Many of us at different stages in our lives consider learning a new language. In fact, I’ve met many people for whom that is a hobby, and I have always been jealous of them.
As a Brit, I grew up with the belief that I was innately not good at languages. Nobody explicitly tells us that, but somehow the belief resides deep in our subconscious, and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy – we don’t even try. On the occasions we do try, we often don’t make the progress we had hoped for.
Having grown up in Mumbai, my husband’s outlook is entirely different. At my in-law’s home at least four languages are routinely used – Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi and English, mixed together, swapping mid-sentence from one to another with a good smattering of English words throughout.
When we moved to New Delhi just over three years ago, I saw this as my chance to learn Hindi, finally, but of course one is met with a problem – everyone speaks to you in English. Any hope of finding an ‘immersion’ experience quickly evaporated. I met many expats who had tried learning Hindi and had given up – they didn’t need it anyway, or perhaps they didn’t really want to learn. More often than not it seemed that they had just not found the right person to teach them.
Looking back now on my Hindi-learning journey, I can see the barriers I faced more clearly. One is in the mind, the ‘I can’t’. We end up having to stretch our minds and make them work again, study again. For those of us who haven’t studied for a while, our minds can rebel a bit, resist, but we need to train them, just as we would if we were trying to keep physically fit.
Another is the misunderstanding of exactly what it will take – the hard work, the time, perseverance, the financial investment. When I had tried ‘teaching myself’ with that excellent book previously, I had not appreciated how much effort it would take to make the information sit comfortably in my head – how much homework, and practice, I would need to do. Paying for lessons focussed my mind and made me spend the time required, and my teacher diligently set me plenty of homework to do!
We also have to persevere through the hard times too, when it feels like we’ll never understand what the rickshaw driver says (they tell you about their families, their home village, the crops that are grown there, and you always get an open invitation to visit), or we’ll never be able to formulate that sentence with all the postpositions and oblique cases dropping out in our speech correctly and effortlessly.
The cost is also a barrier. We need to accept that, as with everything worth having, it’s worth paying for. We buy ourselves furniture, go on holidays, get gym membership and have nice meals out, and we pay what it costs. We also know that, more often than not, we get what we pay for too. Cheap shoes fall apart after a week or two – in the long run it would be cheaper to buy better quality ones straight away, and that is certainly the case with language learning. You can end up wasting time and money, and getting nowhere, if you don’t find a good teacher.
Has it been worth it? For me, certainly. Having been married for over 20 years, I had felt I had a good appreciation of my husband’s cultural background, but knowing the language has meant that I can access the culture, the life, for myself, not just second-hand through my husband. It’s always a pleasure too, to be able to deal with a situation myself, rather than call upon my husband to translate. It took him a while to get used to that, and the balance of our home life has changed as a result – I’m not dependent in the same way, no more passing the phone to him to deal with the non-English-speaking caller. To be able to enjoy Bollywood movies without my husband having to tell me constantly what’s going on is another small pleasure, and when I began to learn Urdu too, he then had to catch up, as I could read signs around Old Delhi that he could not.
Learning Hindi, and Urdu, has indeed been an interesting journey, and one I had longed to be able to make for many years previously. Just as I had begun to think it would not happen for me, after I had reached my forties, I finally got my chance, and yes, it has been worth it…. Now what shall I learn next…?