Part I: Why learning Hindi can be a challenge for native English speakers

Languages can be a window into the culture that speaks them. In this three-part blog, we will be exploring how Hindi is more than a language – it embodies a worldview that relates back to the philosophies that have been born from it.

In this first part, we will examine what is different about Hindi, and why that becomes a challenge for students of the language.

Learning a new language always opens up a whole new world for us. Whether we are struggling with the difficulties of pronouncing unfamiliar sounds, like the retroflexes of Hindi “Ta” (ट) and “Da” (ड), the infamous gutturals of Arabic, ‘qa’ (ق) and ‘Ga’ (غ), or the fricative ‘xa’ (خ),new words that defy translation into one’s mother tongue, or grammatical differences between the target language and one’s own: we often find ourselves on an adventurous, and at times, daunting quest: that of becoming as fluent as we are in our native language.

For any language student, the importance of learning new vocabulary and grammar rules cannot be emphasised enough. However does learning a new language only entail memorising new words and a set of rules to use them? Or, does the student need to be open to learning something else along the way?

Many language learners find that learning a new language also enables them to see certain actions differently, in the way that the native speakers of that language do. For example in English we would say, “He is late.” while in Hindi we would say “Lateness happened to him.” [उसको देर हो गई ।/usko der ho gai hai]

So as learners of a new language, we do need to pay attention to and remember these differences, since a direct translation from English to the target language may not sound natural. We need to learn these types of peculiarities of the target language.

At Zabaan we teach Hindi to expats living in or visiting New Delhi. We work with students at all levels from basic to advanced and cover a variety of language usage including, but not limited to conversational, literary, political, and journalistic, and have taught over 40,000 Hindi lessons since 2009. A crucial part of instruction at Zabaan is to explain not only the hows but also the whys of how the language works.

Over many years and classes we have often seen students find it difficult to learn the idiosyncrasies of Hindi, for example the use of ने/ne in the perfect tense (मैं खाना खाती हूँ, main khaana khaati hoon vs. मैंने खाना खाया है, maine khaana khaaya hai) or the Oblique Case (अच्छा लड़का, accha ladka vs. अच्छे लड़के को, acche ladke ko). These are grammatical rules that students might not expect to exist, because they are not part of English.

However, there is one other aspect of Hindi which makes the learning process difficult for students but has not, so far, received much attention from grammarians, linguists, and philosophers of this language: the action-centricity of Hindi as opposed to the subject-centricity of other languages.

In Hindi, like its parent language Sanskrit, the sentence is centered around the verb. We can see that in the flexibility of word order of Hindi – the semantic stress is highest on the word before the verb in a sentence using natural syntax. In cases of deviated syntax, the most emphasized word still is the second last word in the sentence, which may or may not be a verb.

However, action-centricity runs deeper than semantic stress—it shows how Hindi speakers view the world. Let us see this with a few examples of English phrases with their Hindi translations:

  1. I am going for my class. I have a class today.
  2. I have a new notebook for my class.
  3. I could not go yesterday because I had a cold.
  4. I hate being sick.
  5. I’m okay now but I’m feeling a little tired.
  6. My mom was worried about whether I would have the strength to go today or not.
  7. To tell you the truth, I don’t feel like really going.
  8. But I have to go as I have already missed many classes.

Now the same sentences in Hindi:

  1. मैं अपनी क्लास के लिए जा रही हूँ । आज मेरी क्लास है । main apni class ke liye jaa rahi hoon. Aaj meri class hai.
  2. मेरे पास क्लास के लिए एक नई कॉपी है । mere paas class ke liye ek nayi copy hai.
  3. मैं कल क्लास नहीं जा पाई थी क्योंकि मुझे ज़ुकाम था । main kal class nahin jaa payi thi kyunki mujhe zukaam tha.
  4. मुझे बीमार पड़ना बिलकुल पसंद नहीं है । mujhe bimaaar padnaa bilkul pasand nahin hai.
  5. अभी मेरी तबीयत ठीक है, लेकिन मुझे थोड़ी थकान लग रही है । abhi meri tabiyat theek hai lekin mujhe thodi thakaan lag rahi hai.
  6. मेरी माँ को चिंता हो रही थी कि मुझ में स्कूल जाने के लिए ताक़त है कि नहीं । meri maa ko chinta ho rahi hai ki mujh mein school jaane ke liye taqat hai ki nahin.
  7. सच बोलूँ तो मेरा जाने का मन नहीं कर रहा । sach boloon to mera jane ka man nahin kar raha hai.
  8. लेकिन मुझे जाना पड़ेगा क्योंकि अब तक मेरी बहुत क्लासें छूट गई हैं । lekin mujhe jaana padega kyunki ab tak meri bahaut classein choot gayi hain.

Out of the 12 instances where ‘I’ was used in English, in Hindi the equivalent ‘मैं’/main came up in only two places. In all the other cases, Hindi had a different point of view for the same situation and hence a different form for ‘I/मैं/main’.

In our next installment, we will take a deeper look at some of these phrases, and see how it translates to a vastly different approach towards the world.