I’ve been India for almost six months; I’m two-thirds of the way through my trip. My Hindi has gone from about 10% to 20%. (I took a class a few years back and can read and write the basic Devanagari script, but I only speak a little bit.) Not bad, but far below what I had planned.
“This will be my fourth trip to India,” I said to my friends back in June, before we left. “And this time I’m going to leave speaking Hindi.”
It’s not going to happen.
Why? Because learning a language is an emotional experience for me, and I only have the energy for one language at a time. I thought I could learn to sing Dhrupad at a higher level and get my Hindi together simultaneously, but what I’ve discovered is that the emotional energy required learning a new musical language is equally intense to the emotional energy required to learn a written and verbal language. My primary objective coming here was to get my singing to a much higher level. I’m on track in that regard, but it has taken every ounce of physical, emotional, and intellectual energy that I have to stay on track. I’ve tried working on my Hindi late at night after a full day of practicing and going to class and studying recordings, but I’m just too wiped out. It goes in my head and then it’s gone the next morning. It doesn’t stick.
(The other big issue is that most of the people I interact with here speak English, and most of them are fluent. There’s no reason for them to use Hindi with me when we can communicate much quicker and better through English, and most of them want to practice their English.)
Way back in March of 2013 my friend Kaliope told me that learning a language is an emotional experience. She teaches in a French school and is 100% fluent in English, French, and Greek, so she knows what she’s talking about. I thought I understood what she meant at the time, but I didn’t. Now I do.
What does that mean that learning a language is an emotional experience? For me it means that words and phrases (spoken, written, or sung) are rooted in real-world, physical experiences that are intertwined with feelings. I learned the Hindi words and phrases that I know well through real experiences. The book work is useful of course, but only as a supplement. I can’t learn a language from a book any more than I can learn a style of music from a book.
Learning Dhrupad is the same thing. When I sing certain phrases in certain ragas I have very distinct memories of when Gurujis taught me those phrases or when I picked them up from a recording. I also remember the feelings I had at those moments. They are not just sequences of notes; they are definitive moments in my live, real emotional experiences.
I’m pretty hard on myself, much more than most of my friends realize because of my sunny disposition, so I’ve been beating myself up about not doing better with my Hindi (among other things), but perhaps some time in the future. I know enough to get by with Hindi/English conversations, and I can read signs and I do reasonably well with pronouncing the text in the traditional Dhrupad compositions I’m learning (which I write in Devanagari since it’s much more precise than the English transliteration). But that’s probably about as far as it’s going to go with this trip. Maybe I can come back some time in the future and do a two or three-month immersion intensive. But for now my focus is Dhrupad, and how lucky I am to be able to focus on that. My life is vastly better now that I’m singing Dhrupad at a higher level, something I could only have achieved with nine months of intense immersion under the right teachers. It’s an infinite journey, but I’m actually becoming a bit of a Dhrupad singer, something I’ve dreamed of for years. I’m looking forward to sharing this amazing music with my friends and audiences back home.
One thought on “Why My Hindi Isn’t Getting Much Better, or, the Emotional Experience of Learning a Language”
I love this. I associate languages with the people I speak them to. I don’t think of them as ‘languages’ as much as ways of speaking to certain people (I guess this is also true within English – we all speak slightly different versions of English to different people). I spoke English to my parents but Gujarati to my grandmother. In my mind, reversing that would actually make me forget the language – I can’t think of a single thing I would say to my dad in Gujarati, even though we both speak it fluently. Similarly, when I cook certain Indian dishes, or make roti, I think in entirely Hindi, because that’s what my maid in India, who taught me these things, spoke. There’s bound to be a time sooner or later when you have regular interactions with someone to whom you speak entirely in Hindi, and then you’ll probably learn it with relatively little effort, and in a way that feels very real — that perhaps fulfills the emotional side of the language that regimented learning lacks.