals. I think he could speak quite a number of languages. We moved places every few nights travelling up the Tamil Nadu coast. Soon enough the boys had to go back to Kerala, and I kept travelling with Rachel, the Aussie girl. We reached Pondicherry together. Pondicherry is well-known for its… French-speaking community! And I had indeed a long conversation in French and English (about languages!) with the owner of our guest-house. Apart from that, we didn’t have much contacts with the locals.

When I got to Chennai I could take more interest in the local language, Tamil (a variant of the Tamil spoken in Sri Lanka). That’s when I learned that the people from Tamil Nadu are well-known for simply… refusing to speak Hindi! Most of the people there never learn Hindi and if they do, they are quite reluctant to use it. So when chatting with me they wouldn’t even try Hindi and spoke English straight-away, if they knew it. I didn’t realise it back then, but Tamil was the Indian language I could have learned a tiny bit of, since I stayed two weeks straight in Chennai. But even then! I stayed with three different hosts split up in four stays. And the lovely family with whom I stayed the longest was actually… from Bengal! So it was a Bengali speaking (and even eating) household. Try learning any Hindi – or Tamil there if you can. While I stayed in Chennai I did manage to learn approximately… three words of Tamil, of which I now remember one. I have to admit that I had a really good time in Chennai, and I was so busy following the geeky conversations of my new friends (in English) and spending a good time there that I didn’t bother too much about Tamil or Hindi. I did enjoy the sound of Tamil all around, but never really figured it out.

On night in the train again and I was on my own in Hampi, Karnakata, where the local language is Kannada, just as in Bangalore. I was mostly, when not keeping to myself altogether, interacting with other foreigners or with the Nepalese restaurant workers. In my last days in Hampi, the kids at the HTC did try to teach me a few words of Kannada but in such a frantic manner that I forgot every sentence right after merrily repeating it.

Leaving Hampi I met a Frenchman and spent the whole afternoon speaking French with him (and I strangely enjoyed it!). I spent the two following days travelling with an amazing Chinese girl and since all the Chinese I knew back then was “nihao”, we obviously spoke English. We went to Badami and Bijapur together. Both towns are still in Karnataka and we stayed only one night in each. I had one Hindi-alphabet lesson in the train to Bijapur, from a very enthusiastic local young man.

One long long night in the bus and I was back in Hyderabad where I was busy chatting English with good friends again and couldn’t have cared less about Hindi. I stayed four of five days there.

One long train trip later I was in Delhi for the first time. I had three hosts there. Well first I was actually on my own. Then I was… in a Bengali household again! My last host was a friend of Aashish. The later joined us, but because the two friends hadn’t seen each other in a long time, they spoke Hindi super fast and excitedly. And anyway, it was only one night before my best French friend Béré came to visit me in India for a week. We had not seen each other for many months and learning foreign languages is not really her thing, so the next week was French-speaking, mixed with some English to chat with Aashish and zero Hindi.

After another night in the bus, short stop in Chandigarh with Aashish and Béré to pick up another friend who was trekking with us. The city has been designed by Le Corbusier and is praised for being the only “planned” city in India – it left us very unimpressed.

One bumpy night in the bus and four of us were in Manali in the state of Himachal Pradesh, at the foot of the mountain. That’s where I said good-bye to Béré and joined the camp of the Himalayan trek I had signed up for. Aashish was also coming, alongside another friend.

The big breakthrough- The TREK

The trek was organised in batches. My batch was one of the biggest, fifty-four people. So fifty-three Indians and me – we were seven girls in total. My co-trekkers were coming from all over the country and for the first time, I finally witnessed how Hindi actually worked as a common bridge between them all. Some of my fellow trekkers couldn’t speak any English at all. I know there were a few Tamil speakers amongst them but I don’t remember if they knew Hindi or not (I think I forgot to ask). So finally, in this context, Hindi was overpowering the other Indian languages and served as lingua franca for big group conversations. And if it weren’t for me I guess, this trek would have been all in Hindi. Or at the least in the “Hinglish” Hindi often becomes, a Hindi sprinkled with English words or whole sentences. And even then! There was a group of young Bombay girls at the trek who would communicate almost exclusively in English between themselves, even though all of them could speak Hindi. Someone told me it was the arrogant way of the Mumbai people who think of themselves “too good for Hindi” (attitude dear attitude, here we go again).

So, that was my last chance, right? I gave up on my learn-to-read-the-script-first project and decided to use this opportunity to learn as much spoken Hindi as possible. I made an announcement that I was willing to exchange Hindi words for French ones and… it worked quite well! I was teaching some French as we were walking or resting along the way and AT LAST, I was learning some Hindi! Most of my Hindi is food-related, probably a side-effect of the trekking part. I learned mainly how to say things like “The food is ready”, “I’m hungry” or “My stomach is full”. And of course I learned some silly words to make every one laugh, walking all day is easier with high spirits :) . But the trek lasted for a week only, and I soon left the beautiful Himalaya. Aashish, who was doing the trek as well, has been throughout and until we parted a very patient teacher. I have been a pretty bad student!

One last very long train trip and I was in the heat again in Maharastra. In the bus to Pune I merrily tried my brand new Hindi on the old woman sitting next to me, as she seemed curious about me. She looked back at me blankly then said something I did not understand at all. “She speaks Marathi only, no Hindi” said the man sitting on the other side of me. I was in South India again, for sure! The Marathi and Hindi scripts are extremely close, but I was at the end of my time in India and I already felt like I had lost the battle.

In Pune though I did make a last attempt at learning the Hindi-script. I bought for 50 rupees – almost nothing – one of those old-fashioned books were the children practice their writing. This is how I usually learn the script or perfect it, with books for little kids. I did the same in Georgia, Armenia and Iran. I learned how to write and read a few letters but again – lack of practice, I was leaving soon… I ended up using the pages of the book as wrapping paper for some packages I wanted to send. The great family I stayed with – and which was, for the record… Tamil speaking! – kindly helped me with my desperate attempt but it wasn’t enough. Maybe learning Hindi this time just wasn’t meant to be!

In Mumbai, my last stop in India, I did learn… how to read the numbers in the Marathi script, because that’s how they are written at the front of buses! There are English numbers on the side so it’s easy to practice as you wait for the bus. You try to read or guess the front number and you check it on the side as the bus goes past you. But I am not even sure I learned all nine digits, I only got the ones I needed for the few buses I took.

So YES, I beautifully failed at learning Hindi… but it’s not entirely my fault, is it? And actually, I wasn’t linguistically idle at all, since I was constantly observing the fascinating ways of Indian English. But that’s another story yet to be told :) .

The beautiful complete map

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