Speaking “Indian”- A Reflection on Learning Experience in Hindi

India- A huge country with a massive population, and home to a whole bunch of languages. In fact, India recognises 23 official languages, including Hindi, English, Urdu, Panjabi, Gujarati, Tamil and Malayalam, just to name a few. Yet, some people refer to these diverse group of languages as just Indian, like “Do you speak Indian?” My usual reply was “Which Indian?” as the languages of India can be categorised into two major groups – the Indo-European, and the Dravidian. These two families host languages spoken by 74% of the population for the former, and 24% for the latter. Given that 23 languages in India have official status, and some hundred more exist within its borders, I feel that “speaking Indian” is a really vague term. So yes, I learnt “Indian”, as some avocadians would ask, but to those more informed on the diversity on the languages of India, I have been learning Hindi for the past three months.

These three months had been a rather fun one for me when it came to language learning. Hindi, the language spoken by a majority of Indians in India and across the world, exposed me to a new set of sounds almost exclusive to the Indian subcontinent. Oh the ट, ठ, ड, ढ and ण. These were the consonants which are kinda characteristic of many languages in India — the retroflex consonants. That moment when the back of your tongue arches back to make sounds. That is retroflexing. Their sounds also distinguish based on the puff of air after the consonant or as it is termed aspiration. Otherwise, picking up the sounds worked pretty well for me.

Hindi also had its own writing system to offer. The Devanagari script, used in India and Nepal, represented the sounds of Hindi quite effectively. An abugida written from left to right, it consisted of some 14 independent vowels and 33 consonants. Vowels were changed based on the diacritic used, in front of, behind, above and below the consonant. And also, each consonant carried its own vowel “a”. So a consonant letter would be pronounced “Ca” (C is the consonant). Simple. Devanagari also packed this killer stroke that eliminates the inherent vowel from pronunciation. In Sanskrit this is known as viraama, and in Hindi, halant. Conjoint consonants appear in Devanagari, and rules may vary, especially when it comes to that playful letter “ra” (र). More diacritics are added to accommodate sounds borrowed from Perso-Arabic like /q/, /x/, /z/ and /f/. And it is also interesting to note that 1296 symbols of two-consonant clusters exist in Devanagari. To the people who can’t read Devanagari, the horizontal bar on each word makes the script appear to be snakes coiled around tree branches. Learning this foreign script to me took about a couple weeks of familiarisation and memorising. Now it’s all good.

Hindi grammar was the one which blew my mind. Like Japanese, Hindi pushes the verb all the way to the back, and uses postpositions (that is, prepositions, but after the noun). The confusing part is choosing which nouns to use to conjugate a verb and which ones not to, and that Hindi is a blend of absolutive-ergative and nominative-accusative. So sometimes you conjugate the verb based on the number and gender of the nominative, and sometimes you conjugate the verb based on the number and gender of the thing that is not ergative (the agent thing). It takes time to get used to, but Hindi surely has a friendly reminder when to do so, with its particle ‘ne’ (ने). This particle basically marks the agent in certain tenses, and it is only in these tenses can you apply this ergativity thing that has been confusing me for so long (which started way back when I was Basque-ing in absolutive-ergative confusion). Other than that, Hindi grammar was quite manageable for me.

When it comes to expressing ideas, concepts and wishes, Hindi has a whole bunch of them. You wouldn’t directly translate “I love you” as “मैं तुमसे प्यार करता हूँ।”, no, no, that would be rude, but more like “मुझको तुमसे प्यार है।” (for those curious, it’s transcribed as ‘mujhko tumse pyaar hai’), directly translated back to English, it is “to me from you love is”. And that is beautiful. I believe that the true beauty of Hindi shows up in its idiomatic expressions. People don’t just think, or सोचना, but also say मेरी राय में (in my opinion). People don’t just can as they can in English, but more rather can to different levels. Three such levels exist in Hindi, one is generic, one is partial competence, and one is full competence. So there exists three ways to say “I can speak Hindi” in Hindi, and for me it’s more like मैं थोड़ी थोड़ी हिंदी बोल लेता हूँ।  (that’s the second level of “can”), directly translating as “I little little Hindi speak take am”. People also don’t just want, they desire too. And this is expressed using two different moods of the same verb. One way is just plain चाहना (caahnaa), and the other is चाहिए (caahiye). Of course many other idiomatic expressions exist, and I’ve probably barely made a scratch in the surface. Many other beautiful expressions exist, it’s my choice to find out more.

One difficulty in learning Hindi would be learning the numbers. Sure one to ten is easy, but after that? I have spoken to some native speakers of Hindi, and they said that there isn’t really much of a pattern in Hindi numerals, but sometimes the consonant consistency may hint on the number expressed. Otherwise it boils down to plain memorising one to a hundred individually. And sure it’s difficult. A typical number run for me would sound like एक दो तीन चार पांज छह सात आठ नौ दस and followed by a sudden mental block. And here you go. One of the main difficulties in Hindi. The numbers.

My journey in learning Hindi came out to be quite smooth, to be honest. Hindi resources are easily and readily found, from books to news media to internet memes (I heard Dinchak Pooja became a meme because of her song) and who could not forget, Bollywood. And along with these resources there are more than half a billion people worldwide to practice your Hindi with. From India to Fiji (Fijian Hindi exists), one can almost never be short of a native Hindi speaker to practice with. And I’m glad to have found some here where I live. They helped train my pronunciation, broadened my vocabulary and introduced me to colloquial expressions. And for that, I’m really grateful. I have set a new goal for myself, and that is to hold a conversation with them entirely in Hindi. It’s a challenge, but a good challenge to show that I have genuinely learnt. And that I have achieve some sort of standard in this language.

Going back to the topic of speaking “Indian”, many avocadians would imply that Indian would mean Hindi. But where I live, they might probably mean something else. A Dravidian language spoken by some 70 million in the state of Tamil Nadu in India, and in Sri Lanka and Singapore. This is Tamil. Thus, I started picking up the Tamil language after my course in Hindi. It’s a different experience, and undoubtedly, it is going to be an eye-opening one. This would be my second official language of India to learn (after Hindi), and sure I’m looking forward to discovering more about it.

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