Big Gora Learns Hindi

Big Gora Learns Hindi

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!