“Talk Hindi To Me”

Doubtless many readers saw the recent article in the New York Times, profiling Katherine Russell Rich, author most recently of a book called Dreaming in Hindi — a memoir of a year spent in Rajasthan, learning Hindi.

Something about the article in the Times bugged me, starting with the following passage:

One store owner insists in English that she is not actually speaking Hindi; when Ms. Rich explains, in Hindi, that she studied the language for some time in Rajasthan, he retorts, in English, “They don’t speak Hindi in Rajasthan.” (This happens not to be true.)

When Ms. Rich returned to New York from abroad, she spontaneously spoke Hindi to a friend of a friend. “He told me that when I spoke Hindi to him, it was like a body blow,” Ms. Rich said. “I think to Indians, sometimes it feels like I’m eavesdropping on a private conversation, like I’m breaking the fourth wall.” (link)

Wait, couldn’t it also be that the people Rich has been accosting, taxi drivers and convenience store clerks, might simply find this persistent American annoying, and have refused to speak Hindi with her mainly to make her go away? Lady, I’m sorry if your being in New York means your newly-acquired Hindi is going to start getting rusty. But I got a job to do, and that involves speaking English to patrons as I sell them stuff, not teaching you how to pronounce “lajawab” correctly. Next in line, please?

The question has to be asked: why does Katherine Russell Rich want to learn to speak Hindi? Is it to communicate with Hindi speakers while living in India? That would be a perfectly fine reason, indeed, an admirable one. But I suspect that sadly her real desire was to a) get paid for writing a book where she can talk all about her Hindi lessons and her impressions of Rajasthan, only to b) promptly move back to Manhattan, where she’ll irk Hindi speaking New Yorkers with her persistent demands that they speak Hindi with her?

Another annoyance in the article is the presumption that people refuse to acknowledge a white woman who speaks Hindi because we desis like to gossip about Americans in our secret language:

To some people from India, Ms. Rich learned, it is insulting to be addressed in anything other than English, a language of the privileged. And for some immigrants, domain over a language unfamiliar to most Americans must feel like one of the few riches they can claim. (link)

I really don’t know where the author of the article got this idea. (Why not ask an actual Indian, Hindi-speaker before making the speculative statement that “domain over a language unfamiliar to most Americans must feel like one of the few riches they can claim”?)

Finally, there is the obligatory dis on second-generation, “heritage” students who take Hindi classes at their universities:

“A lot of Indians who were born here or moved here when they were very small want to rediscover the language,” he said. (Ms. Rich said that she had overlapped with such students at New York University, and that many were already proficient in the language, less interested in their heritage and more interested in an easy A.) (link)

I’ll have you know, Ms. Rich, that most second gen, Indian-American college students do not take Hindi for this reason. I myself took Hindi at Cornell, and my professor gave me a “B” in intermediate Hindi (I deserved it, but it still smarts: certainly not an “easy A”).

In fact, most Indian-American college students actually take Hindi to meet, and flirt with, other Indian-American college students. So there.Katherine Russell Rich has also produced a short, promotional YouTube video related to the book and this New York Times article, which as of this writing has had all of 127 hits, even with a link from the New York Times:

If you weren’t annoyed by Katherine Russell Rich before, I suspect you may be by now.

Katherine Russell Rich also has an amusing, but not exactly wonderful, first-person story about making out with a New York City fireman in an elevator here.

230 thoughts on ““Talk Hindi To Me”

  1. I would imagine that the grammatical gender in Hindi would be tough for English mono-speakers to learn. For example the Hindi for ‘my’ could me mera, meri, or mere, depending on the context. Punjabi is even more complicated with the feminine plural ‘meriyan’.

    English: I saw a tall boy vs I saw two tall boys vs I saw two tall girls

    Hindi: Main ne ek lamba larka dekha vs Main ne do lambe larke dekhe vs Main ne do lambi larkiyan dekhin.

    Look how the forms for lamba, larka, and dekha change depending on the sentence.

  2. I would be more interested in knowing the stories of “learning a culture through its language” of the kinds of people who don’t typically get NY Times articles written about them.

  3. I would imagine that the grammatical gender in Hindi would be tough for English mono-speakers to learn. For example the Hindi for ‘my’ could me mera, meri, or mere, depending on the context. Punjabi is even more complicated with the feminine plural ‘meriyan’. English: I saw a tall boy vs I saw two tall boys vs I saw two tall girls Hindi: Main ne ek lamba larka dekha vs Main ne do lambe larke dekhe vs Main ne do lambi larkiyan dekhin. Look how the forms for lamba, larka, and dekha change depending on the sentence.

    This is the same problem that speakers of some of the other Indian languages face with Hindi. For example, in Bengali there is no such gender difference depending on the context, and remains the same, similar to English. It is further complicated by the fact that in Hindi, there is often no logic to these gender assignments to contexts: e.g. ‘police ki mooch’…implying that ‘mooch’ (i.e. mustache is feminine!). So, it needs a lot of practice to get those nuances to be correct. But it really pisses me when a native hindi-speaker keeps correcting the hindi of a non-native speaker (to the point of interrupting every few sentences) without appreciating the efforts and the absurdities of this language. I have hardly seen that with native (American) English speakers (except the mocking of accents part).

  4. So, it is entirely correct to say that the dominant dialect of Rajasthan is Rajasthani (which is actually a language cluster), not Khariboli, which is a standard dialect mainly spoken in cities and as a language of governance. Now, in Awadh, they speak Awadhi, but you wouldn’t say that Hindi is not spoken in Lucknow district, would you? Or to take a UK analogy, say that in North England, the language spoken is Geordie, not English


    previously Maithili was considered to be a dialect of Hindi, not anymore.


    Maithili (मैथिली MaithilÄ«) is a language spoken in the eastern part of India, mainly in the Indian state of Bihar and in the eastern Terai region of Nepal. It is an offshoot of the Indo-Aryan languages which are part of the Indo-Iranian, a branch of the Indo-European languages. Linguists consider Maithili to be an Eastern Indic language, and thus a different language from Hindi, which is Central Indic in origin. According to the 2001 census in India, 12,179,122 people speak the Maithili language, but various organizations have strongly argued that the actual number of Maithili speakers is much more than the official data suggests. In times, Maithili has been considered a “dialect” of both Hindi and Bengali but thanks to an active movement calling for official status for the language, in 2003 it was included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which now allows the language to be used in education, government, and other official contexts. Maithili has a very rich literary and cultural heritage.

    It could happen to Rajasthani too.

  5. Lupus, I just checked out that wiki link for the Georgie language and it lists “chor” for “to steal” (chor is hindi for same thing), it lists “deeks” for “look at”, “take a look”, (dekho is hindi for same thing) and “nettie” for toilet. We all know what a nettie pot is.


  6. Dude, I just stated that the Rajiv Gandhi thing was a doubtful rumour, admittedly stated on Tamil and Tengalu Websites. Re the Hindi being Gora invention, here is the logic

    Hindu is a word that came only into being after British came. They referred to anyone on the east side of the Indus as Hindoos ( it took its name from there). Thus before Goray came, the Indian subcontient was Bharat, which consisted of many Provinces ( Punjab),or countries ( Rajputana), each with their own language. What is considred Hindi now, derived from existing Braj language, Sanskrit, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarti, Punjabi, by taking all that was universal across these, to unite a modern India ( a post Mogul concept, an idea of the Indian National Congress pre Gandhi, aiming to rid India of the British and take characteristics common to all to form a modern language. A White man called Gilchrist, noted the most common Urdu and “Hindi” words he heard down, so the white man can communicate with the army, he heard in the cantonment. This formed the orgin of modern Hindi, thus giving it espranto like characteristics. It evolved into Hindustani, which Nehru hoped would unite the country. Once India was born, Bombat Talkies did more to spread this than any Government policy. Partition ensured that a political spilt would occur, with the Indian side Sanskritising this decendant of Braj ( Real Hindi), whilst to separate their use of the same language, the Muslims Arabised it ( Urdu), creating the main separation.

    Braj, Hindi or whatever, Sanskrit was the common factor, which is why so many alphabets in India are the same.

    The first piece of Hindi Literature can only be traced as far back as the 1880′s, where as Braj is pre Mogul. In that context, unlike Gujarti, Punjabi or say Bengali and Tamil, modern Hindi is as young as India is. Thus it is a 19th to 20th Century language, which has done its damn best to pulversise local languages like Tamil and Punjabi ( Pakistan is guilty of same with Urdu), and suceeded in the North. It is to quote a Punjabi writer “Safed Jhoot”, as the white man promoted Urdu and Hindi to control the people they like to call Hindus.

    In that context only it is a whiteman’s invention. True Hindi is the Natural language of UP, Rajistan and such areas, and is conected with Braj.

  7. It is to quote a Punjabi writer “Safed Jhoot”, as the white man promoted Urdu and Hindi to control the people they like to call Hindus.

    Safed Jhoot means “white lie”??? Or, white jute (as in the cloth)?

  8. Hindu is a word that came only into being after British came. They referred to anyone on the east side of the Indus as Hindoos

    I thought it was people on the other (western) side of the Indus that called the peeps on the other (eastern) side “Hindus”???

  9. The guy meant white lie..anyhow I am noe expert…just wiki these things or go to websites such as apnaorg.com..If you can prove them wrong, then I am wrong, if not, then no one should jump down my throat without checking the facts. A lot of the current language prejudices all come from Partition era…

    Logically looking at it…Hindi is the 3rd most spoken language in the world, thus the most spoken in India as well..but the speakers number 300 million, which means that 800 million Indians do not speak it

  10. Hindu is a word that came only into being after British came

    Sorry, buddy. The word Hindu is of ancient Persian origin, is used in the Zend Avesta and found on inscriptions dating back to the time of king Darius. It was borrowed by the Greeks, Arabs and other honourable guests (and it’s meaning changed from a geographical term to a religious one), including the “Goray”, as you like to call them. I stopped reading your comment after the opening line.

    Lupus, I just checked out that wiki link for the Georgie language and it lists “chor” for “to steal” (chor is hindi for same thing), it lists “deeks” for “look at”, “take a look”, (dekho is hindi for same thing) and “nettie” for toilet. We all know what a nettie pot is.

    It’s actually Geordie , PG. You might like to read up about the term ‘sand dancer’. It might explain some of these odd transplanted words. It could also be a Raj era thing imported by seamen, for all I know. Talking of seamen, did you find out the procedure for joining this temple of learning?

  11. Ahemm… Hindi is a National Security Language and there is an immersion program run by the State Department over summer for it, in Delhi :-)

  12. Of course I didn’t mean that Hindi is an easy language in the abstract: my own abilities (or lack thereof) are clear evidence of that. But I still believe that compared with other languages, learning Hindi isn’t a book-worthy achievement.

  13. Was I the only person reminded–by her halting speech just dripping with condescension–of Bobby Jindal’s response to Obama’s speech to Congress?


    There was nothing condescending about that video, if anything, it was self-depracating. She made fun of herself on numerous occasions. White guilt? possibly.

    Joking at one’s own expense takes a pretty humble person, quite a balanced ego.

  14. Really, who cares? What’s the difference between her, a gori, and me, an NRI, learning proper Hindi and then trying it out on native speakers?

  15. Well that’s mighty white of Ms. Rich isn’t it? Rather than re hash the previous comments about how irritatingly condescending and myopic this woman is, I’d just like to say that Hindi is a lousy code to talk smack about people with in NYC. This is why I’m glad I speak Tamil, which serves this purpose quite well. So THERE :P

  16. What does to talk Smack about mean? Is kiaah matlab hai? Muj Ko nahin samaj paunda

  17. After just one year, she honestly believes she can speak Hindi?! I’ve been learning and trying to learn Hindi for nearly 25 years so that I could speak just a bit and be understood when we visit India. (My husband is from India and speaks Hindi). There are some sounds I simply cannot make, and my Indian family speaks English so we use English a good deal. My reasons for wanting to learn Hindi (speaking and reading) were just so that I could communicate with those outside of my family while visiting India, and also to be able to hold small conversations with my mataji, who did not speak English. I wanted to be able to understand, as well, without having to always have someone translate for me. I’m STILL learning and I know I won’t ever speak Hindi in the manner it ought be spoken, but I certainly have no plans to write a book about it, either! I sure wouldn’t do it in order to “show off,” since I’d only be humiliating myself. ; ) India is so many different cultures within one country, and so many different languages, one hundred years wouldn’t be enough time to gather enough information to write such a book, let alone just one year. Our children learned Hindi so that they, too, could communicate with their dadiji, and have a much easier time than I since they grew up hearing the different sounds of the language. I know I certainly won’t impress anyone, but simply wish to try and understand, since more than half of my family is Indian and we visit a lot. I want to understand the many conversations, and I’ll just keep on practicing, knowing I’ll never be really good at it. Why did this woman write this book, again?

  18. khair? aapko hindi aati hai kyoonki maine socha ki khair ka matlab “anyways” hai to samajhna nahin paya….

  19. It’s obvious from the outrage and sniping comments here that virtually none of you has read the book. Because it’s pretty much not about what you’re all assuming it is. It’s 50% about neurolinguistics. About what goes on in the brain when someone, especially an older person, attempts to learn a second language, including a second writing system, that is very far removed from their own. Consider yourselves, maybe packing up and moving off to learn, say, Russian, or Thai, or Mandarin, or whatever may be very, very different from what you were raised with. This book is NOT about “how I got paid to go to a far-off country and how I learned Hindi in a year.” The videos are making the point of how far away one will always be from meshing with the culture/language one is attempting to merge with. How difficult it is.
    I’m rather saddened by the vehement judgments I read here. Some are rather immature; I think you should read the book and then offer your critiques. In addition, I think you might find this perspective humbling - http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20130056,00.html

  20. I haven’t read all 200+ comments on this thread but is it only me who finds it funny that the title is written in mock-Tamil?? haha. Love that.

    I don’t happen to share the view of some of the more sarcastic posters but do agree that it seems that more than a few Western academics learn many things about India just to say they “know” them. And we all know how many times their knowledge coincides with the truth.

    So is it so shocking to see this kind of book? (And I agree that people should read the book before going on these rants! …Which is exactly what I’m going to do after hitting “Post”). ha.

  21. I understand why the video may annoy so many people, but it is a poor reflection of the quality of the book. In the end, Ms. Rich is very respectful of India and its culture. While she may not express it exactly how every native Indian would prefer (at least those who posted here seem to be very quick to point out her flaws without seeing the bigger picture), you need only read the book fully to understand that she truly felt transformed in a positive way by her experience. I also think that her sense of humor is lost on most of those who have posted here. It may not be your sense of humor, but my god, there is so much sensitivity that one would think satire doesn’t exist in Hindi….

  22. The collective effect of these comments is sickening. It’s so ugly to watch one of these hate frenzies build on line–makes you understand things about human nature you wish you didn’t.

  23. I can clearly remeber the first time I caught myself thinking in French, and later, Italian, so the idea of “Dreaming in Hindi” attracts me from word one. However, her video is AWFUL. If I did not have an abiding interest in the subject matter, I would probably not read the book. But I do plan to request it at my local library.

    I watch a loooooot of Hindi movies and listen to quite a bit of music that comes from said movies. I convinced two dozen of my pasty white friends to go see “Aaja Nachle” on my birthday two years ago and gave them all CDs of Indian film music as party favors. I have picked up only a few words of Hindi here and there from watching the movies, but I think it would be amazing to be able to understand the dialogues and lyrics without subtitles someday (especially the songs, which are translated so goofily sometimes, just to get a totally unnecessary English rhyme).

    I have my degree in French, speak Italian, have also studied Latin and a little German, and have been taking Spanish lessons for two years. Learning Hindi would be a very normal and typical thing for someone like me to do: an enriching adventure for a language lover who loves learning something new. I have a dictionary of the common roots of Indo-European languages and I would totally dig learning any language coming from Sanskrit, so that I could appreciate even more the inter-relationships among languages. My brother is the same way (in fact, he gave me that book 25 years ago as a gift): going to Norway for two weeks inspired him to try to learn a decent amount of Norwegian; visiting Turkey, Turkish; when adopting two kids from Russia, he learned Russian in advance of the adoption.

    Whatever Rich’s reasons were for learning Hindi may not sit well with some people, but for some of us, it boils down to a love of language and learning, and a tool that can help one enjoy another culture just a little bit better (when used appropriately, of course).

  24. To get an idea of why I and other language lovers will enjoy this book, watch the OTHER (and better) short video she made about language and neurolinguistics, another angle of her book. That whole subject area is fascinating to me–was just listening to a program today discussing neurolinguistics and language creation (think Esperanto, Ido and Klingon). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SoTj2ubwZ4w

  25. That second video makes the book sound much more interesting… but I still find her voice rubs me the wrong way…in Hindi or English!

  26. Anthropological “positive politeness” and “negative politeness”

    At the risk of intruding, there is a concept from anthropology that underscores what is amiss.

    There was one time I was with my parents at a Chinese restaurant they liked to go to.

    I personally did not know the owner, who was tending to us; I tried to be polite to the owner, but I did not and do not know her name, and I am not really an acquaintance to her. My parents, being around that restaurant much more often, were acquainted with the restaurant owner, addressed her by name, and exchanged acquaintances’ talk.

    And, that day, there was a drunken visitor who asked our (Chinese) hostess if she was Filipina, told her again and again, “I’ll marry you,” and otherwise tried to connect in other inappropriate ways.

    The drunken visitor was making an atrocious violation of what is called “negative politeness”: showing respect for the other person by staying within appropriate bounds. My parents’ interactions, and mine, were within “negative politeness” by not overstepping boundaries, even if more conversation was appropriate for my parents. And that is precisely what the drunken visitor broke.

    I think “negative politeness” concerns are active here. The problem isn’t a Westerner trying to learn Hindi or speak it with others; the problem is framing things in a way that violates “negative politeness.” It steps over people’s boundaries.

    I find that when I am trying to make connections with people, if I try and show I know something, I have already set things off on a bad foot. If I just try to be with people, others may decide that I know something.

    I’m not sure how well the author has learned that lesson.

  27. I’m finally getting around to the book, and it is a memoir combined with scholarly work on language learning and language retention, full of interviews with neurologists and such. Whoever told her to make those dumb videos is wrong, wrong, wrong, and so is the p.r. that attempted to sell the book. It is actually a fairly serious work, not at all light reading, and not intended to be a barrel of ethnic laughs. For everyone who thinks Rich is a clueless white elitist based on the video and written publicity and interviews (by writers who had not read the book, rather only the press kits) that ccompanied the book’s release, I urge you to read the book and then re-evaluate. I’m only about 1/4 of the way through it, but would recommend it to people interested in neurolinguistics and/or India and/or human relations.