The Incurable Language Bug: My Love Story with Hindi

Olivia Waring

On the Ground in India: Perspectives from American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellows

I came down with the Language Bug in the seventh grade. The affliction took hold during a mandatory Latin class at my Catholic middle school, and I was instantly hooked on language-learning: every mundane object suddenly had a brand new name, and every fiber of my twelve-year-old being ached to learn them all. With each successive stop on my linguistic odyssey, I encountered a different marvel: the musical lilt of Italian vowels, the guttural crackle of German consonants, and the elegant curlicues of Cherokee orthography. Yet it was Mandarin that transformed language-learning from an ascetic curiosity into a fervent passion. In China, for the first time, building human connections was more thrilling than building subjunctive clauses.

I went on to pursue a master’s degree in linguistics, an unlikely about-face for a newly minted chemistry graduate. But there were unmistakable parallels between these seemingly orthogonal career paths. Science is all about gleaning order from seeming chaos: reducing erratic electron trajectories to elegant wave functions, parsing tangled polypeptide chains into discrete domains, or representing 118 elements on one tidy table that fits in my purse. There is a grammar to the way cyclohexene rings isomerize and ions collapse into crystalline lattices. Indeed, extracting the patterns from a continuous stream of unintelligible phonemes is not all that different from deconvoluting the jagged peaks of an NMR spectrum. And so I poured myself into studying “the science of language,” dabbling in Japanese and Tibetan and French in an attempt to learn as much as possible about the mechanics of various world languages.

Acquiring a Mandarin edition of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in Beijing, 2010.

It was during this master’s program that Hindi and I had our first encounter. In class, my peers and I falteringly traced the curvy contours of Devanagari and stumbled over retroflex T’s under the patient tutelage of our thickly-accented Hungarian instructor. Consider this my official excuse for why I speak Hindi with a slight Eastern European inflection. I sang a very awkward rendition of “Tere Liye” at a Diwali ball (there was a notable absence of miniskirts and motorcycle wheelies in our version), coerced a group of my more indulgent friends into watching Bollywood films every Friday night, and pored over Urdu ghazals in translation, longing for the day when I might be able to appreciate them in their original language. But despite working my way through most of Rupert Snell’s legendary textbook “Teach Yourself Hindi,” [1] I never achieved conversational proficiency. So when I found myself in India on an AIF Clinton Fellowship, I flung myself at the chance to enroll in an intensive Hindi course at the American Institute of Indian Studies in Jaipur.

Diwali Ball at the University of Oxford, 2012.

I fell in love with the city at first sight: with the rose-tinted Amer Fort peering superciliously at the city below; with the fluted facade of the Hawa Mahal; with the fresh, dry air (a pleasant departure from Mumbai’s oppressive humidity) below an absurdly blue sky; with the bustling market stalls and their garrulous vendors, including our favorite sari dukandar from whom my two friends and I purchased no fewer than seven saris. However, some of my happiest moments that week took place on a blue plastic chair at a plain oak table, the kind you carved your crush’s name into during grade school. There, puzzling over compound tenses and laughing with my teachers and peers over our innumerable grammar gaffes, while the pankhas whirred overhead and spiced chai brewed in the courtyard, I felt an exhilaration I hadn’t felt in years. More than that: I felt at home.

I sometimes do wonder whether language learning – at least the way I tend to practice it – is an indulgent, perhaps even selfish pursuit. Sure it’s fun to bounce from language to language, picking up words and phrases like shiny pebbles on a beach and them tossing them aside when something more glittery comes along (Guys: Turkish is agglutinative! Time for a new language); but at the end of the day, is it really worthwhile to know a smattering of words in a given tongue? Aren’t my efforts better spent truly mastering one language, so that I can use that skill to actually… help people? [2]

And even if I do come reasonably close to fluency in a foreign tongue, what doors can language-learning realistically open for me: a gangly, dark blonde, conspicuously Teutonic American? No matter how many sher’s I can rattle off or Bollywood tunes I can belt (“My name is Anthony Gonzalves, main duniya mein akela hooooon…” has been stuck in my head for a while), I will always be ineluctably American. To pretend I can achieve more than a cursory understanding of the everyday issues Indians face would be a disservice to myself and my hosts. Is it presumptuous to even hope that I can offer substantive assistance to a community other than the one from which I originated? This question took on greater urgency in the wake of current political events in America. Reflecting back on my civic engagement over the past few months, I have to ask myself: in a somewhat over-optimistic attempt to serve the citizens of another country, did I turn my back on my own?

Visiting City Palace in Jaipur with other AIF Clinton Fellows, 2016.

But on the other hand, I have found language-learning to be one of the most powerful ways to show respect – indeed, love – for one’s fellow human beings. In fact, most of the languages I’ve studied have been a gesture of affection for someone dear to me. German was for my grandmother, who left her tiny grape-growing village deep in the Bavarian Black Forest at fifteen. Chinese was for my college roommate, who was my lifeline during a difficult freshman year and continues to be the world’s best advice-giver. Japanese was for my violin teacher who is like a grandmother to me, and who abandoned everything she owned during a wartime escape from Tokyo to Russia in the 1940’s. In the process of trying to enrich a personal relationship, I have been deeply fortunate to gain access to new cultures, faraway countries, and thitherto unexplored facets of my own identity. And in so doing, the Big Wide World has become just a little smaller and less foreign.

So I’ll continue to slog ahead through my studies of Hindi, although I’ll never really be able to hear the difference between a voiced retroflex aspirated flap and a voiced retroflex aspirated affricate or come to terms with the notion of a third-degree causative, and why there must be both Sanskritic and Perso-Arabic lexicons to contend with… But these frustrations seem trivial when a rickshaw driver chuckles good-naturedly at my enthusiastic “Bahut dhanyavad!” or when a sabzi vendor patiently engages me in a three-minute Hindi conversation. If I can demonstrate to my adopted family that I care enough to at least make an effort, then my tribulations are more than worthwhile.

In that sense, I suppose, the mere act of trying is itself success.

[1] Snell, Rupert, and S. C. R. Weightman. Complete Hindi. London: Teach Yourself, 2010. Print.
[2] While studying Japanese several years ago, I sketched a “Language-Learning Motivation Curve” that poked fun at my short linguistic attention span:

About the Author
Olivia Waring has a master’s degree in Linguistics and in Computer Science from the University of Oxford, as well as a bachelor’s in Chemistry and Chinese from Princeton University. She is currently an AIF Clinton Fellow at the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) in Mumbai, documenting everyday lives of everyday people in rural India. She previously pursued a career as an engineer with Microsoft and NPR. Olivia focuses on the intersection of journalism and technology as a vehicle for innovation and empowerment.
AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India, while strengthening the civil sector.



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