Hindi 101

The back cover of my Hindi textbook

Hindi and English alphabets shown with images

Today, I started one-on-one Hindi lessons. Hindi is not my first foreign language. It is my fourth, my fifth if you include the smattering of Spanish that I call “restaurant Spanish,” meaning that I translated the menu for my parents when we visited Guatemala and could communicate with the waiter.  And, while my languages have rusted away from disuse, the mere fact that I studied another language beyond high school makes me unique among Americans; OK, not unique, just highly unusual.

Most Americans never learn a foreign language. We simply don’t need to. Everyone in the US speaks English. We are a country of immigrants tied together by a common tongue: English. Whether you are from Milan, Mumbai, or Monterrey, the assumption is that you speak English, not your native tongue, to communicate. A great deal of controversy revolves around this issue in the US. Many Facebook walls are littered with “If you don’t speak English, then go home,” sentiments. For obvious reasons, I don’t fall on that side of the debate. What many people do not realize is that the Italian immigrants of the 19th century did not all know English when they arrived. And, now, more than 150 years later, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren do not know a word of Italian (except for capisci, which they misspell and mispronounce). Assimilation takes time, generations of time.

Outside the US, English is the lingua franca of the global economy. To communicate in business, people communicate in English, American English. Apologies to the British and their logical punctuation, but for technical business communication, we use American English, not British English. Global companies in technology and oil and gas, no matter where they are based, no matter where their audiences are around the globe, use Chicago style and US spellings as the backbone of their style preferences. Although, we do have the occasional marketing manager who insists on following AP guidelines, much to my dismay. These preferences present certain challenges when your writers are in India. They grew up learning British English, not American, so their spelling and punctuation often follow British rules. Add the complexity of translating Hindi to English, and the sentence structure can sometimes be quite problematic. Good technical writers learn the US style and apply it well, but it can take coaching, and an understanding of where they are coming from linguistically.

Because of British colonial rule, English is a common second (or third) language for many Indians. By some estimates, there are more than 400 languages spoken in India. Yes, 400, with about 20 commonly spoken languages and dialects, including English. The question of language is no less controversial here than English is in the US. The Maharashtra state government is trying to get its workforce to 100% knowledge of Marathi, with mixed results, partially because of budgetary issues. But, English is common enough that you can certainly get by here knowing only English.

So, if it is so common in India for people to know English, why bother learning Hindi? Well, besides the obvious answer that I love language and see a new one as a challenge, because I would prefer that my eight-year-old neighbor not translate for me. The temporary housekeeper whom Brian hired did not speak a word of English. A few weeks ago, she was trying to communicate something important to me, but I did not have a clue what. I went next door to see if Sreoshi was home. She was not, but her daughter was. Unable to communicate with the housekeeper, I asked Isha to translate for me. I asked, “What does she need?” Isha replied, “She wants 1,000 rupees in advance.” Here I was having a conversation that should be between the housekeeper and me, and no one else, with an eight-year-old translator. Frustrating and humbling.

It happens that my Hindi tutor is also Isha’s tutor. Brian met Ritu in the hall the other day and asked if she knew anyone who could teach me Hindi. It turns out that she wanted to tutor me. Today, I started with my ABCs. Unlike the Romance languages I learned in school, which use the Roman alphabet, Hindi has a completely different alphabet called Devanagari. So, I need to start the language from scratch. My textbook is a children’s book. Judging by the cover, I suspect this book is targeted to young native English speakers. Ritu told me that it was her reader in school, but I find it astonishing that the images on the cover are not of Indian children. They look like Hansel and Gretel and remind me of the cover for The Little Prince.

My Hindi textbook

The front cover of my Hindi textbook

Today, I learned six letters and six words that start with those letters. That was a full hour of work. Only about 40 more letters to go. Ritu also showed me some numbers and said that Isha knew her numbers up to 40. I said, “Well, that’s a good target, knowing more than Isha.” So, while in the US, I am “smarter than a fifth grader,” and have evidence to prove it, in India, my goal is to be smarter than a third grader.

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