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Hindi in Amrika

August 2006
Hindi in Amrika

Hindi in Amrika

A look at how and why India's national language is making small inroads in the U.S.

Washington: He played the part of Adjutant Bunbury, an East India Company officer, and she, Lady Canning, in Ketan Mehta's blockbuster film The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey. Dressed in period costumes and awaiting their moment in the arc lights, Joel Guyton Lee remembers being dazzled by the sight of Joanna Slater.

"I saw this behad khubsurat young woman reading Premchand. She was evidently a foreigner yet engrossed in Hindi literature. I was intrigued," recalls Lee. The two tried to impress each other with their Hindi. When they were apart Lee would send Joanna lines from Ghalib in text messages. "Why use only love, when you can say prem, pyar, ishq and muhabbat?" he asks.

What's unique about this love story is that Hindi is not the mother tongue for Lee, an American, or Joanna, a Canadian. "I listen to songs from Raj Kapoor films and feel lovesick. I just love the language," says Lee. The couple is an example of the growing and genuine interest in Indian languages among Westerners. The packed Hindi classes at top universities across the United States are also a reflection of the warming relationship between India and the U.S.

In January, President George W. Bush launched a National Security Language Initiative, a plan to strengthen national security through education, especially in developing foreign language skills. Mr. Bush hopes the initiative will produce 2,000 advanced speakers of Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Persian, Hindi, and Central Asian languages by the year 2009.

Top universities, including the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania offer Hindi. According to conservative estimates, about 2,000 students are learning Hindi at more than 20 universities across the U.S.

One American university will soon be picked to offer an advanced level program in Hindi and Urdu. Through the program the government hopes to set up a coterie of experts that can deal with India at all levels. "We will start with students who know Hindi—get them to a level where they can read newspapers, do translation, and so on," explains Herman Van Olphen, a professor of Hindi at the University of Texas in Austin. "The purpose of this program is to take the people who have gone through elementary programs and bring them up to a level where they can serve the country in terms of using Hindi in a practical way."

Besides national security, the growing interest in Hindi is attributed to a need to stay in touch with Indian relatives or to enjoy a good Bollywood movie, and to the fact that a lot of Americans are moving to jobs in India.

When Susham Bedi started teaching Hindi at Columbia University in New York in 1985, there was just one section for Hindi students. By the late 1990s, the university was compelled to set up three sections with up to 80 students. Prof. Bedi attributes this growth to the fact that India has become "very important on the global scene and its relationship with America is getting stronger."

Mekhala Natavar, whose Palestinian father and mother of Lithuanian origin instilled in her a love for different cultures, teaches Hindi at Princeton University and helped develop the Hindi program at Duke University. "In previous decades, Hindi programs around the country were filled with students who were learning the language in order to do research work in anthropology and religion, or perhaps social work in the region," she says. "Now that jobs are going to India from U.S. companies, some students are considering jobs that include travel to South Asia for business."

A Hindi teacher at Bellaire Senior High School in Houston, Arun Prakash set up the Hindi program at Rice University in 1994. "American businesses are eyeing India, and when the corporate world is interested, universities and schools also get interested," he says.

Darshan Krishna's past students include U.S. diplomats on their way to postings in South Asia. Director of the India School in Bethesda, Maryland, she says some students are learning Hindi because they have an Indian spouse or, she adds with a laugh, "they want an Indian spouse!" Amber Howell confesses her motivation to brush up on her Hindi stems from her desire to win over an Indian boyfriend's mother. Howell, who works at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, will be visiting New Delhi soon to meet Manmeet Mehresh and his mother. "In many ways I would be viewed as an outsider; communicating in Hindi is one way I could bridge that gap," she says.

Lee traveled to India first during his junior year on a Buddhist studies program in Bodh Gaya and then started learning Hindi. "Chaska lag gaya," he says. He studied the language at St. Stephen's College in Delhi and later in Udaipur. The two programs were run by the American Institute of Indian Studies.

For Gabriela Nik. Ilieva, it was her high school Sanskrit teacher who got her interested in India and Indian languages. "He entered our class for the first time and one of the words he taught us was vimaan (airplane). We jumped at him, saying that this is impossible and that such things didn't exist in ancient times. He took a deep breath and quietly said, ‘You have so much to learn about gods and myths that I don't know where to start.'" Born in Sofia, Bulgaria, Ilieva had already started studying Russian, French, and English before high school. Along with Old Greek, Latin, and Old Church Slavonic, she took Sanskrit as well. "Right away, I was enchanted with the script, the language, and the culture behind it," she says. She entered the M.A. program in Indology at Sofia State University, where she studied about 12 hours of theoretical and practical Hindi a week for 5 years and also took classes in Urdu, Sanskrit, Punjabi, and Persian.

Ilieva, who has been teaching Hindi/Urdu language and literature at New York University for 8 years, believes teaching Hindi through Bollywood movies is a must-use teaching methodology because it allows for a holistic approach to language along with a high entertainment value. "I owe a lot to Bollywood," she says. At Harvard, too, conventional teaching materials are supplemented by popular songs and clips from contemporary Indian cinema.

A number of students in Hindi classes are so-called ‘heritage' students—people of Indian origin. A law student who also studied Hindi at Duke University, Sachin Bansal's first words were spoken in Hindi, but, he says, he could neither read nor write the language. Now that he knows how to read and write the language, he says he is better able to communicate with his family in India. Like Bansal, Divya Sawhney grew up speaking Hindi but never knew how to read or write it. Her family moved to New York from India when she was four. "I've always had a bit of frustration with my family for having moved without me being exposed to even a year of written Hindi," she says. At Columbia University, she seized on the opportunity to learn written Hindi.

Maggie Cummings credits a one-year stint at an Indian restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, for her proficiency in Hindi. Cummings, who is employed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., majored in Hindi at Brown University and now teaches a class of 12- to 16-year-old Indian American students at the India School in Bethesda.

This fall, Lee will start grad school at Columbia University where he will be taking classes in Urdu and Hindi literature. "Hindustani meethi zubaan hai," he declares.

---Ashish Kumar Sen

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