Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Learning the Language

According to my Lonely Planet guidebook, eighteen languages are officially recognized by the Indian constitution and in the last census over 1600 minor languages and dialects were listed. Though I’m pretty good with languages, I decided only to work on one while I'm in this country.

Before recently, except for a few select words and phrases, Hindi mostly sounded like gibberish to me. I still don’t understand much, but I have been hearing it long enough that the sounds are familiar now. What’s cool is that both with and without my conscious effort, my brain is starting to organize those sounds.

I feel like I’m going to make some big gains in my Hindi acquisition in my last month here. Not only is my brain getting chummy with the sounds of Hindi, I have now heard some language patterns enough that I can  ask, “What does the ___ ending mean?” because I now actually notice that the ___ending exists. I know enough Hindi to see grammatical patterns emerging as I learn new phrases. The structures are becoming clearer, even though they are very different from other languages I’ve studied. Just to give an example, the word order in the question, “What is your name?” is “Your name what is?” in Hindi. It takes some getting used to…

Having a linguistics background and being a language teacher, I have to say it’s a lot of fun to both participate in and observe my own language acquisition.  It’s been a long time since I’ve taken on a new language and during my time abroad, I’ll be tackling two!! I only wish I had something better than my little Berlitz travel phrase book to help me learn (though my Chetna Bharati girls seem to have fun looking at it)! Nevertheless, I am learning and it’s fun to surprise people when I break out with a Hindi word or two, or sometimes even…a sentence!

Teaching at Chetna Bharti has probably most helped me to learn… My need to translate things so I can teach them is great motivation for my own language acquisition. For most of my time teaching at Chetna Bharati, I had SCN novices with me in my English class to help bridge the language gap. They’ve left Chatra now, so I’m on my own with the girls. They correct my Hindi (usually after laughing at my inability to pronounce words correctly!) as I try to translate what I want to teach them in English. We are learning together!

When I am volunteering in Palestine, I’m fairly certain that Arabic lessons are offered to volunteers. It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes my brain to realign itself from Hindi to Arabic. I am also curious to see the teaching method that will be used with us, since I know of too many cases of well-intentioned, but not particularly effective, language instruction.

Of course, besides Hindi, I am learning the nuances of the English dialect spoken here. There are a few words that are new to me, like (and I’m not sure I’m spelling it correctly since I’ve never seen it spelled) tiffin, which is a snack. What I call a notebook, people here call a copy. A grade (A, B, C, etc.) is a “mark.” “Standard” means grade (level), so I am teaching standards 1, 6, and 7. However, at the school where I teach, they say “class” instead of “standard,” so here I say I teach classes 1, 6, and 7. Tuition does not mean fees paid for classes. Here when someone talks about “taking tuition,” they are referring to what I’d call “tutoring.”

The use of the word “reach” really used to throw me. “When did you reach?” is a common question and I used to expect another word to follow it, but now I know “reach” is the last word in the question. So, while the meaning is similar to its meaning in American English, it needs no object. “I reached her there” does not mean I arrived to where she was, but rather that I brought her there. Today at the lunch table, I heard,” He’d better reach them on time,” which, in the context of the conversation meant “He had better bring them (books) on time.”

I’m sure I could give you many more examples. Of course, there are also all the intricacies of the non-verbal cultural languages; certainly there are many different cultural languages, too, as one travels from place to place. However, that is a discussion for another day!


  1. Cory,
    Supra baht and shubhkaamnayein at learning Hindi! I'm sure you're picking up the language well, and delighting all your girls with your efforts. I can hardly remember any Hindi, but to this day almost every time I think "what time is it?" in my head, my mind immediately says "kitne baje hain?" Strange stuff, what works.

    I'm enjoying reading your blog, and know you're being sent lots of love from Louisville!
    Sarah Scheibe

  2. such a cool post...continued safety, fun, and blessings.

  3. Very late reply, but thank you, friends, for reading and for the love. Makes any difficulties easier knowing you're with me in spirit!