Many people ask me how long it took me to learn Hindi. I guess it took me about three and a half years to become fluent. Bear in mind that I learnt Hindi in India though. It would have taken me a lot longer if I had learnt it in a non-Hindi speaking environment! In addition, I was very dedicated and studying everyday. This post is about how I did it.
How I learnt Hindi: Starting with Devanagari
About six months before going back to India for a year in 2007, I started learning Hindi on my own. I was 30.
Actually, my best friend at the time offered me Rupert Snell’s Hindi dictionary for my birthday to encourage me. I thought it was a pretty bold present as I hadn’t actually started learning and it kind of put pressure on me! It was a brilliant present though, and you can see from this picture how much I’ve use it thirteen years later! A few months after I got the dictionary, I bought the Teach Yourself Hindi pack by Rupert Snell.
I really wanted to start by learning the Devanagari script, and I felt the book was not enough because it didn’t teach me how to draw the letters. So I searched the Internet and found some great videos of someone actually writing the letters by A Door Into Hindi. For the first six months I practised writing Hindi letters whenever I had time. I was working as a Support Worker with people with learning difficulties at the time, and it was a great activity whenever I had nothing to do at their home! I didn’t need much motivation because it was not a brainy exercise – I just had to do it without worrying about learning!
It was way more difficult to motivate myself to go through the lessons of the Teach Yourself Hindi book and CD, because I didn’t have any Hindi speaking friends to practise with! A friend of mine introduced me to his Indian flatmates and they did help me a few times, but I didn’t connect enough with them to want to meet them regularly.
By the time I was back in India in 2007, I had only studied the first three lessons of the book. I knew about half of the Devanagari alphabet though, and on my way to Khajuraho in January 2008, I could actually read the ‘Khajuraho’ sign on the bus! It was the first time I was actually using Hindi in a real-life situation and it was really rewarding and motivating!
The first year & immersion in a traditional family
I really started learning Hindi seriously after I arrived in Kishan’s family in Khajuraho. No-one spoke English in the house except him, so I just had no choice! It was not easy though, because in Khajuraho most people speak the Bundelkhandi dialect. But with me of course they used Hindi.
I studied my Teach Yourself Hindi book everyday and I applied my new Hindi skills with the family. Actually, one of the best things about Rupert Snell’s Teach Yourself Hindi book is that the dialogues are very practical – very real-life friendly. The vocabulary was very useful in context! I don’t know how I would have done without this book, because the family didn’t have enough linguistic knowledge and awareness to help me with grammar. Whenever I asked Kishan about small words like ‘ko’, ‘ki’, ‘ke’, ‘ne’ etc., all he could tell me was that they were ‘helping words’ and he had no idea how they actually helped! So I always resorted to my book and always found the answers in it. The family could correct sentences and pronunciation though, so they were still very helpful. They also taught me tons of vocabulary, and using it in the right context everyday meant I could remember it more quickly.
Everyday, some small children were coming to the house after school and Kishan’s sisters helped them with homework. I always sat with them to do my own ‘homework’, and it was really fun for the kids to have a crazy grown-up pupil in their class. Of course I too loved their company.
Hindi can be very off-putting to learn because it is very different from European languages, and at first it takes a lot of getting used to. Grammatically, the fact that there are no prepositions but postpositions and that verbs come at the end means that you have to think sentences the other way round. On top of that, the way many basic expressions are constructed are really disconcerting. For instance, when you say ‘I want chai’ (‘mujhe chai chahie’) ‘chai’, not ‘I’ is the subject. An English equivalent would be to say ‘chai is necessary to me’. Or when you want to say ‘I like this’, you actually say ‘this touches me in a good way’ (‘mujhe yah accha lagta hai’). This for me was a real brain teaser! Not to mention the pronunciation, which is very difficult with all its strange fricative, guttural and rolled sounds. I will write another article soon about how I overcame difficulties with tips and tricks. Starting learning Hindi in total immersion was amazing, because it was a great kick in the butt for me to do it despite all the challenges.
After I left the family I carried on studying, but it was more difficult to be diligent, because I didn’t really know who to practise with. I couldn’t trust the people I met as much as I could trust Kishan and his family! And as a solo female traveller in India, I didn’t want to tell my life story to all passers-by, so it was hard to practise conversation ! I still did it as much as I could though, and I practised quite a lot in shops!
Letting my brain digest and looking for teachers
By the end of my first year in India, I had made a lot of progress and I could get by quite well. But I couldn’t take any more information because my brain was overloaded! I was almost choking with Hindi and I desperately needed a break! I got back to Europe and stayed there for three and a half months before I came back to live in India in 2009. Although I did not even opened my Hindi books while in Europe, Kishan told me I spoke better when I got back!!! Taking a break to give my brain the time to digest and letting go a bit had definitely helped, and I was ready to start studying again.
I carried on with my Teach Yourself Hindi book in Khajuraho for a month, and then I went to Varanasi to find a teacher. It was not an easy task! First I took some lessons with a guy called Deepankar who taught me some very useful stuff, but he was a bit weird and he made me feel uncomfortable so I stopped. Then I found a funny-looking guy called Bablu on Bengali Tola along the Ganges. He really liked me and he kept calling me his ‘sweet girl’ and his ‘good student’. He was interesting for a few lessons, because he gave me dictations and he taught using children’s stories, but when I told him I wanted to learn grammar, he tried to teach me what verbs, nouns, and sentences were! He had absolutely NO idea what it meant to be teaching a foreigner; he was teaching Hindi as though I was a Hindi-speaking child! He was taking things very much at heart, and when I told him I wanted to stop learning from him, he was really upset! He spoke very broken English which meant he didn’t the necessary grammatical awareness to teach a foreigner, and he could absolutely not understand why I didn’t think he was good enough. He even phoned Kishan to ask him to explain; I felt really bad… Eventually, I found satisfaction by combining two teachers. The first, Suresh Joshi, was great for vocabulary and discussion. The second was a famous teacher of Varanasi: Prof Virendra Singh who had also been a Hindi Professor at Wisconsin University, USA. It was a huge relief for me to finally find someone who understood what it meant to teach Hindi grammar to a foreigner – someone who could understand how the Western mind worked when it came to learning another language! He was quite expensive and I only took six lessons from him, but he was so efficient that in those six hours Hindi grammar was a lot clearer in my head!
Undergraduate Hindi Diploma at Banaras Hindu University
In August 2009, after I had studied Hindi for a year and a half mostly on my own, I started the two-year Undergraduate Hindi Diploma at Banaras Hindu University. I had talked in Hindi in the department office when I enrolled on the programme so they let me skip the one-year beginner Certificate course. At the time (almost ten years ago now!) the programme was not too expensive for foreigners. For a year, it cost me the 2000-rupees fee for Indians plus a 7500-rupee fee for non-Indians. By the time I graduated the non-Indian fee had increased to 10000 rupees, and today it costs 20000 rupees for foreigners. If you are a interested in applying for a Hindi course at BHU, this is the website you want to start from.
Studying in an Indian university was really eye-opening. It brought a whole new dimension to my Hindi studies to study it in India. Things were not always easy, especially on the bureaucratic side of things, and registration on the first year at BHU was a real obstacle course! Classes really started about a month later than they were supposed to, exam dates were unknown up to a couple of weeks before they happened, teachers didn’t always come to class… But I loved my cute, old-fashioned classroom and how it felt like I had been sent back in the 1950’s, and although some of the teachers were terrible, the syllabus was really good and interesting. The most amazing thing of all was that I was the only student in my class, on both years I was at BHU!!! There were about 10 students on the Certificate course, and 2 to 4 on every other levels of the undergraduate and postgraduate diplomas, but I was face to face with each of my teachers! This meant that my course was customised for me, and no weaker student was slowing the pace down. If a teacher finished a lesson syllabus early I would bring some newspapers and ask him to explain some articles! I also had all of my teachers’ phone numbers, and whenever they didn’t turn up I phoned them and asked where they were! The head of department, a lovely professor who taught me 3 classes per week the first year, once told me that he was more stressed before my classes because he knew I would complain (or even cry with frustration!) when teachers didn’t come or came too late! Whenever he was late for class because he had visitors in his office, I ended up having chai with the men… Organisation was poor and things were slow, but it was definitely part of the ‘Incredible India’ experience…
One of my objectives when at BHU was to improve my Devanagari reading and writing skills. I wanted to write fast and my handwriting to look like that of an Indian rather than that of a foreigner. So I copied whatever texts we studied in my notebook (see picture below). I really observed my teachers’ handwritings, to understands what elements made them look Indian and how different strokes differentiated the letters from one another. Some of my teachers wrote really fast and had really rough-looking handwritings, but I loved observing and analysing them.
One of my teachers also ate paan during his classes… It was quite gross really but ‘Incredible-India’ kind of fun to try and understand him, as his mouth-full made it quite challenging to understand, haha!
I graduated from the UG Diploma in 2011. I could have continued onto the Postgraduate Diploma, but had reached sufficient proficiency and I was not interested in studying Hindi literature and poetry.