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Plunged into an Indian school in the ninth grade, Neha learns Hindi sink-or-swim style.

I thought my Hindi was workable.

Hindi isn’t my mother tongue, we didn’t speak it at home, but I followed basic conversation – thanks to Bollywood blockbusters I watched every weekend – and I knew the devnagri script, again learned at weekend classes that my parents insisted I attend. With one foot already in the door, how hard could it be to pick up Hindi?

Why Hindi

My family repatriated to India when I was in the ninth grade. This meant a new school, new friends, a new academic culture, and new subjects – for the first time Hindi was a part of my curriculum.

But that wasn’t all. Ninth grade is a scary time in an Indian school. The tenth grade public exams are among the most competitive, high-pressure exams in the country. A student’s performance determines the course of his future education, and preparations begin a grade earlier.

It wasn’t just formulaic filmy plots, but grammar and literature, breaking down verses and analyzing poetry in a language still alien to me, right before the most important exams of my life: that’s what I was getting into. With much bravado and hardly a clue, I assured my parents I could handle it. They found me multiple tutors, and took to prayer.

In the Classroom

My first Hindi class began with a poem that I didn’t follow. The next lesson it got worse – I was asked to read out a verse.

I couldn’t. I was okay with simple individual words but what was I supposed to do with those half alphabets that merged with complete ones or the dots that crept over or next to a word, changing its pronunciation without warning? And what was I supposed to do when these words followed each other masquerading as a couplet.

I struggled and stammered through the lines. The suppressed giggles around the classroom, little squeaky sounds hurriedly shoved back in, were hard to miss. Worse was the teacher’s glare. Her scrunched eyes and angry brows said we would never be friends.

I hated it. My anglicized Hindi became a standing joke. My handwriting was as bad as a second grader’s, my spellings were worse. My essays came back more red than blue, my answers ended before they started, and dialogue with the teacher extended to an elaborate Ji Maam and Nahi Maam (Yes Maam and No Maam). I failed the first two Hindi exams that year.

How I Actually Learnt Hindi5>

My parents found me a fantastic tutor. She found a way through to me.

Unlike the school teacher, she had no contempt for English, the rival language. Instead she used it to clarify concepts and to break down rules. The first few classes she asked me to write paragraphs in English, and then translate those ideas into Hindi.

With each paragraph the content grew a little bit stronger, and I grew a little less uncomfortable. It opened up a lot more space for learning.

We spent the lessons chatting in Hinglish, a Hindi-English mix. Somewhere along the way I also picked up grammar, deciphered what the kavi (poet) actually meant, and learned spellings. It helped me develop much needed conversational skills.

I could now talk to the grocer, the rickshawalas and the old aunty on the first floor without breaking into hives. The accent was still there, it was still funny, but I wasn’t as afraid.

She used pop-culture references as props; Hindi became accessible. I followed more of it on TV, which in turn helped me get used to the language. I watched movies with an ear out for words from my text book.

I followed the context and used them in my answers. I began to understand the poetry behind the Bollywood songs I so loved, and to my surprise enjoyed it.

And she sourced the workbooks for common ground – stories and lessons I’d covered before in English; Hindi became familiar, even fun. With time my grades started picking up. I passed an exam, and eventually cleared the Ninth grade with a respectable 55%.

Making Peace

The next year was intense, spent entirely at tuitions and in textbooks. The possibility of flunking the year hung over me, a sword with schizophrenic matras and ambushing chandra bindus. On the day of the final tenth grade exam I was a walking heart attack. Before the paper the school teacher said, “Neha, no student of mine has ever failed in the 10th. Don’t be the first.”

I did pretty well in the exams, scoring a neat 76 (one more than I got in Math). I consider it one of my greatest achievements. But the scars ran too deep. It took years to overcome that initial aversion to Hindi (I switched to French in college).

But I did. Today the fear is gone – only the words remain, and of course that damn accent.

Language LearningNarrative


About The Author

Neha Puntambekar

Neha is a freelance writer from Mumbai, currently based in Zagreb. When she isn't on her laptop, you'll find her at a local cafe, sipping coffee, paperback in hand.

  • SpunkyGirl

    Great article Neha! I can’t imagine being thrust into a language like that. I have yet to master a second language, let alone a third!. I know little bits of french and spanish, but that’s it.

    • neha

      To be honest, I think the only reason I survived was because I had no idea what I was getting into. If I had to do it again, I don’t think I’d have a chance!

  • Aarthi

    What would non-Hindi speaking Indians do if it weren’t for Bollywood! It sure helps us get one foot in the door. I know this coming from the South of India, Hindi is a toughie for many down there, am lucky folks at home loved Hindi Cinema. Interesting story Neha, keep ‘em coming, I LOVED your “How I learnt Cooking Piece too!”

    • neha

      Haha, thanks Aarthi! Good to know you are reading.

  • Heather

    Wow, with all the exam pressure that must have been a tough switch for you. Especially since your teacher wasn’t all that encouraging and 9th grade is such a socially awkward time anyway.

    I used to teach next to an Urdu classroom, and wow was that teacher angry when students didn’t know what was supposed to be their “mother tongue” (but wasn’t) and weren’t very interested in learning it. There was a lot of rapping on the desk and yelling….

    I’m so glad you found a tutor who was helpful and encouraging!

    • neha

      Thanks Heather. It was hard, and during Hindi, incredibly uncomfortable, but on the whole I’ve never enjoyed school as much as I did during those two years.

  • Anne M

    Your ninth grade classroom sounds like a nightmare! You describe it perfectly, I could feel myself in your shoes. I love that your tutor used pop culture in your lessons. Movies and music are so handy as language tools.

    • neha

      Yeah Anne, she was amazing. I’d probably still be in school if it weren’t for her.

  • Ameya

    Loved this. Hindi is my favorite language, I absolutely love it, but I’m still stuck at that phase of hearing the words, but my mind can’t make them into complete thoughts in my head yet. Please send that tutor my way!!

    • neha

      Unfortunately I lost touch with my tutor years ago; I’ve no idea who she’s saving right now. But do you study Hindi? Would love to hear more about it …

      • Ameya

        I’ve been trying to learn out of books and such for the past 5 years, but I soon after started Mandarin in college and it ate up all my language time. :( I try to study it still but we’re moving to china so mandarin is still being a time hog at the moment. In a few years, though, we’re going to try to live in India for a year or so so I can take classes and get a tutor and work towards fluency! I’m quite excited about it.

        • neha

          That’s amazing! Good luck with your move and hope India works out!

  • Andi

    Loved this post!!! Your writing is excellent, I felt like I was back in 9th grade with you. :)

    • neha

      Thanks for reading Andi!

  • Abbie

    Language learning keeps popping up all around me – I think it’s time I picked up something new :) Thanks for the inspiration!

    • neha

      i keep thinking that too. I’ve been meaning to start Croatian and French again, just don’t get around to it. This summer, for sure …

  • Ushma

    wow! this brings back so many memories!! i joined in 10th unfortunately so missed a lot of the 9th drama… wonder who that saviour was! all i remember is the ‘Happy valley?’ tuitons and Vimla ma’am… i guess u r talkign about the bengali couple…? But man those two years were a lot fo fun.. good good times!

  • neha

    Ushma, Hill Gardens, I think it was. Only reason I passed.

  • Hrishikesh

    hi ur surname sujjests u r maharashtrian,is it so???so do ur parents speak marathi at ur house??and do u speak marathi???

  • Guest

    Oh boy….This reminded me of myself when I returned back to India in the 7th Grade.My ”ethnic tongue” was also not Hindi, so basically I was in deep S**t. 
    My pronunciations were heavily Anglicised and I also failed my exam once whilst somehow keeping the bare minimum during the 8th grade. 
    I finally ( Good riddance!!) dropped Hindi and chose French.
    Funnily, I picked up street Hindi in the later years during my stay whilst achieving fluid fluency only much later, that too with code switching.

  • Sandeep

    a sword with schizophrenic matras and ambushing chandra bindus.

    मुझे एहसास नहीं था कि गैर-हिंदी भाषी के लिए मात्राएं और चंद्रबिंदु इस हद तक मुश्किल हो सकते हैं… :)

    I going through the same phase with my music lessons! :)  But, I’m sure I will overcome my fear to learn music. And your post will keep inspiring me…

    I don’t know why people and teacher themselves don’t understand their importance to student’s life.

  • Elizabeth Angel Lopez-Hayward

    “”Unlike the school teacher, she had no contempt for English, the rival language. Instead she used it to clarify concepts and to break down rules. The first few classes she asked me to write paragraphs in English, and then translate those ideas into Hindi.”" I love thıs sentence. In Turkey using the L1 (first language) is so frowned upon and ın some schools even forbıdden! But I find most of the people with this stance aren’t actually language learners (having studied multiple or even a second language).

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