800 days of Hindi

January 15, 2023

I’m not one of those people who baked all the things and learned all the things and got super productive during quarantine.

I just deleted social media apps from my phone and was able to keep my streak on duolingo so that I went from total beginner to roughly intermediate in Hindi.

In my twenties I went through a Bollywood phase. I bought a basic grammar book and invested an hour or two to learn the Devanagari alphabet and a LOT of hours watching movies, learning some basic words and essential phrases like “yeh shaadi nahi ho sakti”… I have fond memories of movies like Lagaan, Swades, Black, Rang de Basanti, 3 Idiots, Tare Zameen Par, etc. (*) Then life happened and I didn’t continue my learning journey.

Then the pandemic hit and I started spending too much time doom-scrolling on my phone, as you do. Eventually I decided to divert my attention to something positive and deleted social media apps so that my thumb would automatically open duolingo instead.

When you consistently expose your brain to things, it learns them in due course, despite yourself. That’s the most fun way of learning to me. The side-effecty way.

It means, of course, that the learning is slow. But I don’t mind. I enjoy the learning of things, not only the knowing of things. (**)

But how to decide what language to learn and how to go about it afterwards?

Deciding. Everyone has their own reasons to learn a language. Personally, I’m guided by my interest in some content that I don’t understand and want to access in its original language. Turkish and German are my two native languages, so I didn’t decide to learn them, they were presents in a way.

Tim Ferriss has a blog post about quickly getting a feel for any language in an hour to make the decision easier. (For more on language learning, also check out this guest post from Gabriel Wyner.) In this post he gives a list of sentences that reveal a lot about the structure and complexity of a language. Below are those sentences in Hindi, German, and Turkish.

The apple is red. 
सेब लाल है
Der Apfel ist rot.
Elma kırmızı.
It is John’s apple.
यह जॉन का सेब है
Es ist John’s Apfel.
O John’un elması.
I give John the apple.
मैं जॉन को सेब देता हूं
Ich gebe John den Apfel.
Elmayı John’a veriyorum.
We give him the apple.
हम उसे सेब देते हैं
Wir geben ihm den Apfel.
Biz elmayı ona veriyoruz.
He gives it to John.
वह इसे जॉन को देता है
Er gibt es John.
O onu John’a veriyor.
She gives it to him.
वह इसे उसे देती है
Sie gibt es ihm.
O onu ona veriyor.
I must give it to him.
मुझे इसे उसे देना चाहिए
Ich muss es ihm geben.
Onu ona vermeliyim.
I want to give it to her.
मैं इसे उसे देना चाहता हूं
Ich möchte es ihr geben.
Onu ona vermek istiyorum.

German is the worst with all its articles, gendered nouns, and gazillion rules. (I once tried to explain the difference between abnehmen, annehmen, ausnehmen, zunehmen, vernehmen, aufnehmen, etc. and it was torture.) But it gives you access to the writings of Goethe, Rilke, Nietzsche, etc.

Hindi has gendered nouns too, but it is much more flexible in its sentence structure. You can put words in different places in a sentence and it still makes sense.

Turkish is the easiest with no gendered nouns and few, if any, exceptions in grammar. Pronunciation is straightforward, plus there are cool ways to form new nouns and verbs. Look at this one word sentence “çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdan mısınız“? meaning “are you of those who we couldn’t turn into Czechoslovakians?”.(Czechoslovakia is being used in this example only because it has many letters.)

Exposure. I try to expose myself to the language I’m learning as much as possible, but only in ways that feel natural and don’t require me to go out of my way. For instance, I like to watch travel videos on YouTube, so I subscribed to Dhiren Bhagtani’s channel. Sadly he is not posting since the pandemic, but there are similar channels and YouTube is good at suggesting them to you. Themed channels like that are great, because the vocabulary revolves around mostly one topic. For content in a variety of topics I subscribed to Dhruv Rathee’s channel and Mohak Mangal’s channel. I have a much more difficult time understanding those videos, but it’s ok, my brain will eventually get there.

Tools. Thankfully the days of instruction books with their accompanying cassette tapes and CDs are a thing of the past. Instead we have lots of apps and websites to choose from.

duolingo is great, because it breaks the humongous task of learning a language down into chewable morsels, passive-aggressively inviting you to do the day’s work.

The content is organized as lessons that take less than five minutes, where you have to translate sentences to and from the language you want to learn. You also have to repeat sentences aloud.

Another tool I learned to appreciate is HelloTalk. It is a tool to connect people who want to learn each other’s language.

You simply specify what languages you know and what languages you want to learn and are presented with a list of people you can contact.

I’m sure there are other tools like that, but the winning feature for me was this feature to correct each other’s sentences in the chat.

To hear the correct pronunciation of words, I mainly use forvo.com. Many online dictionaries and also Google Translate provide pronunciations, but they sound mechanical. On forvo, you can find pronunciations by real people in almost any language and accent. For most popular languages there are hundreds of thousands of words already. The community is active, so that words that don’t exist and that you request are being recorded quickly.

After reaching a certain point, the only way forward is to read and write in that language. So for Hindi, I will try to get light books that I would normally read. Children books or Agatha Christie books would be great. Once I feel more at ease with my vocabulary, I would want to spend more time chatting with friends on HelloTalk.

On duolingo I will now go forward with Italian and Arabic, and hopefully one day Japanese.

(*) Beware of Hindi movies. They are three hours long and can ruin shorter movies for you. To me “normal” movies feel rushed now. Before you can feel an emotion, the scene changes. In a Hindi movie, if there is a happy scene, everyone savors that feeling for five minutes straight; if there is a sad scene, you have five minutes of crying.

(**) As a lecturer of (mostly) programming, this is the issue I have with most of my students these days. They all like the idea of being a programmer, but they want to skip the learning part. Online course and book titles like “Learn ____ in 24 hours” are not helping either. To set their expectations right, I refer them to the post by Peter Norvig with the title “Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years“.

Of course everything will change now that there are tools like ChatGPT. We all will have to adapt our teaching outcome goals, content, teaching style, assessment approach, etc. Exciting times!

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