Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Learning Hindi

Manorama has a great post about her experience taking Hindi at her university. She is a Bangladeshi-American graduate student, and is studying the language mainly for scholarly/ academic purposes, as I understand it. Her post dovetails nicely with one of the issues raised in my post yesterday -- how and whether South Asians in the diaspora end up learning Hindi -- and gives me the chance to do a little digging of my own into the status of Hindi and other South Asian languages at American universities in particular.

Manorama's university decided it needed to separate the 'Heritage' Hindi students from the 'non-Heritage' (i.e., white, in this case) students. Students who grew up in households where Punjabi, Hindi, Gujurati, etc. were spoken generally end up in the Heritage section, where less effort is spent on pronunciation and some basic vocabulary, while more effort is spent on grammar and so on. It's arguably a good idea, though it results in de facto segregation:

My current Hindi instructor, from what I gathered, disagrees vehemently with this division between heritage and non-heritage students. The fact that people disagree on this issue is not as troubling to me as the ways in which people in our group were defending their views. A few of my classmates scoffed at the idea of setting up a system which would almost inevitably result in "the brown kids" being put in the heritage class, and how novel of an idea this was, particularly as something the university might support with a rhetoric of ability and non-ability. While it is true that the likelihood of non-South Asian students being in the heritage course is quite slim, it is also true that there are South Asian students who join the non-heritage section. This is what happened in my case; while Bangla is spoken in my home, and while I speak it daily with my parents, Bangla and Hindi are not the same.

Manorama puts herself in the non-heritage class, only to find the teacher (and later, even the students) harshly deriding the approach to learning and overall work ethic of the heritage students in the other section:

My instructor noted that having "heritage students" can be very irritating because the inconsistencies or variations of a language which they learn at home are things which they insist on clinging to in his course. No matter how much he tries to correct them, they persist. Things are done differently regionally in Hindi, and people who have a background in other South Asian languages are reluctant to learn Hindi properly. [. . . snip]

However, my instructor went on to say that American students work the hardest, and heritage students don't. They don't keep studying, they don't devote enough time to it, they don't care. At this point my voice seemed to have completely disappeared from the conversation, and it was as if my physical presence was just an illusion. The fact that I was standing right next to my instructor seemed to not matter--nor the fact that I worked my tail off in first year Hindi and that is why I am a good Hindi student now. And guess what? Skin check: Brown. South Asian. Not American in the sense of culture or lacking exposure to a South Asian language. And in this conversation, apparently, invisible.

As I see it, there are two issues here. One is, many ABCDs have a very odd and inconsistent knowledge of the Indian mother-tongues they (sort of) grew up with. Their knowledge of grammar is poor or non-existent, often regionalized or permuted through another Indian language (in my case, my exposure to Punjabi made some aspects of Hindi, when I studied it at Cornell in the early 1990s, seem off -- or 'wrong'). And yet the same Desi students are often flip about the course, thinking of it as an 'easy A' or worse, a social event.

But the instructor seems to be forgetting the main reason this discrepancy may (in some cases) exist, and that is that most of the American students are studying Hindi for academic or (at the graduate level) professional reasons. Most of the South Asian students, on the other hand, are taking it for a vaguer, less focused reason, so it's no great surprise they slack. The instructor here seemed to forget an obvious surface reason for the discrepancy, and turned it into a quasi-racial distinction.

(I'm going to leave Manorama's post now to go into some general statistics and issues about learning South Asian languages in U.S. universities, but I encourage people to read the rest of her post at some point)

Foreign Language Study in the U.S.: Systemic Problems

Here's the thing: this is a tempest in a teapot. The number of universities where Hindi is available is still quite small, and the number of total students taking Hindi in the U.S. every year -- Heritage and non-Heritage -- is close to miniscule.

A recent study from the Modern Language Association found that the total number of students taking Hindi in the United States in 2002-2003 was 1,430. The number of students studying Urdu was 152. And Bengali, a language spoken by some 200 million people worldwide, was only studied by 54 students in the entire United States!

Some statistics for background: during the same school year, there were about 1.4 million students in U.S. universities taking foreign languages. 74% of them took either Spanish, French, or German, with Spanish being the most popular by a wide margin.

Why is the study of South Asian languages so rare here? And is there anything that can be done about it?

One possible factor is the absence of "Less Commonly Taught Languages" (LCTLs) in primary and secondary schools (K-12), where only about 38 languages are taught anywhere in the country (and in most schools, only two -- French and Spanish -- are in fact available). I know some schools in ethnic enclaves like Yuba City and some districts in Queens (PDF) have experimented with offering languages like Punjabi and Bengali. But the overwhelming majority of American students will have never even conceived of a South Asian language as an interesting or worthwhile thing to learn before getting to college. If they take any foreign languages in college, they are likely to continue with what they were doing in high school -- French or Spanish.

I don't know how to solve this problem, but I wonder if it might be possible to make Hindi, for instance, available to more high schools via metropolitan consortium programs?

Secondly, the professional advantages for an ordinary American student to learn Hindi were quite low in the past. I wonder if that might be changing as a result of the Indian high tech boom? People who want to do business with India generally prefer English-speaking Indians, but if you want to go to India, you still need to be able to talk to people on the street. This seems like a highly debatable point; do readers out there have experience with this?

Third is a practicality issues -- many colleges and universities are simply too small or can't afford to hire full-time faculty to teach South Asian languages. In principle, it is the big research universities and 'flagship' state universities that have decent South Asian language programs (the best of which is still the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where you can take Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Nepali, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Tibetan, and Urdu!).

My own university has about 4,500 undergraduates, of which about 80-100 are of South Asian descent at a given time. Since only a fraction of them are likely to take Hindi, and only a tiny number of non-desi students are likely to enroll, it would be very difficult here (as at other, comparable places) to justify hiring a full-time professor to teach Hindi-Urdu. Still, Lehigh does have enough desi students to have its own competitive Bhangra team ("LU Bhangra"), so why not have Hindi?

One option for smaller schools might be a program called FLTA, the Foreign Language Teaching Assistant program. Here native speakers come in on a Fulbright (J-1 visa) to teach LCTLs (including South Asian languages), while pursuing their own studies in a non-degree program at the same university where they teach. It might be a good way for Indian post-grads to get some experience in the U.S.

(I went way beyond the 'Blogging Call of Duty' and actually called up the IIE office. They said this year the program has 250 people going to various U.S. universities on the FLTA program, which is a pretty impressive number if you think of the numbers of people those 250 people could potentially be teaching.)

But despite improvements like the FLTA program, the options for South Asian language study in the U.S. remain rather limited at present. And as Manorama's story indicates, even when you have the chance to do it, the whole experience can be a little twisted.

[Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny]


Blogger anangbhai said...

In my university (University at Buffalo SUNY) we didn't have segregated classes or anything but the teacher would pay more attention sometimes to the american students who werent familiar with hindi or have them stay for a while after classes if they had time.
Its true about the students who already had a knowledge of hindi. Including me, we were all there just to earn an easy A really and there was nothing else to it, but I wasn't stupid enough to goof off around a teacher who had taught in India. She sometimes made the unruly students stand on their seats or go in the corner and become a murga, like the teachers in India.
she didn't appreciate any kind of humor either, just straight students.
The people who were americans trying to learn hindi in the class had their own reasons for learning it. One girl was into indian culture hence...
One of the girls was married to a punjabi and was going to go to punjab so she was there to learn hindi to communicate.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Michael Higgins said...

Hi Amardeep
At the Uof Mn, I took Hindi for two quarters. There was only one class for all first year Hindi students and it was about 60% desi and 40% American. But the desis split too: about 1/4 were south Indians who did not have any background in Hindi at all. They just wanted to learn an Indian language.
I think some of the desis thought Hindi was going to be an easy A (and maybe it was).
Curiously, our teacher was from Bulgaria. I think she was initially disappointed at the quality of the students but she soon realized that if she push us too hard, people would leave course and the course would be cancelled.

I think it is a pity that some kind of distance learning isn't used to make all of the major languages of the world available in a course at any American college.

10:15 AM  
Blogger Amardeep said...


That's true, there's no reason why distance learning couldn't be used. The main thing is that people practice hearing and speaking things, which is easy enough to do over broadband teleconferencing.

Hm, interesting... I wonder if that could be done at Lehigh... [sound of wheels slowly turning]


The part about the teacher making bad students stand on chairs is hilarious. I have never, ever, seen that done in a university setting (indeed, I'm surprised students didn't complain!).

You're also right that non-Indian students sometimes have good personal reasons for studying Hindi.

10:20 AM  
Blogger Manorama said...

Amardeep, I'm actually at UW Madison now for SASLI--the heritage/non-heritage distinctions exist at the institution I normally attend, but not here. Just clarifying in case there was confusion--I'm talking about two different universities in my post.

2:31 PM  
Blogger All Mixed Up said...


with regards to the Urdu scholar.. you know exactly who it is.

i like her a lot and she's great, but i was SHOCKED at what she said... which is why i think i remember it so vividly.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Greg Goulding said...

I'm late for work because of this post, but as I'm the only non-Indian that I know who studied Hindi for three years at NYU, I feel I had to add something to this from the perspective of the 'non-heritage' students.

Separation is pretty much always a terrible idea. However, in the case of Hindi, for instance, problems often do arise through the fact that whereas one half of the class may be completely new to the language, the alphabet, and the vast majority of cultural references inherint in studying it, the other half may be much more familiar with those, and may in fact be only missing the ability to write in nagari. These students could, I suspect, in the hands of a skillful teacher, enhance the classroom atmosphere by helping the other students along and filling them in on some of these cultural references. However, oftentimes my class would consist of gapshap (hindi mein) about shahrukh khan or someone's hometown, or whatever...

will continue this when not late...

8:20 AM  
Blogger Greg Goulding said...

Not to say that I agree in segregating classes based on ethnicity; that makes no sense at all. As I mentioned, the mix of students brings with it a potential that in best-case scenarios enhances the class tremendously. It's just that this is difficult.

On the subject of why so few people actually study South Asian languages: how are they presented? In my experience, learning Hindi was seen as a practicality, something one would do in order to live or work in India--unless you had some cultural connection, in which case you were trying to strengthen it by learning, in the case of Hindi, what competes with English as a lingua franca. Learning Hindi for the sheer pleasure of it is more or less absent. If it's a language that's going to be consistently looked at in practical terms, than why would anyone bother unless they had to, or they had some ulterior reason?

2:21 PM  
Blogger tilotamma said...

we have a bunch of students in MIT doing conversational sanskrit for an hour every week for FUN, no textbook,no homework etc. but it is a lot of fun.

OK there is homework - just write 5 sentences about everyday things you did the previous week using some of the words we learnt in the last class.

10:54 AM  
Anonymous HUM III said...

Perceptions of heritage students seemed to run the other way at Harvard. Many students were reluctant to touch Chinese or Hindi because of the work ethos of the students from those backgrounds vis-à-vis the European languages.

10:56 PM  
Anonymous Editor said...

Please consider using our new Hindi Read Aloud website:

It is completely free and we need more users!

Thanking you,

Sujata Krishna.

11:43 AM  

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