Big Gora Learns Hindi

Big Gora Learns Hindi

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Kya main thik se bol raha hoon?

Am I speaking correctly? क्या मैं ठीक से बोल रहा हूँ? [kya main thik se bol raha hoon?]
At this stage of learning Hindi, I'm asking myself this all the time. I need a native speaker whom I can ask these questions constantly by my side.
For example, in my question above, here are all the little grammar and diction questions I have to ask myself, and am forced to answer the best I can, solo:
1) The *book* I'm using says I should most often begin questions with "kya" [क्या] or the other question words, कैसे, कौन, कहाँ, क्यों, and so on. But do actual Hindi speakers drop it habitually in everyday usage? I get that impression from the Hindi TV and movies I watch.
2) Would "ठीक" or "ठीक से" (thik or thik se) be correct grammatically? I *think* that "ठीक" is just used as an adjective--right?
3) I still need to slow down and think of all the verb parts: Let's see, the root of बोलना is बोल, and I use that rather than the imperfect बोलता because I want to indicate I am speaking right now rather than habitually ("I am speaking" [main bol raha hoon/मैं बोल रहा हूँ] as opposed to "I speak"); then "raha hoon," masculine of रहना + हूँ (rather than + है, third person, the most common form).
This is a lot of mental calculation happening in half a second! Just to ask if I'm speaking correctly--about which I'm rarely sure! It's definitely a mental challenge that I'll continue as long as I'm learning Hindi.
I was thinking particularly about getting my Hindi exactly right at the recent Diwali celebration in Tulsa. Over the summer, the India Association of Greater Tulsa sponsored a writing contest for adults and children on the topic, "Why I Love India." I was deeply honored to have my essay, "Falling in Love with India," chosen for the adult first-place prize. I received that news the first weekend of November, with the celebration on the ninth.
On the drive up, I composed sentences in my head, in case I happened to be handed a microphone:
"बहुत धन्यवाद इस भेंट के लिए!" [Bahut dhanyavaad is bhent ke lie!/Thank you very much for this gift!]
"मैं भारत से बहुत प्यार करता हूँ." [Main Bharat se bahut pyaar karta hoon/I love India very much.]
(By the way, it's always mystified me that it's so difficult to say "I love X" in Hindi. It's one of the first things we learn in any other language, right? But in Hindi you have to say, literally, "I India with much love doing am.")
Playfully, if I were to receive a compliment from the IAGT president Santanu Das, with whom I'd spoken on the phone: "आप बिलकुल मालिक हैं." [Aap bilkul maalik hain/You (respectful) are totally the boss; roughly, "You're the man.")
Fortunately for everyone, I was not handed a microphone. 8)
Here I am receiving the award/recognition:
I don't mind a little mispronunciation of my name under the circumstances!
Anyway, on this issue of getting my Hindi not-quite-right: I keep flashing back to a wonderful book by David Sedaris called Me Talk Pretty One Day. That title is how he figures his attempt to say "One day I will speak beautiful, fluent French" must sound to native French speakers. The words may be more or less accurate, but it's those little nuances that turn the latter sentence into the unintentionally funny one. Someday… एक दिन? कुछ दिन? कभी? [Literally: ek din/one day? kuch din/some day? kabhi/sometime?]
P.S. Thank God, the Hindi transliterator, which has been nonfunctional for a couple of months, is back in order here on Blogspot. I was forced to use in a way it wasn't really built for, to get transliterations; it's much easier not to leave this page.
P.P.S. Still no word on the Fulbright. Insert the Hindi curse of your choice here.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Main haule-haule paagal ban raha hoon

That ^ is to say: I'm gradually going crazy. It has been distracting me from my Hindi study, blast it. Here's the story.
I applied for a Fulbright research/teaching scholarship this year. I worked on the application over the summer, including soliciting letters from academic friends/colleagues: my department chair (to vouch for my teaching), a dear friend associated with the big conference I go to every year, and an Indian-American friend from another academic department (to vouch for my serious personal and academic interest in India). The whole packet was due August 1, but I turned it in by mid-July. (Somewhere I'd read a sentence that suggested the awards committee would begin reviewing applications as they came in--rather than after the Aug. 1 deadline--so I got it in early. I can't find that sentence now in any of the material, and half-suspect I imagined it.) I was asked to name two universities I'd like to work at, so I named schools in places I most fervently wish to go: Banaras Hindu University, on the shores of the Ganges River (!), and the University of Delhi. If I were to receive one of the (as far as I can make out) 62 such scholarships, I'd teach and study in India from August to December of 2014.
So what's the problem, you ask? If you ask this, then आपके पास बहुत भाग्य है [aapke paas bahut bhaagya hai/you're very lucky]: you're not afflicted with an obsessive personality. Every time I sit down to study I run through the whole catalogue of fretting questions, which I've been counting out like a rosary for almost three months now:
What do you suppose my odds are? How many people sign up for those 62 scholarships? Is that even the right number? What if it's like 10?
I wonder if my being an American gora (as opposed to an NRI) will help, or hinder, or not at all affect my chances at this? Do you suppose they're looking for people who already have lots of connections at Indian universities, or would they be seeking to forge new ones instead?
Am I going to be really disappointed if I don't get this? Probably so, but how can I help being emotionally attached to something I want so badly?
If I don't get to go, will I be able to find out how to improve my chances next time without being one of Those People? You know, the kind of person who wants to know how to get his grade on the next assignment up from a 97% to 100?
WILL THEY PLEASE GET BACK TO ME so I know how urgently I need to study!?
The Fulbright website says that those applications due August 1 will receive notification "between October and November." Do you even need to ask whether I've been checking my email hourly since Tuesday morning, Oct. 1st?
There was one small bit of news that at least isn't bad. I got this email from the program director:
Dear Brian Cowlishaw,
I hope this message finds you well. I am writing to let you know that your application for the Fulbright US Scholar Program is currently under review. We have posted the notification timeline on our website. In my experience, you can expect to receive the peer review decision in late fall (likely between mid-November and early December). Pending the peer review outcome, final notifications are sent in the spring.
Best wishes,

This came September 17. I interpret it to mean that I made a preliminary cut that weeded out those who are simply not qualified or didn't turn in a full application. But did you catch that: "BETWEEN MID-NOVEMBER AND EARLY DECEMBER"!!?? ए भगवान [e bhagwaan /oh, God]!
तो मैं इंतजार कर्ता हूं [to main intzar karta hoon/so I wait].
If you can spare a moment, please do this for me: send out into the universe the helpful wish, "अच्छा भाग्य, मेरे दोस्त!" ["accha bhaagya, mere dost"/"good luck, my friend"). You may help this fond wish--to live and work for a time in India--come to pass!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Practice, practice, practice!; or, a new stage of the journey

You probably know the old joke. I used to (rather dickishly, I acknowledge) tell it all the time when I played EverQuest and someone would ask, for example, "How do you get to Faydwer?"
Q: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
A: Practice, practice, practice!
I know, terrible. It's also the most obvious learning principle in the world; however, obvious as it is, I--and maybe you too?--need to learn the truth of it over and over.
That's what this summer has been about for me हिंदी सिखने में [hindi sikhne mein/in learning Hindi]: learning for the five-hundredth time the value of "practice, practice, practice." That is, अभ्यास, अभ्यास, अभ्यास.
I want to tell you the details about this for two reasons: so you don't get down on yourself if you don't adhere to a steady, rigid learning regimen; and so you can learn from my imperfections. When I started learning Hindi three years ago, there was a lot of turmoil and angst at my job; studying Hindi was a peaceful escape from all that. I studied religiously, every day for an hour minimum. I learned the alphabet quickly, then spent a lot of time just enjoying drawing the letters. It felt more like an art project at times than like learning a language. I completed the exercises in my book (see the first post for more), memorized the vocabulary, and listened to the podcasts. Everything about the language was brand new, so every tiny thing I learned felt like a big bonus. There's something intoxicating about knowing, "Two months ago I didn't know how to say anything in this language, but now I know ____!" Anything in that blank is cause for celebration. After about six months of that, though, my devotion flagged: I got busy, and/or frustrated by forgetting what I'd just learned, and/or tired. You may know how that goes: steady enthusiasm and total adherence to a regimen are hard to maintain for very long. They're fragile. (See also: jogging.)
I steadily progressed, one way and another, until Christmas 2011. At that point, my wife and I were heading to India for three weeks! I was eager to try out my baby-talk Hindi भारत में [Bharat mein/in India (itself)]. Instead, abruptly, shockingly, we were sent home. We've both traveled many times to Europe, where Americans do not need visas (only passports); we'd checked online, and were mistakenly told that we didn't need a visa for India, either. As all NRIs surely know, though, we did. So, visaless, we were taken out of the line in Newark for the flight to Delhi. We tried to get a visa in New York City, but that didn't work either--so we went home, shocked and angry and depressed. I believe I said--and definitely felt--"F**K INDIA!" After a couple of weeks I recovered enough just to loathe the visa-granting process and all those involved in it, rather than the nation as a whole.
But--that hurt a lot. A lot. I just didn't feel up to studying Hindi for at least half a year after that nightmare. Not a bit. And when I did finally resume studying in summer 2012, I wasn't quite as steady and dedicated as I'd been at first. Who knew if we'd ever make it to India? What would stop us next time? बहनचोद सरकार! [behnchod sarkaar/sisterblanking government!]
Thank God, Bridget and I did finally make it to India for a beautiful three weeks between December 2012 and January 2013. More on that in future posts!
So at the beginning of summer 2013, mathematically speaking, I'd studied Hindi for nearly two years. Realistically speaking, it may be stretching to say I had a full year under my belt. The good news is, this summer my Hindi leveled up rapidly. It's been incredibly satisfying.
Earlier, I had worked quickly, and shakily, through the first 16 chapters of my book. This summer, I went through those 16 chapters again. And again and again and again. I also listed to the podcasts repeatedly until I could remember each chuckle, audible breath, and hesitation from the speakers. I'm now at a point that is equal parts frustrating and exciting. I can legitimately say a lot of things in Hindi that I might say in English, without needing to look anything up. For example:
"मैंने बहुत अच्छा किताब पढ़ रहा हूँ." [Maine bahut acchaa kitaab padh rahaa hoon/I'm reading a really good book.]
"बिल्ली को मक्खन न खाने देना." (<--actually a sentence right from my book) [Billi ko makkhan na khaane dena/Don't let the cat eat the butter.] (We have a butter-obsessed cat, so this does come up in real life.)
"प्रिय, मैं तुमसे प्यार करता हूँ ." [Priya, main tumse pyaar karta hoon/Darling, I love you.]
I can practice much of the time now in my head--put everyday thoughts like these into Hindi.
I was able to translate this page from chapter 14, only looking up two or three words:

The frustrating part comes--frequently enough--when I find I simply don't know enough words. I need to expand my vocabulary.
The next stage of my Hindi-learning journey will involve two big tasks: learning new material, now that I feel pretty solid with what I've learned so far; and learning more words!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Our Director was remembering you

You might want to watch the clip posted just below--"Silencer's hilarious, mistake-ridden speech"--before reading this post. In either case, to recap the clip from the wonderful film 3 Idiots: Amir Khan's character, Rancho, decides to teach Silencer, and more importantly, their friend who has adopted Silencer's methods, a lesson. Silencer is the stereotypical academic "mugger": he spends long hours memorizing textbooks, definitions, and problems. He prioritizes rote memorization over deep learning of the material. He's also a total suck-up, so he's chosen to give an address to the student body, the university's Director, and a visiting educational minister.
Silencer's Hindi is not fluent, because he grew up in Uganda, not India. He lacks practice. So the librarian is writing his speech for him, and as you see in the clip, Silencer is simply memorizing it, not understanding. Hilarity ensues!
I want to make a point in this post about a subtle moment in the clip. To distract the librarian and get him out of the room, Rancho tells him, "Our Director was remembering you." I had a hard time, before, understanding what kind of moron would respond to that by going to visit the Director in person. I thought most people would respond, roughly: "Okay, so he was remembering me--so? Hope he's thinking positive things." But not go immediately to his office.
Now I understand it! Chapter 16 in Teach Yourself Hindi explains that the phrase याद करना [yaad karna/to do memory (literally)] has multiple meanings that make intuitive sense. These meanings include "to remember," "to learn by memory/memorize," "to think of," and--the key usage--"to summon (e.g., an employee"). So: Rancho tells the librarian two things (eliminating the others through context), intending the librarian to misunderstand him. Using the phrase याद करना, he says: "Our Director was remembering you" and, "Our Director was summoning you." The Director is a hard man to please, as we know quite well by this time in the film, so of course the librarian runs straight to his office.
Mystery solved!

Silencer's hilarious, mistake-ridden speech

Friday, August 9, 2013

Villain from somewhere!

I'm convinced that Hindi has the very best swearing options in all the world--the most colorful, specific, inventive, and widely varied. I'm sure I will be writing about this here soon and often. For example, check out this page, but only if swearing doesn't bother you, because this is serious swearing:
Hindi swear phrases listed and rated for accuracy
Very early in my readings about India, I came across a fascinating insult: "Villain from somewhere!" Someone--I believe it was Salman Rushdie--made an aside to the reader that explained it for me. The actual Hindi phrase is:
बदमाश कहीं का! [Badmaash kahin ka!/Villain somewhere of (from somewhere)!]
My Hindi book explains it like this: "'of somewhere,' hence 'of dubious origin'--sharpens the edge of an insult." In a culture where one's background (class, family, caste, reputation) is all-important, to cast it all into doubt in this way--"from somewhere"--is really damning. Americans in particular like to act as if one's background, even one's recent past, don't matter; but this swear phrase reveals the cultural difference.
So next time you want to toss an insult someone's way, and you don't necessarily want them to know they're being insulted, say with the volume that seems appropriate to the situation:
बदमाश कहीं का!

Monday, August 5, 2013

My life took a new peacock

This page from my Teach Yourself Hindi book is a beautiful illustration of a difficulty that I--and perhaps you too?--struggle with all the time in learning Hindi.
At the top of the page you find the last few lines of a dialogue between Dadi-ji (grandma) and Pratap. He's telling her about how seriously he's taking his Hindi studies, and she's trying to be encouraging. (Such a good Desi boy!) Acknowledging the authors' and publishers' full copyright credit, I reproduce the key lines here.

प्रताप     जिस दिन मैंने हिंदी सीखना शुरू किया, उसी दिन से मेरे जीवन में एक नया मोर आया.
दादी जी [ख़ूब हंसकर ] अरे "मोर" नहीं बेटे, "मोड़"! "एक नया मोड़"!
प्रताप    [झेंपकर ] माफ़ कीजिए दादीजी, ऐसी उच्चारण की गलतियाँ मुझसे हमेशा हुआ करतीं हैं !

[Pratap  Jis din maine hindi sikhna shuru kiya, usi din se mere jivan mein ek naya mor aaya.
Pratap   From the day I began learning Hindi, my life took a new peacock.]

[Dadiji  [khub hanskar] Arre, "mor" nahi, bete, "mod"! "Ek naya mod"!
Grandma [laughing heartily] Hey, not "peacock," child! "A new turn"!]

[Pratap  [jhempkar] Maaf kijie dadiji, aisi uccharan ki galtiyaan mujhse hua kartin hain!
Pratap   [embarrassed] Forgive me, grandma, these pronunciation mistakes are forever happening with me!]

The mistake lies in मोर (mor/peacock) versus मोड़ (mod/turn). The distinction is far, far subtler than it looks on the page. Look closely at these two words, and you see the one-letter difference right away: र looks clearly different from ड़. A comparable pair in English--in terms of appearance--would be something like pen versus pet. Easy. However, as Hindi speakers know, and native Hindi speakers really know, र and ड़ sound very nearly alike--particularly to the unaccustomed Western ear. This is my book's description of the two sounds:
"र as in 'roll'"
"ड़ a flapped hard 'r'--the tongue makes a da sound as it moves past the palate"
If only it were that simple. To my ear, the "r as in roll" is actually, well, rolled a bit, as in Spanish, so that it sounds halfway between r and d. And the "flapped hard 'r'" is softened a bit. So they approach each other from both directions, and--I'm telling you, after many hours of listening carefully to Hindi spoken in Bollywood movies, anyway--they sound alike to me.
The point I've worked toward so laboriously: there are lots of sounds like these two in Hindi, pairs and sometimes (for example, त, ट, थ, and ठ) quadruplets!
Telling them apart requires two things: practice (and more practice!), and a large and ready enough vocabulary that when someone says "My life took a new peacock," you realize quickly that the speaker meant something else, and it must be ____.
Good luck to you and me and all Hindi learners as we learn to hear and pronounce these subtle differences correctly!

Monday, July 29, 2013

The pain of disco, the joy of Hindi

One of the सब से अच्छी चीज़े दुनिये में [sab se acchi chize duniye mein/best things in the world] is Bollywood films! And Om Shanti Om is among the best! Bollywood was a major factor in my wanting to learn Hindi. "Dard-e-disco" reverses the typical gender setup, giving us an "item boy" rather than an item girl. Shah Rukh Khan plays it up hilariously. The context is amusing, too: the number is supposed to be a dream sequence in a terrible-sounding "serious" movie with SRK's character blind, armless, and confined to a wheelchair.
This was one of the first Hindi film songs I discovered I enjoyed more because I was beginning to understand the language a little. As you may know, there are a few commonly used rhymes with "disco" in Hindi, particularly इसको [isko/oblique form of यह + the ever-present को]. So several times in the song you can see the writers straining humorously to create these rhymes, specifiying that the heartbreak happened "on the 26th (of last month)"--"छब्बीस को" [chabbis ko]--and throwing in the city name "San Francisco."
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Shah Rukh Khan in "दर्द-ए-डिस्को"!

Dard-E-Disco (English Subtitles) - Om Shanti Om - HD

Saturday, July 27, 2013

On being an amateur

I am an amateur. "Amateur" derives from the Latin word amare, to love, its past participle amatum, and the noun amator, one who loves. I love India, and her culture and languages; I work to learn Hindi out of love, not for money, success, or status. It's a great thing to be an amateur. There are no bad consequences for, say, taking a long time to learn, or forgetting words you want to remember. You shrug happily and try again, because you love it.
I found that I took a lot of pleasure, early on, in simply practicing drawing the letters. I found a bunch of short words and just practiced. Clearly, Arthur the Cat was a big inspiration too.
One of the great things about learning Hindi is amateur status. If you learn Spanish, or French, people will in pretty short order expect you to have a certain proficiency. But any Hindi you learn as an अंग्रेजी [Angrezi/Brit or American] is a bonus! Just saying "फ़िर मिलेंगे!" [phir milenge/see you later] is an accomplishment you can be proud of!

My blog and welcome to it

I started teaching myself Hindi three years ago. I'd fallen deeply in love with India and her rich, vast culture. Learning Hindi for myself seemed like the next logical step, because that Desi love clearly wasn't going to fade. I teach myself because that's really my only option. Local universities don't offer Hindi classes. So यह यात्रा [ye yaatra/this journey] began.
Now, one of my primary goals with this blog is to demystify learning Hindi (and learning generally). So if you'll indulge me, I'll explain at the occasional risk of overexplaining.
How'd I type those Hindi words? Simple. Right here on the "create post" page of Blogspot, at the right end of the editing toolbar, is the Hindi letter pronounced "uh," which looks like a "31" with a line over it. Toggle the Devanagari writing system--that is, Hindi--on and off by simply pressing that button. Some genius (unironic) figured out how to link that writing system to the Roman letters on the keyboard. Even things like the third letter in "yaatra" there, the "tr" jammed together, are managed automatically. Cool! So as this blog proceeds, I'll toss in Hindi words यहाँ और वहां [yahaan aur vahaan/here and there], along with their transliteration (Roman lettering) and translation into English.
The very first step is to get a good book. This one has worked very, very well for me, and I highly recommend it:
Teach Yourself Hindi by Rupert Snell
One great advantage of Snell's system is that it integrates neatly with a series of free podcasts paired with the book's chapters. You can find the free podcasts here, and download them to your computer, phone, and iPod:
Stupidly, it only recently occurred to me to listen to the podcasts many times each. Everything becomes easier with repetition.

The second step is to use Snell's book, or another like it, to make yourself a set of 3" X 5" flashcards, the Hindi letter on the front and its identification/pronunciation on the back. Hindi has nearly twice as many letters as the Roman alphabet. (See picture just above ^.)
Why? Because Hindi vowels each have their own letter. (In English we talk of a "short a" and "long a," using one letter for two [or more!] different sounds.) Also, because Hindi speakers hear and use distinctions between sounds that we collapse. Whereas English has only the humble t, Hindi distinguishes between त (dental), थ (dental + a puff of air), ट (retroflex), and ठ (retroflex + a puff of air). (Don't worry, any book will help you make this distinction, and in time you'll hear it yourself.) I'd show you a picture of mine, but I gave them away! Work through the flashcards a few times every day until you have the alphabet pretty well down. Shuffle. Repeat. It took me about ten days to feel confident with it. At that point you'll be able to tell the difference immediately between, e.g., द and ढ; य, थ, and भ; म and स.
Important reminder: it's not as hard as it might look. Seriously. The sheer, effortless repetition with the flashcards will overcome all difficulties. It will. 8)
So, back now to the big picture, and a comment on the blog's title. English is unquestionably the prestige language in India. It's the official language of the Indian government, the language of its laws and constitution, and the language of its elite education. All the best schools and universities are "English medium." Now, Hindi has noble roots, no question: it uses the same writing system as Sanskrit, and takes its vocabulary mostly from Sanskrit and Arabic with just a sprinkling of English words (e.g., स्टेशन [steshan/station). Bollywood films and music use Hindi. Yet Hindi has much lower prestige. Plus, as we know to be sadly true, most Americans expect people from other countries to learn our language, rather than vice-versa. Thus, it's a bit unusual for an American gora (white guy), to labor to learn Hindi; the cultural exchange tends to run the other way. Plus my giant size really makes me stand out. So, I'm a big gora learning Hindi--and proud of it! Join me, won't you?