For a few months now, I have been learning Hindi. I want to share my reflections on why I am doing so because I think this will shed light on the motivations for why people learn languages in their spare time, as a source of enjoyment.
My history with the Hindi language is of a long duration. My own home language is Punjabi, which is closely related to Hindi, sharing many similar words and grammatical constructions. However, my chief relationship with Hindi has been through Hindi movies (‘Bollywood’) and Hindi songs. From a very young age, in the eighties, I would watch Hindi films which my mother would rent on VHS, because at the time there were no Hindi or Punjabi satellite channels and Punjabi films were also not as available. There was a Hindi programme on normal UK TV that I watched – the famous episodes of the Mahabharata, but I followed this mainly by reading the English subtitles, falsely supposing that the people in it were talking in Sanskrit, the old language of India, and not Hindi.
Although I could follow the basic rudiments of what was being said in Hindi films and songs, it was only at a relatively late age, when I became more fascinated by the lyrics of songs, that I realised that my Hindi was not as strong as I had once thought it was. I then went out and bought a Hindi-English dictionary which I never opened, learnt to recognise a few letters of Hindi script, then became preoccupied with other things and completely abandoned my Hindi study.
Recently, however, I began to learn Hindi again in earnest. I taught myself to read it fluently and have gone through several Hindi translations of English books as practice. I am now just beginning to teach myself how to write in Hindi and to learn the spellings of words.
Now, the magic spell that Hindi cast upon me comes from a variety of things. Firstly, Hindi, to me, is bound up with the Hindi film industry, or ‘Bollywood’. The glamour of the movies and the intense emotions that are bound up with the stories and action in them is associated with the language. This glamour and emotion is also associated with the songs of Hindi films and their combination of poetry and music. The words that I cannot recognise when I watch a film or listen to a song, while still beautiful in their own ways, invite me to learn the language further. There is a clear aesthetic dimension in the motivation for learning the language. And this is what others seem to say as well – they see beauty in a language and the novels and poetry of its culture and this is one of the main motivations that they want to learn it, so that they can read these cultural productions in the original.
But also beyond this aesthetic dimension is the issue of identity. Hindi is for me, rather than Punjabi, which is my home language, crucially bound up with my identity as a British Asian man. The culture of India, which, outside of my family, has been relayed to me mostly in Hindi media, is always associated with Hindi. By learning Hindi I am trying to consolidate my membership of the Indian community and the Asian Diaspora. And although my situation is unique, I think that constructions of identity are also bound up in the motivations of others in learning languages. They see themselves in the culture of others and want to reaffirm their membership of that culture by learning its language and being able to speak and read the words.
Lastly, a major motivation in learning Hindi is the intellectual challenge: to master a whole other language and to be able to think in that language. While it was daunting at first to learn how to read Hindi, I was eventually able to do so and I feel a great sense of satisfaction when I am able to go through a book in Hindi at a reasonable pace. Writing Hindi is more daunting a prospect, but without our own personal challenges in life, we would just stagnate. Learning a language is a game. The game is fun, but it means learning the rules and constant practice if one wants to be ranked as a good player. And this idea of self-development, challenging the self and achievement is so important to me that I am trying to find a place where I can gain some recognised qualifications in the language. These qualifications are just for myself – an external affirmation of my ability in the language, in the game of Hindi.