There are a few reasons I’ve decided to take up a language. I’ve enviously watched as friends and fellow students have made connections through their bi-lingual talents but never acted on my constant bemoaning of lacking the skill. Then, during my month-long visit to India in January this year, I faced the stark reality of having to battle through Rajasthan without any grasp of the local language. The novelty of uttering barely coherent “thankyous” and “go… go” had worn off by Delhi when I joined other students for an intensive subject on Security and Development in South Asia. My desperation to engage with this complex and fascinating political landscape was occasionally clouded by unsolvable hot water and drainage issues and simple tasks like queuing and bill paying. I’ve also been wanting for some time, to learn an Asian language that would contribute to my masters and more broadly my employability, and this new found love/hate relationship with the eccentricities of India made Hindi the obvious choice. I wasted no time in acting on my very public determination to become fluent in this language and enrolled in a 10 week adult night class at the Centre for Adult Education; Hindi Elementary 1.
My first lesson couldn’t come quickly enough. I was expecting to instantly be able to impress my Indian friends and start translating posts that occasionally popped up on Facebook. However, it became apparent after listening to grown adults stuttering and stammering through the Devanagari script, that this wasn’t going to happen quickly. The script was particularly difficult to grasp. The differences between each character were so nuanced and subtle, they often sounded exactly the same. For those of us who had never learnt a language before, the ‘palatal’ consonants were both frustrating and entertaining. If I am being honest, I’m still not sure what the difference actually was between the “th” sound I was making in the beginning and the “th” sound that made her finally say “Yes! You’ve got it!“ Our teacher ran a tight schedule as well, and it was obvious how disadvantaged we were had we not completed our homework for the week, which as adults was surprisingly common. There was certainly a moment about halfway through the course when I questioned my capability of learning anything at all, and developed a much deeper empathy for anyone who has ever had to learn a new language, particularly those who had to do so in the very country itself.
I’ve heard that this happens with languages, and as the advice also suggested, this feeling passed. We suddenly could construct four-word statements without any help; I have never been prouder to be able to say the sentence “We are leaving tomorrow” in any language! I could recognise Hindi words on my Facebook newsfeed and, without even thinking, I responded to my Indian friend’s text message in her native tongue. By the final class, at which we were rewarded with samosas and coconut curry, our adult English speaking brains finally reset and the back-to-front grammar that had been so foreign ten weeks earlier suddenly made sense. I had conquered basic Hindi and could finally offer more than “Namaste” to my Indian friends.
Learning Hindi taught me far more than just the language. Its linguistic eccentricities mirror those of India itself. Hindi has become a combination of formality and colloquialisms; it has collided and at times, interchanged with the Persian language, Urdu; and it also varies widely between the states of India. Even my Delhi born teacher would scoff at the correct use of certain Hindi words, “Oh that is so something a Punjabi would say!” We don’t have that kind of linguistic diversity in Australia, nay for the use of “fair dinkum” which pretty much splits country folk from citysiders.
Australia has plenty of reasons to forge a more meaningful relationship with its South Asian partners, especially a country that has many cultural and national partnerships. Learning Hindi is a productive and fascinating way to strengthen this relationship, and an opportunity to learn something from the plethora of Indian students, professionals and families who have made their way to this country, and who have increasingly decided to call it a home. It is a language of almost half a billion speakers and I am pumped to have started this journey to become one of them.
Jacquie Hanna is a Masters student studying International Relations at the University of Melbourne. At the beginning of 2015, she spent a month travelling India and participated in an intensive subject at Delhi University to learn more about security and development in South Asia. Since then she has fallen in love with the country and become fascinated by its politics and plans on travelling, working and living in India once she has completed her course.