Thursday, July 7, 2011

Lost in Translation

I've been in India for over 7 months now. In less than 4 more I will begin my journey home. I'm in a completely non-tourist area (I have seen less than 5 white people in Hazaribag. One of those was Suzie and seeing as I brought her here, I'm not even sure that counts!). Many of my colleagues speak only rudimentary English. I'm (allegedly) not entirely stupid. So I'm almost fluent in Hindi now, right?

Wrong. Big time.

Hindi is a difficult language to learn. Really, really, really difficult. Not least of the problems is that there is a completely different alphabet to get to grips with. The Hindi alphabet (called Devanagari) has 14 vowels and 36 consonants. For those of you who struggled with maths, that's almost twice as many as the Western alphabet we're used to.

Then you have to consider the way you make the sounds. Look at the consonants section. Check out rows 3 and 4 of that table. See anything that strikes you? Yep, they're basically identical. The difference is down to what you do with your tongue (stop sniggering at the back). For one you push your tongue up against the roof of your mouth, the other you push against your teeth at the front of your mouth.

I'll give you a small example:

Try saying those three and imagining the difference between them. Now imagine you've got people talking at you at 90mph and in an India accent. Think you can tell the difference? No, well you need to be able to because you're either being asked to eat something, do something or say something. Yep, three of the most useful verbs there are: eat, do and say – basically identical. Great.

So, you're a conscientious volunteer. You've got all sorts of materials. You've downloaded Hindi learning software, you've got mp3 podcasts, you've got books. You just need a teacher now....


Apparently, and in my opinion rather short-sightedly, Hazaribag has not seen any real need to import a large number of English-speaking Hindi private tutors. In fact, there is a sum total of....well, none. Since December I've been trying to find someone. My organisation have continuously said they're working on it. A couple of times I thought we were close....

...for example, one Sunday (in April I think) I actually got collected from my flat and driven across town by one of the staff. Here we go, I thought. Five months down, that's not too bad. We pull up at a house and walk up the drive. Sanjit has been referring to the teacher as “The Madam” (I said stop laughing!) and a sweet old lady answers the door. She speaks very good English, but obviously has absolutely no idea why we're there. I assumed there was some mis-communication, but was hopeful that once we explained the problem she would help me out. Then she said something that really surprised me.....

“but I don't know Hindi!”

…yep, in the state of Jharkhand, whose official language is Hindi, I had managed to find probably the most fluent English-speaking Indian (at one point she even used the phrase “Kicked the bucket”!)– and she didn't speak Hindi!!!!

I was eventually passed to her next-door neighbours, who run an IT school. They're nice people, but obviously have never taught a language lesson in their lives. Their approach was an interesting one. I was asked to copy all of the letters out first. Ok, that makes sense. I can do that. I did do that. Okay, next lesson:
Them - “Right, have a conversation with this boy here”
Me - “Um, but I don't know any Hindi.”
Them - “Hindi bolte hai!” (speak in Hindi)
Me - “um.....”

Them - “Your homework today is to write 10-15 lines on the agriculture industry of the UK”
Me - “I don't think I can do that in English, let alone Hindi....”
Them - “Hindi bolte hai!”

Random boy in class, when asked to talk to me for practice – [Says some Hindi I don't understand]
Me – “MaiN nahiin samajta huun” (I don't understand)
Them – “He asked you what your favourite season is”
Me - “Um.....” (I should point out that this was a completely random question. We hadn't done any vocabulary on seasons. Or talked about how to express opinions. Or done anything that I could use here.....)

In 9 or 10 lessons we haven't even approached any grammar or anything useful. Their approach seems to be – bombard him with Hindi, without explaining any of it, and hope that something sticks. If I could learn like that I would be fluent by now!!!! So I'm stopping them.

I am improving though. It's just very slow. Frustratingly so. Partly down to my pronunciation. Partly down to my lack of good grammar. Partly because often people are expecting me to talk in English and therefore trying to translate my pigeon-Hindi into Hindi!!!

Most of the time, the situation I'm in means that I can work out what's going on, even if I don't understand 100% of the conversation, but sometimes it just confuses the hell out of me. Like today – I've had to change my washer-woman (the previous guy's stall got demolished!). I went for the second time to pick up my clothes this lunch time. We got through the entire transaction fine and then as I went to leave she started to say something. I couldn't understand, but I knew she was saying something about my dirty clothes. It seemed to be that she was telling me to bring them for cleaning.....but that's what I have been doing already! Oh well, I'm sure if it's important I'll find out eventually!

So I stumble around town, having short, stunted conversation with people. Some people seem amazed that I'm not fluent in Hindi, talking at me and even when I explain that I don't understand they just carry on talking to me, asking questions. Other people are absolutely amazed when I show any level of Hindi knowledge at all.

It's actually pretty much like being Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. Except I haven't seen Scarlett Johansson yet....

1 comment:

  1. Maybe it's too late now, but what we did was convince a local neighbor girl who learned English a little later in life (in her teens as opposed to going to an English medium primary school). She was excellent, because she understood the process of learning a language. It also felt great to give her some extra money and actually have her be of such benefit to us, something she was immensely proud of. The partners seem to focus on finding an actual teacher, which can be hard to find (not to mention that the Indian style of teaching isn't really in line with what we're used to!).